From Apathy to Vigilance: Young Adolescents’ Reactions to the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville. An interview with Dr. Joanna Williams

For this week’s #MustReadMonday, we were very fortunate to speak with Dr. Joanna Williams about a recent article she published on adolescent perceptions of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville: From Apathy to Vigilance: Young Adolescents’ Reactions to the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville.

This article presents a very unique and important assessment of how adolescents were making sense of the events that unfolded within their community. Dr. Williams took some time to chat with us about the main takeaways of this paper, the experiences of her team when asking these tough questions, and what she is looking forward to seeing in upcoming research.

What, in your opinion, is the main takeaway of the article? 
I'll start by saying there's like a lot of context to this paper. All of the authors were living in Charlottesville in 2017 when the Unite the Right rally happened. We were about to start year two of a mixed-methods project that was focused on investigating diversity and social relationships in early adolescence. The Unite the Right rally happened in August of 2017, about two weeks before the school year started and, because of the focus of our project, we decided to ask students about their understanding of what had happened.

One of the key takeaways is that we should expect heterogeneity in how youth process events like this. There was a lot of heterogeneity in how kids interpreted and were responding to the Rally. One group of students said things along the lines of “Yeah, I know what happened, but it's not really on my radar.” A second group knew a lot of the details of what happened but didn’t feel personally impacted – they sounded like news reporters in their accounts. Another group of students had spent a lot of time processing and talking about what happened. And for some of them, their processing led to disillusionment, like “I can't believe that stuff like this still happens” or “I thought we were beyond racism”.

There was a fourth group who were feeling, either at the time or a few months later, a sense of fear and vigilance. They said things along the lines of “We know why the KKK was here, and I'm Black. And I know that they were here because of people like me”. These students shared feelings of anger, fear, or just general concern. And, finally, there was a smaller subset of students who were sort of dismissive—they felt like people were overreacting to the situation. They said things like “I'm embarrassed to live in Charlottesville because we're getting so much attention because of things like this”

The second type of heterogeneity that we saw was in relation to who belonged to these groups. On one hand, the group of students who expressed fear and vigilance were all students of color and most identified as Black. On the other hand, there were also many Black and other students of color who did not express any personal stress or concern, but there were White students in this group as well. White students made up the bulk of students who sounded like reporters or who expressed disillusionment or sympathy. The small group of dismissive students all identified as White.

It’s important to make sense of this heterogeneity in the context of what we know about young adolescents: they’re making meaning of important and abstract concepts, like racism and white supremacy while also trying to make sense of their own identities.

Aside from racial identity, what other factors do you think were influencing how kids interpreted and made sense of the unite the right rally?
There’s a lot of variation at that age in terms of cognitive processing abilities, and abilities to make meaning out of things that are quite abstract and complex. However, there are also concrete things that influenced the types of meaning kids were attaching to these events. The types of conversations youth were having with their families mattered, as well as the friend groups that kids belonged to. For example, some of the most fearful and vigilant of our participants belonged to the same friend group and described spending quite a bit of time talking about the rally and what it meant to them.  

Something that stood out to us when doing this research was that there was an absence of formal space within the schools for students to process what had happened in their community. Most of the students, when asked, said that their teachers or school staff had spoken very little about the events. They also expressed that if they did start talking about it at school with other students, teachers would shut down the conversation.

What’s tough about having these conversations within the school is that teachers are not necessarily in a position to create spaces in a meaningful way that allows kids to process the event and their feelings and opinions about it. Teachers themselves were also struggling to deal with what happened in their community. Something we can speculate on is what might have happened if there had been formal spaces for kids to process their understanding or have conversations with trained adults about what had happened. This could have been anything from basic educational conversations about the history of confederate statues and what the confederate flag represents, all the way to more complex conversations about how to think critically about race and racism. It’s particularly worth emphasizing that these types of conversations would be beneficial for students across all racial identities.

How did it feel to ask youth these questions and how did you and the other researchers debrief after these interviews?
None of us planned to be in a situation where we would have to ask these sorts of questions, but we tried to see it as an opportunity. As we collected data, we had a formal debriefing process in place where interviewers would reflect on several aspects of the interview. Interviewers documented how talkative the student seemed, how distracted they were, or how uncomfortable they seemed. The interviewer would also take time to reflect and report on why they thought that might have been the case and made note of their own personal feelings about the interview. This allowed us to consider the interviewer’s experiences and the dynamics of the interview when we later analyzed our data.

We started the data analysis about a year after the rally had taken place and, because we had all been local at the time, we knew we had to start by thinking about ourselves and the lenses that we were bringing to these data. So, we were very diligent and careful with our process. The very first thing that we did was work on writing personal memos to try to create a space to hold the individual experiences that we all had with what happened. This helped us try to bracket out some of the feelings and the emotions and the assumptions that we were bringing to the data analysis, which was an important first step.

We also made conscious efforts to not jump to any quick conclusions that could have been influenced by feeling compelled by some of the little things that that kids would say. For example, when you hear a student say in their interview that it was “the colored people” starting all the fighting, or when you hear a student say that they kept nun-chucks under their bed because they were scared of the KKK coming, it’s hard to not have a reaction to that.

It was very important to us that we did not draw any presumptive conclusions about any of the students. We had weekly conversations as a team where we would read and reread the transcripts and individually memo about them, and then also have conversations as a team. Relying on our methodology of consensus coding really helped us to take a lot of these things into account and to stay true to the data.

What advice do you have for researchers moving forward that want to take on questions like this using qualitative methodologies?
Given that we were heavily focused on race and diversity, we ensured that interviewers of colour were matched with students of colour, and white interviewers were matched with white students. This was important because there's a lot of variability in students’ comfort levels to talk about race and racial identity to start off with, and when you’re talking to students that are not often asked to think or talk about issues of race or their own racial identities, it is very important that we create safe spaces where they don’t feel like they will be judged by the person they’re talking to.

We also have to be ok with the fact that some students simply do not want to engage around questions of race and racial identity. We can’t force anyone to talk about something that they don’t want to talk about. And we also can’t make any assumptions about what their hesitancy to engage around these topics means.

If a student is shutting the conversation down, it could be because they don't have the language to talk about what race and racial identity means. It also could be because they're highly uncomfortable talking about it. And it could be that some kids are just scared to say the wrong thing or offend anyone. We can’t know what the reason for their reluctance to engage is unless they tell us.

Moving forward, what questions are you looking forward to asking and what are you hoping to see in the literature?
We asked students to tell us what they learned about race in school and we’re currently analyzing those responses. We’re using frameworks on school racial socialization, developed by Christy Byrd and colleagues and informed by a rich history of work on family racial socialization, to guide the process. A lot of students seem to think about race as a historical phenomenon. For example, many students said they only learned about race in school in the context of talking about slavery. I’m interested to know what that means for kids’ abilities to think critically about issues of stratification and identity development as they pertain to race. It’s important to consider how the ways that race and racism are discussed in school will impact all of these aspects of socialization and identity development.

I’m also hoping to see more acknowledgment of the many different ways that we can support youth and their development of racial, ethnic, or cultural identities and broader racial knowledge. It’s important to provide opportunities to nurture cultural pride, but it is also important to help students understand that in the United States there is an existing racial hierarchy that perpetuates oppression. We have to push back against the idea that middle schoolers can’t understand complex topics like social stratification, because they can if we take the time to teach it well. We need to scaffold these critical lenses so students can begin to acquire the cognitive and social tools needed to disrupt and dismantle systems of oppression.

To read the original article, click here.

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