How Should Schools Respond to Racist Jokes?

How Should Schools Respond to Racist Jokes?

Have you ever heard racist jokes or comments at your school? Do you think that hateful speech — in class or online — is a big problem for your school community?

How do your teachers and school administrators deal with these incidents? Do you think their responses are effective?

In “How Do You Respond to a Young Person Upset by Racist Jokes at School?,” Dashka Slater writes:

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.

It concludes:

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.

Students, read the entire article and then tell us:

  • Have you ever heard a racist joke or witnessed students sharing hateful speech online at your school? If so, how did you — and your peers or teachers — respond? Reflecting on the incident now, how might you handle it differently?

  • How prevalent are hateful jokes or speech at your school? Do you think they are a big problem? How do they affect students and the learning environment as a whole?

  • What kinds of rules or policies does your school have about racist or hateful speech? Are they meaningful or effective? Do you think your school community is doing enough to address the issue?

  • Ms. Slater begins the article with a simple but poignant question by a sixth-grade boy: “People at my school make racist jokes. How do I get them to stop?” The audience of adults applauded the student’s bravery in posing the question aloud, but Ms. Slater writes that the boy wanted an actual answer, not validation or platitudes. How does the story resonate with your own experiences as a student? Do you wish there were more guidance and answers — and fewer clichés — in responses from adults and teachers?

  • How would you respond to the sixth-grade boy? What would you recommend he do to get kids at his school to stop making racist jokes without becoming the butt of the jokes himself? Are there any effective strategies you have tried or witnessed?

  • What would you like adults and educators to know about being a teenager now and experiencing racist and hateful speech in school?

Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public and may appear in print.

Find more Student Opinion questions here. Teachers, check out this guide to learn how you can incorporate these prompts into your classroom.