How do you respond to children who face racism and bullying?

The sixth grade boy who raised his hand was small and wiry. “People at my school make racist jokes,” he said when I called him. His voice had yet to change. “How do I get them to stop?”

I was sitting on stage at a high school in Piedmont, California, 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 unrest that occurred at a California high school and its community after some students created and shared racist material on an Instagram account. Since the article and book appeared, I have spoken in schools across the country about the issues the story raises: social media radicalization, racism, humor, masculine culture, the impacts of bullying, and the vexing question of how to respond appropriately. effective way.

This particular audience was made up of mostly adults, and they responded with applause, as if the boy’s mere desire to stop the racist jokes was enough of a triumph. Maybe it was. But this sixth grader wasn’t looking for approval. He wanted a real answer, not the platitudes adults resort to when asked about the toxic social dynamics of middle and high school: “Be nice!” “Talk loud!” “Be an advocate!” 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 non-confrontational phrase ready, something like “Dude, that’s wrong.” I talked about how to identify which classmates had the social influence to influence their peers and how to approach those people. I talked about when to involve an adult and how to choose the right one. But even as he spoke, she thought, “You know I’m just a journalist, right? I’m the one who asks questions. What makes you think I have the answers?”

This is both the joy and terror of talking to young people about hot-button issues. I usually start by asking students to raise their hands if they have seen or heard hate speech online, whether it is the use of insults on gaming platforms; racist memes or videos on social media; or ugly comments in the comments section of an article or video. Everyone has done it, of course. We all have.

If I’ve managed to get their attention (which is harder to do right before lunch or during first period when they’re barely awake) students will respond to my presentation with questions that reveal how relevant the topic is to their lives and how enthusiastic they are about it. is. They are for orientation.

Sometimes the questions are philosophical: “How do you know if someone is a good or bad person?” “You say everyone has the ability 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 many times the questions are deeply personal. Usually, at the end of my presentation, there is a small group of students waiting to talk to me. With the sensitivity of their generation, they will keep a space between them so that they do not hear the person talking to me.

Inside that little cocoon of privacy, I had a young woman sobbing in my arms after saying, “Those girls you wrote about must have felt so I’m listening. But no one listened when it happened to me! I’ve heard stories of young people who were targeted with everything from racist comments to violent harassment. I’ve answered questions about free speech and the role anger plays in victims’ emotional health.

“I didn’t want to write about my experiences with racism,” Jeena Ann Kidambi, an eighth-grader from Framingham, Massachusetts, wrote in an essay about the girls, Ana and A., who appear in the Times article because they were targeted. attacks from racist Instagram account. Like A., she wrote: “I didn’t want to dwell on those memories. However, by writing this essay and accepting my emotions on the subject, I achieved closure and freed myself from the control of anger.” (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 closer to hear her. Breakingly, with her eyes fixed on the ground, she asked how people could repair the damage they had caused if the harmed person did not speak to them. She didn’t tell me what she had done, but I could see that it haunted her: both guilt for the harm she had caused and fear of being punished in perpetuity.

I think about this girl often, wishing I had a better answer to give her. In every school I visit, I remind students that they are works in progress, that throughout their adolescence they will suffer and cause harm, and that they have the capacity to survive both. And each time, I walk away surprised at how vulnerable they are to forces they neither created nor control.

Dashka Slater is a California writer who focuses on teens and criminal justice. Her book “The 57 Bus,” a New York Times bestseller, was based on an article she wrote for the magazine in 2015 and won a 2018 Stonewall Book Award from the American Library Association.