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37th and Walnut Streets on Penn's campus.

Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

A video allegedly featuring a Penn student directing a racial slur at a peer while they both were in high school has recently circulated on social media. The Penn student denies the allegations, claiming that the slurs have been falsely attributed to him.

The current high school senior who was the target of the slur told The Daily Pennsylvanian that rising Wharton sophomore Sam Lesser yelled the N-word at him in the video. The high school senior, whose name is being withheld, said he attended Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School with Lesser, and that the video was filmed five years ago.

“The University of Pennsylvania is aware of the troubling allegation against an undergraduate student. Penn is working to learn more about this matter,” University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy wrote in an email to the DP.

The six-second video does not show Lesser speaking, and only picks up the voice of a man yelling the N-word off-frame, while the high school senior is shown dancing. The video then pans to Lesser for one second towards the end of the clip.

“My lips do not even move in the video," Lesser wrote in an email to the DP. "My voice has changed since freshman year of high school, so I am not sure how people can be so confident they are hearing the voice I had then, and which they have not heard in five years, if at all, on a low-quality video."

Lesser did not respond to multiple requests to elaborate further on what happened in the video.

Psi Upsilon fraternity, known as “Castle,” suspended Lesser from the fraternity indefinitely on June 2, one day after the video was first posted to Twitter. Rising College senior and Psi Upsilon President Jack Silver wrote in an email to the DP that the fraternity's judicial board will determine further sanctions against Lesser, which may include expulsion, by early next week.

“Psi Upsilon is a house that cherishes and values diversity, and condemns any and all forms of racism,” Silver wrote. “Even though this act took place before the student was on campus, and we were completely unaware of the video’s existence, we are cooperating fully with the University.”

The Office of Student Conduct has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

The high school senior said when Lesser, whom he called a mutual friend at the time of the video, threw a stuffed animal and yelled the N-word at him, he brushed off the comment. The high school senior said he did not feel comfortable confronting Lesser, as he was the only person of color in the room.

“I was offended, but honestly I didn’t show it, because no one would’ve backed me up, because no one [in the room] knows what it feels like to be called a racial slur like that,” he said.

Zhané Bady-Puig, who posted the video to Twitter on June 1, said they were not aware that the video was taken five years ago when they posted it. Bady-Puig had received the video from a friend the day they posted it. Bady-Puig added, however, that they and Lesser were in the same Spanish class at Columbia Prep during Lesser’s freshman year, and feels sure that the voice in the video belongs to Lesser.

Zadie Stevens-Telesford, who attended The Spence School and personally knew Lesser, added, “It’s very clear. I know his voice."

Another student who also attended The Spence School and knew Lesser agreed that the man who yelled the N-word in the video sounds like Lesser. 

The high school senior said he did not know the video was taken or existed until Jan. 2, 2019, when a friend sent him the video. Four to five days ago, he said he stumbled across the video again as he was scrolling through his camera roll. He then sent the video to Lesser, hoping for an apology. Lesser has not yet responded to the text.

“I was hoping he was going to be mature and be like I’m sorry for my immature actions in the past,” the high school senior said. “I just wanted him to come forward and say it was him instead of lying and being immature about it, and just try to deny it like it wasn’t him in the video.”

Lesser wrote to the DP that a group of kids from his high school have decided to attack him for a reason he does not know, and that the accusation has resulted in death threats targeted at himself and his family.

“My privacy has been invaded, my education put at risk, and my family and I have been falsely accused of all sorts of terrible actions,” Lesser wrote. “The portrait that is being created on social media bears no relation to my actual character or actions. It is horrifying to see how fast a false narrative can spread.”

Bady-Puig said while they are not sure why the video has resurfaced after five years, the timing feels right considering the current climate of America and protests against the police murder of George Floyd.

“I don’t know why it is now, but I feel like now is the time more than ever,” Bady-Puig said. “Nobody is trying to be silent anymore, and I feel like this video was bound to come out, and the fact that it came out now is just attributed to the time we are in.”

Floyd, a Black man, was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25 after a white police officer knelt on his neck against the ground for more than eight minutes. The killing has sparked protests around the world, calling for justice and police reform.  

The high school senior added that George Floyd’s death has mobilized people and made them more aware of the ongoing racism Black people have to deal with.

“We’re in a time where racism isn’t over,” he said. “A lot of people tend to think it’s over, because they don’t have to deal with it themselves.”

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