Five things students can do about racism

Research and action can even make people feel better, healthier, studies show


Students have been the targets of racist incidents since the 2016 presidential election. But they don’t have to take it. Taking some action can make them feel stronger — and may even make some bullies step back.


The issue of race has been a big topic in the news throughout much of the world over the past few years. In the United States, the issue has really taken off since the start of the U.S. presidential campaign in 2015. In the weeks since the election, public name-calling and taunts from strangers have spiked even more. One group, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), began collecting reports of such events. Within the first 10 days following Donald Trump’s election as president, the group recorded 867 hate incidents. Episodes include taunting people with language, graffiti and hostility. Some hate incidents also can turn violent.

Many cases are clear evidence of racism. That’s a negative attitude toward people of color, usually blacks. But it can include Asians, Latin Americans, Middle Easterners and more. This prejudice is not based on an experience with a particular individual. Rather it’s a bias against people belonging to some particular ethnic group. And what allows racism to go on has been the unpleasant fact that significant swaths of society share this attitude, condone it or refuse to challenge it.

Race is only skin deep. It should not affect who we view as entitled to respect — and our help.Iuaeva/iStockphoto

The incidents described in a new SPLC report “almost certainly represent a small fraction of the actual number” of racist acts, its authors conclude. After all, they note, roughly two out of every three hate crimes go unreported. (That’s based on numbers by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.)

Schools “have been the most common venues for hate incidents,” the November 29 SPLC report finds. And that’s not surprising, it adds. Even before the election, bullying had already become almost epidemic in U.S. schools.

But kids don’t have to take it, scientists say. Indeed, they shouldn’t. Some research actually finds that standing up against such incidents can make people feel better and healthier.

So what can students do?

One: In countering racism and bigotry, make yourself aware that it exists, says Terrence James Roberts. He’s a psychologist who works in Pasadena, Calif. He also confronted stiff racism as an African American teen. Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, some communities were very open in their prejudice against blacks. One high school he attended initially would not let the boy in because of his race.

Sometimes, as in this anti-Trump rally in May 2016, people can join others who have been targeted by racism as a show of support.shakzu /iStockphoto

That was well over a half-century ago. Yet racism still persists. Many people have just learned to hide it, Roberts notes. But it may at times surface, as following Trump’s victory. Unless society accepts that undercurrents of racism still live, Roberts now argues, conditions will not improve.


Contributing to this problem: People in a privileged group might not even realize they enjoy advantages. “It’s like water to a fish,” says Roberts. In other words, people can be so surrounded by racist ideas that they aren’t even aware of them. Roberts encourages all teens to read up on history. “Don’t just take someone’s word” on questions about racism, he says. Instead, he recommends: “Think critically.”

Two: Try to understand how other people see things. “Your world view is influenced by the spaces that you’ve lived in and are a part of,” says Roxanne Donovan. She’s a psychologist at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

For example, she explains, a white, middle-class person might believe the country’s criminal justice system is fair. And in most cases, that’s what this person might see in day-to-day life. But the opposite might appear true to someone of color living in a poor neighborhood. Crime, police relationships and experiences with the prison system may be very different there.

Think about why you hold certain views. Listen, too, to the views of others. “Part of the reason racism is so entrenched in our society is that we don’t really talk to each other about it,” says Alex Pieterse. He’s a psychologist at the University at Albany in New York.

Three: Think ahead. What would you do if someone targets you because of race, religion, gender or some other factor? Coping skills will vary from one person to another, Roberts says. And strategies will depend on the facts of each case.

For example, Christy is a graduate student in New York who comes from a Caribbean island nation. A few days after Trump’s victory, a man threatened Christy while she was at a gas station. Now she is extra careful whenever she travels. And 10-year-old African-American twins Noah and Nida in Georgia walk away from possible arguments at school that they worry could turn into fights. They learned the hard way that some classmates don’t like them based on the color of their skin.  

(By the way, the names of the student victims, here, have been changed to shield their identity.)

Plan what to do, too, if you witness racist behavior towards someone else. If there is a threat of violence, get a teacher or some other responsible adult to step in right away.

Four: If the situation is not violent, speak up, says Donovan. “The most important thing,” she notes, “is not to be a bystander.” After all, she argues, “Silence is support for whatever the act is.”

Consider saying something like: “Hey, that’s out of line.” “Cut it out.” Or, “I can’t believe you’re acting this way. You’ve got to be kidding, right?”

If you witness racism or are the target of such bias, speak up, scientists recommend. Challenging such hurtful incidents may encourage bullies to back down.Cloud-Mine-Amsterdam/iStockphoto

“There’s real power when people who hold privilege challenge others who hold the same privilege,” Donovan notes. So when white teens object to racist comments by other white teens, “it can’t be dismissed as easily.”

Speaking up when you witness a racist incident may help the target of the racism. It will also help you, argues Pieterse. “It’s not a good feeling to see someone else getting hurt and feel that there’s nothing you can do about it,” he points out.

Speak up even if the target of a racist comment isn’t around. The way you act and respond can affect what your group views as acceptable, Donovan notes. People often adjust their behavior based on their group’s norms or standards, she points out.

Five: Don’t downplay racist incidents. If a racist event has happened, take it seriously. “For kids who are the targets, the first and most important thing I would say to them is, ‘it is not your fault,’” Pieterse says. “This is something that is happening to you. It’s not something that is happening based on anything you have done.”

Moreover, Pieterse adds, “You don’t have to keep it a secret.” Talk with parents, other family members and people at school or groups in your community. Speaking up helps fight against the feelings of powerlessness and fear that racist people try to make their targets suffer.

Indeed, a recent study in teens showed that sticking up for our beliefs in the face of opposition can become a positive experience.


Kathiann Kowalski reports on all sorts of cutting-edge science. Previously, she practiced law with a large firm. Kathi enjoys hiking, sewing and reading. She also enjoys travel, especially family adventures and beach trips.

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