(Illustration by Derrick Dent)

An open letter from AAPI high school students in Massachusetts begins with a simple statement: “We are high school students from Boston, Malden, and Quincy, members of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center (BCNC) Youth Center. We ask educators and superintendents to address the surge of anti-Asian racism that followed the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Teens at BCNC Youth Center published the open letter in September 2020 as anti-Asian hate crimes hit record highs. At the time, AAPI students across the country had reported a surge in bullying and an uptick in racial discrimination and insensitivity by teachers and peers. In the letter, the students asked their schools to invest in training, support, and ongoing education around racial discrimination for students, teachers, and faculty in order to support all students of color. After the release of the AAPI open letter, the school committee, the mayor, and superintendent in nearby Cambridge issued a resolution in solidarity with Asian Americans. The resolution was a direct response to the open letter by the teens. 

The students from BCNC Youth Center aren’t the only teens actively trying to make a difference. Their demands mirror other students across the country who are also using online platforms and social media to call out racism and demand change. 

“One time in class, I had two white male teachers laugh as they discussed Mike Tyson’s rape accusations made by his wife at the time. I was the only Black student in that class. And the only woman, too,” wrote one student in a post shared by the Black@CRLS Instagram page. The page features anonymous submissions from students and teachers at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, a public high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. People use the page to share hurtful, racist experiences. 

The online efforts don’t stop in Massachusetts. Across the country, students are using social media and online channels to expose experiences of racism and racial discrimination. Young people are writing open letters, creating Change.org petitions with tens of thousands of signatures, sharing open Google Docs with lists of racist people in their classes, and using online platforms to organize protests. The hashtag #RacistHighSchool has almost 650,000 views on TikTok. Students across the country use the hashtag to share their experiences, with hundreds more commenting and engaging. Variants of the hashtag have reached tens of thousands of views. 

Online activism in majority-white schools

This increase in online activism and antagonism is tied to the current political environment. Increased racial tension and inflamed, vocalized rhetoric against people of color are showing up in classrooms. The tension is especially heightened in majority-white schools that are actively diversifying, which is happening in many states in the Northeast.

Josie Trichka is from one of these majority-white communities. She launched a Change.org petition last year saying her former school district—the Maine-Endwell Central School District in Endwell, New York—failed her by not educating students about the prevalence of institutional racism in society (Trichka graduated from Maine-Endwell High School in 2013). The petition called on the district to include “discussions of systemic racism and ongoing struggles people of color face in the United States.” 

“People from where I grew up don’t necessarily believe those things because they can’t see it with their own eyes,” Trichka said. “It’s a predominantly white area; there’s no way of being exposed to such things.” 

Comments on her petition provided a platform for others to expose their experience.

“All I have to say is that Maine-Endwell is extraordinarily privileged and sheltered,” wrote one high school senior. “Not only have I seen people time and time again make racist remarks and create racist memes, but I also see students exclude their peers due to their socioeconomic standing.”

Several hours north in Auburn, Maine, the number of young people of color is increasing because of immigration from countries like Somalia and Iraq. At Edward Little High School, student Shukri Abdirahman led the charge to highlight the experience of racial discrimination in the school, using a book given to her by the ACLU to collect stories and call out racism. Abdirahman documented incidents where teachers made jokes about hijabs, students used the N-word, and people made comments in favor of “building the wall.” 

Facing similar tensions at school two hours away, Black students at Bangor High School in Maine gathered their stories and went to the school board

“My sister in middle school had an incident and the N-word was used against her in the span of one week 3 times,” one student shared at the meeting. After no outcome for six months, students went directly to the local press to share their experiences with a wider audience. After the article drew some additional attention, the issue was brought up at a further school board meeting. In response to the ongoing student activism, the Bangor School Board ordered an outside investigation into the claims of racism made by Black students. 

Vermont is also seeing demographic shifts, and calls for inclusion and justice have similar themes. A recent petition by alumni of Mill River High School in North Claredon, Vermont, gathered more than 400 signatures in support of current students who had asked administrators to raise Black Lives Matter and gay pride flags in front of schools across the district. Though the school board approved the flags, Mill River alumni created the petition to encourage the school to abide by its decision, regardless of any outrage by members of the community.

“Many of us attended Mill River at a time when openly racist and homophobic statements and symbols were common within the school community, and feel that these flags represent a step towards a more inclusive, welcoming culture at Mill River,” the petition reads. “We call upon Mill River to resist the temptation to view this history as subjective and to stand with the truth, regardless of whether that decision is popular.”

The impact of student anonymity online

Though many online efforts by students and alumni have resulted in probes, resolutions, or raised awareness, some of the investigations that were catalyzed by the online activism of students have come up empty. Investigations can sometimes lack specific results because students prefer to keep their claims confidential out of fear of retaliation. Without clear results from the probes, many students can be left wondering if their online tactics and vulnerability was effective.

Dr. Beverly Tatum, the author of  Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, is a psychologist and educator who has conducted research on racism in education and racial identity development in teenagers. Tatum said she can see the power of using social media to share stories and voice frustrations—but also the limitations

“The power of documenting what you see and posting it online is unrefutably demonstrated by the powerful footage filmed by 17-year old Darnella Frazier of the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin,” Tatum said. “Using social media to document and disseminate information about racism in schools can give student concerns visibility that they would not otherwise have. This can be a source of empowerment. However, it can also serve as a barrier to communication and problem-solving if misused.”  

Tatum said that social media is most effective as a way to call out and expose racism after trying other methods, like directly engaging the person in dialogue. If a social media call-out is the first response, she said the likely response from the other person is anger and defensive hostility.

Racial discrimination and racism have an emotional and physical effect on students, but experts say that responding—not escalating—is important in order to bring about real, sustainable change. But the psychological impact racism can have on students can make that difficult. A 2017 study found that psychological responses to race-based stressors force the body to produce more stress hormones, impacting concentration and motivation. With Black students already being sent to detention and expelled at rates higher than white students, addressing racism and racial discrimination at school has a direct connection to educational performance. 

For institutions to address these issues, it will require more than responding to individual actions in response to online call-outs. Instead, schools need to look at all issues that impact a student’s educational experience and work to address gaps in investment, performance, and support for students of color.

“To understand how racism is playing out at school, start by disaggregating the data along racial lines,” Tatum said. “Who is being placed in honors or advanced placement courses? Who is not? Who is being suspended or otherwise disciplined at school? Who is not? Who is on the teaching staff?”

Punishing whistleblowers

Public school students who use social media to call out issues at school often meet with mixed results. They sometimes face consequences like suspensions, suffer from emotional trauma over having to re-share hurtful experiences or being ignored by teachers or faculty, or being targeted by other students. These individual experiences have led to more anonymized and aggregated efforts. 

However, the outcome of a pending Supreme Court case could lend whistleblowers more support.  The case, Mahoney Area School District v. B.L., focuses on the experience of a white high school cheerleader who made frustrated, profanity-filled comments about her school in a private Snapchat while off campus and was then penalized at school for these comments. 

“This is an important issue. How much authority do school officials have to punish students for what they say outside of school?” said Vic Walczak, the legal director of ACLU Pennsylvania.

“What we’ve also seen is that when students of color go on social media to call out teachers or other students for racist posts or other activities, schools punish students of color—not those who are posting the racist messages,” Walczak said. “Students need some place in their lives where they can call out racist, sexist, and homophobic behavior.”

Tatum also believes that the best time for students to make change is now. 

“Because racism is so ingrained in our society, it can only be interrupted by speaking up [and] taking action,” she said. “There is no such thing as ‘passive anti-racism.’ Silence perpetuates the status quo of racism.”

This article is part five in a series about the racial reckoning in the public education system in the past year. Read the rest of the series here.

Umme Hoque

Umme Hoque is a writer, editor, and organizer. She's passionate about writing about and investigating issues for low-income workers and communities of color, lifting up the experiences of those who are...