The sixth-grade boy who raised his hand was wiry and small. “People at my school make racist jokes,” he said, when I called on him. His voice had yet to change. “How do I get them to stop?”
I was sitting on a high school stage in Piedmont, Calif., where I had finished a conversation with two high school seniors about my new book, “Accountable,” which was adapted in The New York Times Magazine last August. Both the article and the book tell the story of the turmoil that befell a California high school and its community after some students created and shared racist material on an Instagram account. Since the article and book came out, I have spoken at schools around the country about the issues the story raises: social media radicalization, racism, humor, boy culture, the impacts of bullying and the vexing question of how to respond effectively.
This particular audience was made up mostly of adults, and they responded with applause, as if the boy’s mere desire to stop racist jokes was triumph enough. Perhaps it was. But this sixth grader wasn’t looking for approval. He wanted an actual answer, not the platitudes that adults fall back on when asked about the toxic social dynamics of middle and high school: “Be kind!” “Speak up!” “Be an upstander!” He wanted to know how to get people at his school to stop making racist jokes without becoming the butt of the jokes himself.
I talked about having a firm but nonconfrontational phrase ready, something like “Dude, that’s messed up.” I talked about how to identify which classmates had the social clout to influence their peers and how to approach those people. I talked about when to get an adult involved and how to choose the right one. But even as I spoke, I was thinking: “You know I’m just a journalist, right? I’m the one who asks the questions. What makes you think I have the answers?”
This is both the joy and the terror of talking to young people about hot-button topics. I usually start by asking students to raise their hands if they’ve seen or heard hate speech online, whether it’s the use of slurs on gaming platforms; racist memes or videos on social media; or ugly remarks in the comment section of an article or video. They all have, of course. We all have.
If I’ve managed to engage their attention — tougher to do just before lunch or during first period, when they’re barely awake — students will respond to my presentation with questions that reveal both how pertinent the topic is to their lives and how eager they are for guidance.
Sometimes the questions are philosophical: “How do you know if someone is a good person or a bad person?” “You say that everyone has the capacity to transform, but what if it’s a mass murderer?”
Sometimes they are practical: “What should we do when we see something racist online?”
And often the questions are deeply personal. Usually, at the end of my presentation, there is a small group of students waiting to talk with me. With the sensitivity that is characteristic of their generation, they will keep some space between one another so that the person speaking with me won’t be overheard.
Within that small cocoon of privacy, I’ve had a young woman sob in my arms after saying: “Those girls you wrote about must have felt so heard. But nobody listened when it happened to me!” I’ve heard the stories of young people who were the targets of everything from racist remarks to violent bullying. I’ve fielded questions about free speech and the role anger plays in the emotional health of victims.
“I did not want to write about my experiences with racism,” Jeena Ann Kidambi, an eighth grader from Framingham, Mass., wrote in an essay about the girls, Ana and A., featured in the Times article because they were targeted by the racist Instagram account. Like A., she wrote, “I did not want to dwell on those memories. However, by writing this essay and embracing my emotions on the subject, I gained closure and released myself from anger’s chokehold.” (The essay won a contest in her school district sponsored by the Swiacki Children’s Literature Festival at Framingham State University.)
At one school, a girl spoke so softly that I had to lean close to hear her. Haltingly, with her eyes fixed on the ground, she asked how people could make amends for a harm they caused if the person harmed wouldn’t speak to them. She didn’t tell me what she had done, but I could see that it haunted her — both the guilt over the injury she had caused and the fear she would be punished in perpetuity.
I think about this girl often, wishing I had a better answer to give her. At every school I visit, I remind students that they are works in progress, that during their teenage years they will both be harmed and cause harm, and that they have the capacity to survive both. And each time, I walk away struck by how vulnerable they are to forces that they neither created nor control.
Dashka Slater is a writer in California with a focus on teenagers and criminal justice. Her book “The 57 Bus,” a New York Times best seller, was based on an article she wrote for the magazine in 2015 and went on to win a 2018 Stonewall Book Award from the American Library Association.