Dashka Slater Talks with Roger

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Author of the 2018 Boston Globe–Horn Book Nonfiction Honor book The 57 Bus, journalist Dashka Slater returns in Accountable: The True Story of a Racist Social Media Account and the Teenagers Whose Lives It Changed to investigate a racist campaign via Instagram at Albany High School in the Bay Area. Interviewing perpetrators, victims, and bystanders, Slater explores the quest for (maybe) justice and reconciliation by her teenaged subjects.

Roger Sutton: When did you first discover this story?

Dashka Slater: I was signing ARCs of The 57 Bus at an event for the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association in March of 2017. Somebody in the signing line said, “Did you hear what happened in Albany?” At that point I had not, but as she gave me the broad outline, I was instantly intrigued.

RS: Was the crisis at the school still going on when you started looking into it?

DS: It’s a little bit complicated, because I began reporting pretty much the day after I first heard about the story. At that point it was a couple of weeks after the big demonstration had already happened. But I didn’t get very far because most people didn’t want to talk. Many things were cloaked in confidentiality because of both needing to protect the students and because very quickly there was litigation. It was probably a year of my putting out feelers and letting people know I wanted to listen to them if they were interested in talking to me. I knew that I would not want to write anything about this story if I didn’t have the go-ahead from the kids who had been targeted and their families. There was a long time of my reaching out to people, seeing if they were interested; their saying not yet, not now; and my waiting around some more, putting out more feelers. It wasn’t until 2018 that I began to get responses from people indicating that they were interested in talking. That was when my reporting went into much higher gear and much more depth, rather than just going to community meetings and taking notes.

RS: But you knew at this point — you hopefully had a book in mind.

DS: I very much wanted to be able to tell this story, and I could tell from what I was seeing that there was enough information, enough of a narrative, for a book. But I didn’t know for a long time whether I would be able to get the story. I sent a lot of emails to Joy Peskin, my editor, saying, “I know there’s something here,” and her saying, “I want it.” I wanted it, too, but I didn’t yet know whether I was going to be able to get it.

RS: Was there a point when you thought, Yes, I can keep going on this, it’s going to be worth it?

DS: When people began saying that they wanted to do interviews. When I had the first interview with one of the girls who was targeted by the Instagram account, we spent a couple of hours talking and going over the events — and she told me so much that hadn’t been in any coverage and shifted my whole understanding. Just the fact that they, the perpetrators and victims, had all been friends was something that hadn’t been reported elsewhere. She also connected me with other people. After the second lengthy interview, I knew I could do this story. And doors just kept opening. After a long, long time of waiting and hoping and putting out feelers, once the gates opened, then everything opened. People who had already said no changed their minds and said yes. Suddenly I had a preponderance of the young people involved in the story on different sides all agreeing to talk.

RS: One of the most fascinating things about the book for me was that these kids were friends, and when the boy started the harassment on social media — the “jokes” — it’s both exculpatory and it’s worse at the same time.

DS: Yes. That was one of the things that really resonated with me in that first interview — the amount of betrayal that you would feel as a young person to discover that this had been going on behind your back with people who you trusted and believed to be your friends. As you say, there’s this way in which it complicates things, both making it worse, and — I don’t know if it makes it better, but it makes it different when you know that these were people who had been close and had a certain level of comfort joking around with one another. Obviously, this crossed a line.

RS: I could understand why at first the boy thought he could get away with what he did, because there was already some verbal banter among these kids that might lead a person to just go in too deep.

DS: Right. And the thing about young people is that they really don’t know where the lines are.

RS: Just young people?

DS: That’s why you have clear bright lines. Because the nature of adolescence is always trying to push further, and the nature of boy culture is also to dare you to cross the line, dare you to touch the electric fence. There’s lots of things that are pushing kids toward terrible behavior.

RS: And always have. You’re not as old as I am, but did you have slam books?

DS: No, but I’ve heard about them.

RS: If you’ve read Harriet the Spy, that’s the slam book story. But now, boom, everybody knows it, because it’s up on Instagram. You think it’s a private group, but it’s really not.

DS: One of the things that I hope that a book like this can do is to frontload kids with some understanding of the fact that things on social media are not private and that jokes have lasting consequences, both for the person who is the target of the joke and for the person who makes the joke.

RS: And it’s not just the perils of the audience. As you point out, and I’ve seen for myself on Twitter, the medium itself encourages dangerous behavior. I had to quit Twitter because it was turning me into an asshole — well, more of an asshole, anyway.

DS: I feel like you are not alone in that revelation. I try to talk about this a little bit in the book. The algorithm rewards combative behavior or anything that’s sensationalistic, that creates a jolt of emotion. If you put that out there, you’re instantly rewarded with more likes, more retweets. It’s very easy to get into a reward-repeat cycle with social media, where you keep doing the thing that’s getting you attention.

RS: Why do you think it is, for boys, that becoming these little edgelords with dark humor and mean remarks — how do you see gender playing into this? It’s all over your book. It’s boys doing the harassing.

DS: Yeah, it really is. That actually surprised me. I did not think that this was going to be a gender book, and yet the more the boys explained to me what was happening in their friend group, the more it really seemed that boy culture was a huge part of this story. And a part of the story that was hard for the girls who were targeted to get, because it didn’t make any sense. As an outsider, a lot of those incentives don’t make any sense. I think what is happening here is that boys are socialized to behave a certain way because the patriarchy tells them that that’s what being male is. And part of that socialization process is boys teaching one another to be less sensitive, to be less empathic, and to be desensitized to things that are disturbing, in much the way that we desensitize soldiers and other people whose jobs require them to be hardened. The boys in this group of friends in particular, and I think it can be extrapolated to many groups of boys in general, are responding to a set of rules that they didn’t write. They are trying to figure out: How do I be male in this society in a way that will make me attractive and will make me feel strong and will make me have strong connections with other boys? The most potent of human desires is the desire not to be alone, the desire for connection. So they reenacted the rules that they were learning, both from the culture around them and from social media. One of which is “Laugh at this even though it makes your stomach churn, because that shows that you’re edgy and tough and funny.”

RS: Did it occur to you, as it did me (but maybe this is because I’m a boy) that there also was a certain problem in the way that the victim’s friends got into it, that exacerbated the problem? Obviously, what the boys did was more horrible. But I think sometimes what the girls did among themselves kept any kind of resolution from happening.

DS: I want to be clear that there’s no right way to respond to being targeted by a racist social media account. The girls were very, very hurt and betrayed. Their whole world had been rocked, and they felt super-alone. I think where things fell apart was that adults couldn’t provide them with a road map, because the adults were also blindsided.

RS: That scene, where they’re trying to have the session in the school with the perpetrators in one room, and all the protestors gathering outside, and then the cops come in and try to help? And then at one point, the cop’s like, “Oh, the hell with it. We can’t handle it.”

DS: The adults had no idea. Way before it got to that point, in an ideal world, parents and teachers and administrators would have had the skills to help the kids figure out a way to process all the hurt and the anger without having it explode in this way that ended up harming everybody even more. But those things are difficult. I don’t know that there are any great role models in our society. It’s not like we can say, "Well, the school should have done X." Where else are we doing a great job of responding to injuries and misdeeds? Nowhere. Where can we point to for those boys and say, "Look at this person who did something wrong, how they took responsibility and then took steps to make amends?" We don’t see that. Even when people attempt to do that, Twitter and social media tend to say that’s not good enough, so there’s always a message that all of that is a failure. The only solution is to punish people forever.

RS: And as adults, we’re no more adept at navigating social media than kids are. We fall into the same traps that we saw at play in the story you tell. It’s not just kids.

DS: Absolutely. All the adults in this story were doing the same things. They were also in this cycle of grief and anger and repeating it over and over again. We feel all these things, and we don’t know where to put those feelings, so we’re just going to cycle through them. I feel that community is still very injured and wounded, because nobody could see a way out of the churn.

RS: One thing I saw in your book is that there was no resolution to any of this. We did get some nice moments where you realized people had grown, people had forgiven. It was all equivocal, though. But that’s people, right?

DS: It was something that I worried about a lot when I was working on it. How does this book end? There is no neat little bow to tie on this whole set of events. It really was just people grew up and metabolized the experience as best they could.

RS: Have you noticed any big developments since your book was done? It must be hard.

DS: I’m happy to say that most of the young people are moving on in their lives. Most of them have finished college now. That gives me comfort; I was very worried about them for many, many years. Their lives were so derailed by this. And COVID didn’t help — they couldn’t move on to the next stage of their lives. To answer your question, big developments have largely stopped happening, which is good, because I did have this feeling that I could report on this story for the rest of my life.

RS: I can’t think of anybody else who does what you do in books for young people. This book-length journalism is something you’ve got pretty much to yourself at this point.

DS: I do. I’m seeing more interest in it, but people tend to focus on historical events rather than following events as they unfold. Of course, I love having a nice big arena to myself. There’s clearly a lot of hunger from kids for this kind of stuff. They are so interested in the world, and they want to know about things that are happening right now. It’s fun to be able to bring the events from last week into their world.

RS: And in both of your nonfiction books, it’s really a universe of kids that you’re exploring. Adults are there, and adults are both contributing to the problem and trying to help. But really, both revolve around kids against kids. I know as a young reader I really would have gotten into that.

DS: For me, as an adult, it’s often the most heart-wrenching part of it, to know they’re kids. I look at them, thinking, You have so far to go in your life, and you will have so many opportunities to do better or to recover. But they don’t know that. They look at themselves and one another and think this other person is the best they’re ever going to be. Who they are right now is who they are. It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that you know that life is long, and with any luck and a little determination, you will be a better person later on than you were when you were sixteen years old.

RS: Hopefully, God, yes. How do you talk to kids? How do you gain their confidence?

DS: To tell you the truth, I have no idea. I just try to listen and ask them questions that are open-ended enough for them tell me what the story is. So often what you think the story is is not what the story turns out to be. In three decades of being a journalist, that’s invariably the case. You go in thinking that something is a certain way, and then once you dig past the surface, you discover that there’s so much more going on, and it might be very different from your initial impression. So what I try to do with kids is let them fill me in on how they frame the story, what they think is important. Once we’ve got the basic outline of things, then I can go back and dig a little deeper: “Okay, you said this was really about high school politics. Well, what does that mean? What were the high school politics at play?” Or “You said that adults don’t really understand social media, so let’s talk about social media. What do you need to understand, as somebody who’s outside the story, that an adult might not know?”

RS: A long time ago, I wrote a book for teens, which was a collection of interviews with gay and lesbian people, both teenagers and adults. I really wasn’t yet confident enough in myself to have undertaken that, I think. It’s hard to get somebody to open up. At the same time, it can be hard to keep people focused. What do you do when you sense someone isn’t telling you the truth about something? How do you challenge that without losing their confidence?

DS: All of those are challenges. And memory is extraordinarily fallible. One of the things I ran up against in this reporting process was watching people’s memories be wrong. Because, of course, anything somebody tells me, I’m going to verify against other contemporaneous accounts and also against the document record. People tell a story enough times that the way they tell the story becomes the truth. Or things they’ve heard from other people become the truth. There’s a lot of just trying to figure out what actually happened and then trying to bring people back to that and say, “Okay, but I’m pretty sure that’s not actually how it happened, so let’s see if we can go through the events again.”

RS: You have to be nosy. You have to be inquisitive. You have to be persistent. How do you make yourself be all of that?

DS: You have to be dogged, and I think you’re absolutely right, you have to be nosy. I am very nosy. I always want to know what’s going on with people. In any public place, my antennae are out. I want to know what people’s relationships are, and why are those three people sitting together, and what’s the deal with the person who’s at that table who isn’t saying anything? That relentless curiosity is absolutely the engine that gets you through four years of reporting, that feeling of I’m not satisfied yet. I still have questions. There are things that I am not sure I really understand. That makes me go back. These poor kids. I tell them at the beginning that I’m going to be in their life for a long time, but they can’t imagine how long I’m going to be in their life, and how many times I’m going to call them and want to ask them about something that happened or go over something again. But it’s fun for me. I want to know, and I am thrilled by the chase, the hunt, trying to find the solid fact that I know is out there somewhere.

RS: I’m thinking about Joan Didion’s famous saying, about how “writers are always selling somebody out.”

DS: I try really hard for that not to be true in my work, particularly because I write about young people, and I feel an intense amount of responsibility for taking good care of them as people and taking good care of the stories that they have told me. I try to make the process as transparent as possible, which means that I am fact-checking with them; I’m giving them things to read; I’m letting them know I can’t share other people’s stories, but I want them to know what the nature of the project is. There’s going to be many voices in it. I send everybody the book before it comes out, so that they’ve had a chance to go over their own part and have a chance to see the whole story before it becomes widely available. In that way, hopefully, at least people feel prepared for what’s coming. So far, what I’ve heard is that they feel that I have treated them well and told their story accurately and provided some solace for a lot of them to understand what else was going on that they didn’t know. It also is, particularly for the girls who were targeted, it’s hard to read back over that period in their lives.

RS: Just when they thought they might be done with it.

DS: Exactly. It’s hard to keep pulling people back into a difficult period and say, "Let’s talk about it again. Let’s go back over the worst day of your life."


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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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