• Tue. Jan 26th, 2021

How Teenage Activists Are Talking to Family About Racial Injustice

At dinner tables, chatter keeps turning to the treatment of Black Americans. In living rooms, U.S. history becomes fodder for debate.

And on social media, difficult conversations across generations — long held privately — are now playing out in public, as many young Americans talk to their parents and older relatives about racism, police violence and protests around the world, and then post about it.

As demonstrations in some cities push through a third month, many teenagers have kept conversations going at home. Some are creating and sharing Google Docs with resources like reading lists and videos. And some are trying to reach their relatives through sites like Facebook — occasionally at the risk of stirring up acrimony in their family.

Credit…Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

In the early summer, Carlos Hinojosa, 17, realized something had changed for his mother, Frida Hinojosa, because of Facebook: He could hear her watching a news compilation in the living room about racism and the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

Mr. Hinojosa, a rising high school senior in Laurel, Md., said he had tried to strike up conversations about racism with her before. He said that his mother, having come from Mexico, could unknowingly invoke racial stereotypes, especially involving nonwhite Latinos.

The best way to start conversation, he found, was through Facebook, his mother’s favorite social media platform. He and his sister have sent her videos and articles about the protests.

“I have been educated by my children,” said Ms. Hinojosa, 50. “They have called this to my attention.”

Her son’s activism also drew her into conversation, and even participation. After he used Instagram to plan a protest in his town in June, she helped him make signs, hand out water and give volunteers yellow vests.

Ultimately, more than 2,000 people attended, he said, and Ms. Hinojosa listened to her son’s friends tell stories about racism they had faced. “It’s the most important step to solving any problem,” Mr. Hinojosa said.

Other teenagers have turned to one another when they have had trouble talking with family or have been unable find resources.

Over several months from her home in Baltimore, Betsy Schultz, 17, created a 37-page Google Doc about Black Lives Matter, including links to donate to GoFundMe pages, online petitions and a guide for books, documentaries and more.

Ms. Schultz has been trying to create a one-stop shop of resources for other young activists, which has quickly expanded. But she said it has been hard to explain the movement to her father, a political independent who sometimes leans conservative. They often disagree about what they see and hear in the news and on social media, she said — for instance, about who is at fault in clashes between protesters and the police.

But Ms. Schultz still urged other teenagers to voice their beliefs.

“These conversations can be difficult, and it can be extremely hard changing someone’s mind,” Ms. Schultz said. “Even if you can’t make a direct impact on your family, there are so many other ways to take action.”

Historians of civil rights movements said that social media sets these protests apart from others, giving demonstrators a platform to organize and resources to draw from.

Credit…Patrick Smith/Getty Images

And through videos and photos, social media has made the experience of violence against Black people more immediate to a wide audience, said Thomas Holt, a history professor at the University of Chicago.

In the 1950s and ’60s, television and photographs played a large role in growing protest movements, showing images of violence on Black Americans to a broad population of viewers. Brutal photographs showing the body of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy murdered by a white mob in 1955, became the turning point for the beginning of the civil rights movement, Professor Holt said.

Such images convey the violence that Black people worry about daily, said Kevin Gaines, a civil rights professor at the University of Virginia. “African-American youth don’t have the luxury of being unaware of racism and racist violence,” he said.

Today, images and videos of violence, like those of Mr. Floyd’s killing, spread with incredible speed online, sometimes reaching tens of thousands of people within hours.

Professor Holt said that reach was reflected in the extent of support for Black Lives Matter today — possibly the largest movement in U.S. history — compared with support for the civil rights movement in the 1960s. “This is quite something else,” he said.

Professor Gaines also said there were downsides to the role social media plays, including the potential to cheapen discourse; “canceling” people when they make an error rather than giving them space to grow from their mistakes; and allowing social media to be a substitute for political work that would make substantial change.

For many families, these conversations have never been easy. Now, Americans are increasingly polarized by politics, and the tensions of a pandemic, an economic crisis and an election year are colliding.

In Blue Bell, Pa., Jessica Piccari said she was at her wit’s end with some family members. At a birthday party, Ms. Piccari, 18, heard her grandmother’s sister use a racial slur. Shocked, she told her it was racist: “You cannot say that. That’s not OK.”

Despite her repeated protests, Ms. Piccari said some family members continue to use slurs and express their disapproval of the protests in front of her. She also worries that her best friends and boyfriend, who are Black, could end up the target of violence by the police or opponents of the protesters.

“I get stern,” she said. “Sometimes I get angry, sometimes I get upset because we shouldn’t have to be talking about this.”

Although Ms. Piccari and her mother, Kathy Piccari, agree on much about the movement, their conversations can grow tense over disputes about the methods and aims of some protesters.

Those disagreements often seem to start on social media, like when Ms. Piccari tagged her college in an Instagram post about defunding the police. Her mother admonished her, telling her to be careful about posts that might be seen by powerful institutions — but she also respected her boundaries.

“As uncomfortable as it is, I have no right to tell her that she’s wrong,” Kathy Piccari, 40, said. “I’m proud of her for speaking out.”

Credit…Sylvia Jarrus for The New York Times

As in the civil rights movement, young people have been heavily involved in recent protests, but Black people have never been shielded from the conversations about racism, Professor Gaines said.

Occasionally, glimpses of these moments are caught on social media, as in Charlotte, N.C., in June, when a Black teenager and two Black men, each in a different decade of life, had an emotional exchange about how to best protest.

More often, these conversations help pass the baton. In Kalamazoo, Mich., Key’Maura Lewis, 15, said that she and her grandparents, Marvin and Barbara Gilleylen, had been having conversations about police brutality and racism since she was in elementary school.

But Mr. Floyd’s death was the tipping point for Ms. Lewis, who is Black. It moved her to organize a protest in her area — with her grandparents’ support. (They also bought snacks.)

“Some adults, they just overpower us,” Ms. Lewis said. “They look at us like most of the time we don’t know what we’re talking about or that our voices and opinions don’t matter.”

Her grandparents, though, have included Ms. Lewis in conversations. They have told her about the oppression they faced growing up, shared lessons from those experiences and pushed her to help other Black Americans with that perspective.

“They have children and they worry about them coming home like any Black parents, and they know why I protest and what I’m fighting for,” Ms. Lewis said.