While adults often have a lot to teach young people about the world and how it works, those of us raising adolescents should not assume that we are the resident experts on racism. In many cases young people are not only opposed to racism, but they have embraced the call to work actively against it. Indeed, as many parents have already discovered, our teenagers are often more adept at recognizing and challenging bigotry than we are.
There are good reasons for this. Herded together at school, adolescents are more likely than many adults to have close encounters with peers who don’t share their views. Running into more friction gives teenagers a greater number of opportunities to sharpen their skills at confronting one another. Further, many of today’s teenagers have a keener understanding of what constitutes racism than their predecessors, both because of what they are learning in school and also their own participation in a sometimes elaborate online discourse about intolerance.
Sydney Sofola, age 17, of Oklahoma City, acknowledges that while the “internet gets a bad rap,” it’s where she has learned a great deal about anti-racism. When a peer posts something inappropriate online, she explained that “people will slide up and say, ‘I don’t agree with that statement and here’s why.’” Biased posts are often met with a detailed, critical comments section. “You see other people confronting racism. If someone presents a bad argument, you may have already seen the rebuttal to that argument on the internet.”
Whether in person or online, today’s teenagers may also be quicker to challenge intolerance than adolescents of past generations. “They are more willing to call each other out than the teenagers I taught 20 to 25 years ago” says Kristin Harder, a teacher at the Rivers School in Weston, Mass. The students she taught at the start of her career, she noted, had a tendency to try to explain away insensitive comments; more of today’s young people, however, seem to be game for hard conversations.
Laura Poma, age 18, who was tapped by her high school to facilitate student dialogue on sensitive topics, agrees that her generation is often willing to lean into difficult interactions. Ms. Poma, of Queens, N.Y., often pushes back on comments that are inappropriate or discriminatory, feeling that “we both have to be comfortable with the discomfort of having that conversation and challenging the other person’s ideas. Because that is needed in order for both of us to grow.”
Our teenagers may also benefit from witnessing a variety of strategies for navigating confrontational moments. Sixteen-year-old Jonah Craine of Oklahoma City, who co-founded with his 15-year-old brother a forum for discussing differences within their school, says it’s not unusual for young people to simply point out that a peer has crossed a line, saying, “that’s just wrong,” or “that’s not OK.”
At other times, teenagers take an educational approach. According to 18-year-old Lillian Bown, who led her high school’s Black student union in Seattle, “sometimes people say things that are uneducated. You can explain to them why what they said was wrong so that they can better themselves.”
Lucas and Santiago Richard, 16-year-old twins who started a diversity discussion group at their school in Miami, take on racism by aiming to inspire empathy. “We try to bring to light the gravity of what they are saying,” said Santiago, “because a lot of times people think it’s just a joke.” Lucas added that he or his brother will sometimes respond to an offensive remark with, “Imagine if you were the person facing these comments.”
Michael Gary, age 18, works against racism by maintaining ties to people with whom he doesn’t see eye to eye. “As a friend, you have a unique opportunity to be a bridge-builder.” He feels that it’s important to cultivate a caring relationship because, “if you don’t feel cared about, you’re going to feel unsafe. And if you don’t feel safe, you’re not going to be able to accept new ideas or genuinely hear new perspectives.”
Today’s teenagers also address racism online, which comes with its own advantages. “In person, it can be hard to say something because you’re so stunned,” said Ms. Sofola, “but online you can type and revise. You have time to think about it and get your facts straight.” According to Ms. Bown, ready access to information creates social pressure to be well-informed. “It’s easy to call people out who say, ‘Well, I didn’t know,’ because you can point them in the right direction.”
When it comes time to mobilize forces on behalf of social justice, teenagers often move quickly and deftly. This can range from “canceling” — mass unfollowing — an online influencer who has done something they consider to be irredeemable, to organizing sizable protests. In early June, six Nashville teenagers took less than a week to coordinate a huge, peaceful demonstration against police brutality.
Similarly, a group of teenagers in Washington State created a “Defund Seattle PD” Instagram account that garnered more than 16,000 followers in its first month. According to Mr. Gary, one of that campaign’s organizers, their online efforts resulted in more than 1,000 emails being sent to the mayor and the City Council in the days leading up to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s executive order requiring Seattle police officers to activate their body cameras during protests.
To be sure, while some adolescents work against racism, others still traffic in it. This is true both in person and in ugly behavior online. Even so, Ms. Sofola is hopeful: “I feel like our generation is really bold. And if someone who is racist is called out by someone they consider a friend, they might listen.”
Anyone feeling unsure of how to address the topic of anti-racism with a teenager should take heart. Instead of offering a lesson, plan to settle in for a conversation. “Just as we can learn from our parents,” said Mr. Craine, “they can also learn from us.”
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