Racial Confrontation at a Summer Camp for Teens Welcome to what is possibly the most tense and uncomfortable summer program in America! The Boston-based program aims to teach the next generation the real truth about race, and may provide some ideas for the rest of us about the right way to confront someone to their face. | To learn more about this episode, subscribe to our newsletter. Click here to learn more about NPR sponsors.
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The Confrontation

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The Confrontation

The Confrontation

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ALIX SPIEGEL, HOST:

Dearest listeners, it is Alix. And I am here to ask for your support - not your financial support. Although, if you have not donated to your local public radio station, perhaps you should do that. But anyway, we are here because we are asking you to help us out in two simple ways.

One, if you're listening in Apple Podcasts, please take a moment and leave us a review. It helps other people to find the show. And two, tell a friend about the show - or better yet, tell a bunch of friends about the show. We even made a little INVISIBILIA starter pack in the form of a Spotify playlist with 10 of our favorite episodes from the last five seasons. They can be listened to in any order, and it's a great introduction to the show. So search Spotify for Best Of INVISIBILIA. And thank you.

HANNA ROSIN, HOST:

This program contains strong language and topics that might not be suitable for all listeners.

A long time ago, I went to visit someone I grew up with in his new house that he just bought with his wife. And it turned into a super-awkward visit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: It was after dinner. And we were chatting in the kitchen, cleaning up, when he put a bowl in the drying rack and chipped it. It was her favorite bowl. Her mom had given it to her. And I could tell she was very upset and angry. But she didn't say anything, even after I left.

What she did instead was put the bowl on their small kitchen table, fill it with oranges and then turn the chipped side facing the chair where he liked to sit so he could see it. I know this because he texted me a picture of the bowl - #chipgate. And then later, he texted me a little video of him turning the chip side away after she left for work.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: It became their little routine. In the evenings, she'd turn the chipped side to face his side. And then in the mornings, he turned it back. And neither of them ever said a word about it. Years passed, and it got harder and harder to say anything. The chip opened up for both of them so many things. Did she care about aesthetic order more than human relationships? Did he understand at all what mattered to her? It was one of a million fights they never had.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: And then her back started to really hurt. And he gained a lot of weight. And surely, there were other reasons for that. But I came to think of it as their bodies decaying from holding onto all that resentment. It's stupid. But you can see why it happens. Because at this point, if they did say something, it's awful to contemplate how all that stored rage would contaminate the room - her standing on the kitchen chair and screaming the kinds of things you can never take back, and then him picking up the bowl and smashing it to the ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: This is INVISIBILIA. I'm Hanna Rosin.

SPIEGEL: And I'm Alix Spiegel. And today we look at what it means to confront someone - what you risk, and why you might do it anyway. There's a lot of longing in some quarters of our culture for a certain kind of genteel confrontation, a way of disagreeing without being disagreeable.

But that's not where we're headed today. Instead, we introduce you to a group of people who believe in the cleansing power of fire. We take you to a summer program that puts teenagers from all different backgrounds into a room for three days and gives them license to let out all of their anger and resentment about one of the most permanently stuck and difficult conversations in America, race.

DAVID: I want you to all line up by skin tone, lightest to darkest.

ROSIN: Let's see what shards are left on the ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: So Hanna's going to be telling the story of this weekend retreat for high schoolers, which takes place on a college campus about an hour from downtown Boston. Now, the retreat kicks off an ambitious summer program for public school teens from all over the city, though there are a few kids from private schools. And one important part of this introductory weekend is to get the teens to name very explicitly what their identity is. Then they're divided into those groups - you know, black, Latinx, Asian, white, male, female, non-binary - basically, a version of the sorting hat in Harry Potter, but different.

By the way, because these are teens, we're not going to use their names, just initials. The summer we visited, a guy named David (ph) led a lot of the activities. And he seemed to operate by a rule that's the opposite of what you probably learned in kindergarten. If you don't have anything nice to say, you should probably say it into a microphone so that everyone can hear you. Here's Hanna.

ROSIN: It didn't start out in total chaos, with teenagers yelling, accusing each other of stealing and hunting each other down.

(CROSSTALK)

ROSIN: It started as a fun, get-to-know-you type thing. Barely half an hour after stepping off the bus, David called the teenagers all into this big conference room for the first activity.

DAVID: This game is called the ice cream game. You are now separated into three different communities.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: The goal of the game is to use whatever resources you're given to build the community you want. It's like the video game Sim City, where you build a virtual city under certain constraints - but in this case, with markers and paper. Each camper is randomly assigned to one of three towns, which meet in different parts of the room. And each town is given a pot of money to work with.

DAVID: The instructions are - is to create your ideal community.

ROSIN: When it started, everyone was having a good time - This improbably diverse room of kids from all over the city working together, trying to solve this problem of building a good community.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What do you guys want to build?

ROSIN: So, like, basic stuff - where should they put the school? Should they have a library?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Well, you know, can we be the suburbs?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I just want a bakery.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: One mosque, one church and one temple.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Smile. Yes, happy black children (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: So typical icebreaker - until it wasn't. The first tipoff were the names, which subtly suggested race - Chocolateville (ph), Vanillaville (ph). And then there were the issue of resources. Chocolateville was way overpopulated and had been given a lot fewer resources than Vanilla.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Do we need that much money?

ROSIN: Vanilla had buckets of money and only four people. So the citizens of Chocolateville were feeling packed into their space and getting antsy. And then, David set the chaos into motion.

DAVID: Oh, they stealing in Chocolateville. Oh, my God.

ROSIN: He unleashed the agitators, teams who were assigned to role play police - actually, racist police, who were trumping up charges and arresting only people from Chocolateville who were straying too far from their town.

N: No, no, no.

ROSIN: One of these cops was N.

N: She's very dangerous and got the marker in her hand.

ROSIN: She'd notice someone from Chocolateville wander towards Vanillaville to borrow a marker. And she decided to accuse them of theft.

N: I've been trying to arrest her for the past 10 minutes.

ROSIN: And as the kids tuned into what these police were doing, some of them tried to make it better, like this one girl in Vanillaville named V.

V: I was just trying to bail her out because she came over and asked for markers. And I said she could take them. And then she got wrongfully convicted. So I thought, might as well help her.

ROSIN: It was too hard to make it better.

V: Can we make donations?

ROSIN: Too many police, too much unfairness. In the battle between chaos and making it better, the chaos won out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: We need a police officer.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: We got a fugitive.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: She's one of them. And it's in their blood.

ROSIN: Which, for David, seemed fine. The real world is not a polite icebreaky (ph) kind of situation. The real world could be hard. And if they wanted to learn how to change it, they would need to learn to be hard back.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: We need to take her in.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: No. I didn't do anything. No, I didn't.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Don't make me get back up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Whoa, whoa.

(CROSSTALK)

ROSIN: David got a call about working in the program back in 2012. And at first, he wasn't keen. He's in his late 30s now. But he's been a community organizer in nearby Roxbury since he was 17. And his impression of this summer program was that it was this privileged, Boston private school operation that condescended to people like him.

Even so, he decided to try it. In that first year, he learned that he didn't know himself as well as he thought he did. One of the camp directors, who, by the way, was white, noticed that if a white kid looked upset, David would rush to see if they were OK.

DAVID: The director of the program at that time said, why are you catering to white feelings? - messing me up. I'm like, what do you mean by that? Then they asked me a question. You know, David, did your grandmother take care of white people? Like, yeah. Did your mom do - at some point? Yeah. Did your auntie did? Yeah. Did your dad do? Yeah. You seeing the cycle of oppression that's happening with you, bro? I don't cater to white feelings anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: Eight years later, that's remained one of his guiding philosophies. So now even when he goes out and recruits for the program, he doesn't do the nicey (ph), nicey, glossy brochure version, like when he recently held a recruitment meeting for parents in Boston to spread the word.

DAVID: After we talked about it, we knew people wasn't going to come to this because we were being honest. If we wanted white people to come, we'd have been - hi. Come on. It'll be a fun summer. It'll be this. It'll be that. You'll be learning about stuff. But I would've had to keep everything under wraps what we'd have been learning. I saw white parents go, grabbing their kid, OK. Thank you. And moving or, like, running away. They don't want their kids learning about this.

ROSIN: Its official name is the Summer Leadership Program - or SLP. The summer we came, David was one of about eight counselors leading activities. And he'd been there the longest. The teens come from all over the city, and most of them get paid to attend. The program gets grants from the city or private donors or foundations. It runs for the entire summer.

And the teens are doing lots of different things, like internships and classes about how systems of power work and affect things like gender, the environment. And then they also do targeted protests about, say, high bus fares. The whole program is designed to be led by the teens with the adults just watching over them to make sure nothing gets out of hand.

The aim is to create a space where teenagers can examine themselves - their fears, their rage and their resentments about the ways that they're oppressed, so that when they're ready to go out and fight for causes, nothing is holding them back. When we were there, David was wearing a nametag that read, no lies. And he's very vigilant about that mantra. No lies means none ever, not even on Christmas Day.

DAVID: My son never believed in Santa Claus. I ripped that Band-Aid off early. Is there a Santa? No. I'm out here. I'm grinding. I'm working. Me and your mom, your grandma, we're all working for you. The rest of the kids around you are believing in a lie and a fantasy, while you're appreciating your dad. So there is a harshness to truth. But I also believe there's a beauty in some harshness.

ROSIN: Harsh truths - that's not how the grown-ups handled race when I was young.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: I grew up in a very immigrant neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., right near AOC's current congressional district, in fact. And the phrase I remember most is Mayor David Dinkins talking about the gorgeous mosaic, which was a nice phrase. But what actually happened was the different tiles in the mosaic just tried hard to look white.

So on my block, Ajuba (ph) from Ghana changed his name to Billy (ph). And Byong Joon (ph) from Korea became Sam (ph). And my brother, who had what he considered the unacceptable Israeli name Meir (ph), changed his name to Mike (ph). So by eighth grade, the attendance call at PS 217 in Jamaica, Queens, sounded like a score card at a golf club. Billy, Sam, Mike - you know, a bunch of old white guys.

So personally, I was interested to see a place where people didn't fall back on the comfort of a polite lie, where people said the harsh truths straight to each other's faces. And so to do the reporting, we tried to approximate the program vibe and got together a diverse reporting team.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: So me, I'm white, producer B.A. Parker, who's black, and our intern, Oliver Wang, who's Asian. The night before, we all had a lovely dinner at the hotel. We talked about work, where we grew up. And we came up with a plan for how we would go about the reporting together. And then after spending an hour in David's presence - right after the ice cream game, in fact - Parker dropped the niceties.

B A PARKER, BYLINE: You are just, like, you know, like, an older white lady that's got, like, a microphone, kind of my boss. Like, I just want it to be - (laughter). Like, I didn't want this to feel like an Uncle Tom situation (laughter).

ROSIN: But then who am I in this situation?

PARKER: Thomas Jefferson? I don't know.

ROSIN: Thomas Jefferson, like Virginia plantation slave owner Jefferson, the villain of "Hamilton"? Now I was self-conscious because probably all the black teens at camp were having the same thought, and Parker just said it out loud. So I responded in the mature way.

I got to think about this. On the one hand, I'm glad I brought you guys here.

PARKER: (Laughter).

ROSIN: On the other hand, [expletive] you.

(LAUGHTER)

PARKER: Because I just called you Thomas Jefferson?

ROSIN: Yeah.

PARKER: I mean, you got better hair than Thomas Jefferson.

ROSIN: A couple of hours in, and I could see the dilemma. It's just easier for me, the white lady boss especially, to gloss over things and be nicey, nicey. Because once you start to confront each other with harsh truths, even if you're kind of joking, it's so much harder to pretend you're on the same team.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: Things get worse before they get better. NPR's INVISIBILIA will be right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: This is INVISIBILIA from NPR. We're covering a summer program in Boston that's creating an unusual space where teens are invited to stop being polite and tell each other what they really think. Now we meet one of David's proteges. Here's Hanna.

ROSIN: Every leadership program has its particular vision of ideal youth leader - smoothest talking ambassador at the Model U.N., networkiest (ph) congressional intern. At this program, it might be N. She's the one who played the cop in the ice cream game. Other kids seemed nervous. But she seemed relaxed and confident, probably because it's her second year. Parker spotted her on the first day.

PARKER: How old are you?

N: I'm 16.

PARKER: A baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: N grew up in Boston, the only daughter of Haitian immigrants. And like a lot of immigrants, her success is their success. So they raised her not to start trouble, especially not with white people, because they didn't want their daughter to blow her chances.

N: Like, my dad's dream is for me to go to Harvard.

ROSIN: And the way to do that was to...

N: Do, quote-unquote, "white things." Like, dress properly, speak properly. You don't want the white man looking at you differently.

ROSIN: N goes to a fancy private school that's mostly white. And if she left the house dressed in a way that they thought was not proper, her parents would point it out.

N: They would tell me that that's not allowed. And the fact that, like, oh, like, as, like, a black woman, I look like a prostitute wearing short stuff like that because, like, that's not appropriate. I need to look like this and look like that. And when I would compare my outfit to, like, a random white girl, they'd be like, oh, you can't compare yourself like that because you have more than what she has. So you have to accommodate for what you carry.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: N loved her parents. And for a long time, she accepted their logic. The black body is different. It has to be tamed to approximate white. So she straightened her hair, wore nothing ripped or cropped. And she learned to talk like the Regular Staceys (ph), as she calls them. Then in 2018, she heard about the SLP program in school. And she thought, good for the college resume. But then when she got there, she was horrified, mostly by David.

N: At first, I hated David because I - like, he used to, like - he would say stuff to the white people. And, like, in my head, I was like, you can't say that. That's mean. You don't say that about people. You don't - like, in my head, I always thought, like, don't do something to other people that you don't want them to do to you. And like, in my head I used to think that, like, oh, my God, he's such a rude person. Why would you talk to someone like that? That's rude.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: That's what she thought at the very start of last year's retreat. But within 24 hours, her world view had shifted. And it happened at something called Speak Out, when, as they used to say on "The Real World," things stop being polite and start getting real.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: The teens had broken up into their different groups, in this case, by race - so black, Asian, Latinx and white. N was meeting with the other black teens in a private room. And though she was more quiet back then, she started tuning into the talk in the room - people telling stories about how they'd been followed at the 7-Eleven or stopped by cops for no reason or yelled at by teachers. For a lot of teens in the group, they had never talked about race in quite this way. So it was a relief. And once they started talking, so much began to come out.

N: We were just venting. So everyone was just saying everything that came to their mind. Oh, F white people. White people are stupid. White people are annoying. Like, they take up too much space.

ROSIN: They were saying these things in private - no harm in that. But the thing was, they were writing everything down - all their specific grievances and frustrations, all the things they'd experienced. And then when they walked back out into the big conference room, David reminded them how the Speak Out worked. Now it was the time to get up on stage and say what they'd been talking about out loud to the entire camp - meaning also the white kids in the room - all of what they had said, exactly as they'd said it. But N hadn't quite factored that in. She was like...

N: Oh, I didn't - I don't want to say anything.

ROSIN: She didn't mind talking about some of that stuff. But the worst parts - she didn't want to actually say that stuff out loud.

N: In the groups, we were all so, like, adamant about, like, oh, yeah, like, white people suck. And then in their face, we were just like, oh, you know, y'all can just do a little bit better. Bye. And we ran away.

ROSIN: But David really wasn't having it. To him, the Speak Out was the ultimate test. All your life, you have been afraid to say out loud what is actually making you angry. And that is eating you up, making you resentful, angry, sapping your strength and breaking your body. The time has come. This was a safe space. And you had to let it out.

N: Like, no. If you can say it behind their backs, you have to say it in their face.

ROSIN: So the teens shuffled to the front of the stage and went through their list. White people using the N-word. White people touching their hair. White people looking at them suspiciously. And it built, and it built momentum until...

N: (Whispering) F*** white people.

ROSIN: And then they rushed to the back of the line. Then N remembers the counselors encouraging them. If this is your truth right now, you should actually say it.

N: No. Like, you have - like, if that's how you feel, don't hold it in because, like, that's more power that they have over you. So speak your truth.

ROSIN: So they circled back to the front of the stage and tried again a little less hesitantly.

N: F*** white people. OK.

ROSIN: Nope.

N: It just got harsher and harsher and harsher as we kept on going. Like, no. You got to say it loud and say it proud. So you had to, like, calm down, look at them and say, f*** white people. F*** white people. F*** white people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: Yep. They did that, which is a big deal. But it's also not a big deal. Think of it like a primal scream. It doesn't really mean anything or lead anywhere, except that it did crack something open in N and maybe in the other kids, too. By the end of her summer at the program, she'd changed a lot. She started talking to her parents about how it was no big deal to wear ripped jeans. It didn't mean she wouldn't get into Harvard.

And she wrote an essay in school about how a book they were reading in class about some poor, white drug dealer was stupid. We only cared because he was white - which got her her lowest grade ever, by the way. N was no longer squeezing herself into a shape dictated by the white world, no longer thinking she needed to accommodate for what she carried.

N: I don't know. I feel like it clicked that, like, no matter what I do, I will never be a white girl. I will never be enough for the common white man that he - I don't know - has an image of in his head. So, like, I just started being me at the end.

ROSIN: And that is a beautiful thing. But at the same time, saying exactly what's on your mind likely does lead to a harder path with her father somewhere down the road, her teachers, maybe Harvard - not to mention the police. Most people don't respond that well to being confronted. For example, it's hard to measure exactly the impact of the F white people Speak Out.

That year started with about 10 white teens, and one of them ghosted the very next day, although I don't know why. Every year, some number of kids leave. Of the white people I did track down, three told me their leaving had something to do with that moment, which, from N's point of view, is just proof that they don't really care.

And how did you process that at first?

N: To me, I was just like, wow. Like, at first I was like, well, that's what you get when you talk bad to people. But then I stopped. And I was like, no. It's not our fault because you really was just here for a paycheck. Or you really didn't care about the cause. You just wanted to get paid. What we were saying wasn't anything that was, like, so disrespectful that you had to leave. You know what I mean? I feel like they didn't care enough about the cause to stay.

ROSIN: Which maybe is OK, because the whole point of this space is that white people don't get to own it. But if you say F you to a group of teenagers who just got there, what if they just don't have the tools yet to know how to stay in the room? And really, what's the point of a blunt conversation if your audience leaves the room, even if you're totally justified?

One year later, the year we were there, only one white person showed up at the retreat. People told us there were a lot of reasons, like crewman changes or staff changes. But whatever it was, the result was one white person, the girl from Vanillaville who was trying to make things better, V.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

V: It was just - it's the first time that it's been this small. Just me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: When V talks, she twists the string on her hoodie or the strap of her little purse. But she's clearly a trier. She wants to be better. That, after all, is why she came to this program.

V: The only way that we learn is to make mistakes and then understand that those are mistakes.

ROSIN: V grew up in the wealthy suburb of Brookline. It's a very, very white community. But she didn't even really notice until the day she graduated from middle school. She looked back at the line. And her eye landed on one of the few kids of color standing all alone.

V: Yeah. I realized my white privilege that day.

ROSIN: When we interviewed V on the phone before camp started, we found out other facts about her life. Her parents both work as chefs, and they're divorced. They're both Italian. She lives mainly with her mom. And they moved to Brookline for the good schools.

V: My family is not upper-class. And so we have struggled to find places to live. Like, when we moved here, it was really hard to find a place to live that wasn't expensive.

ROSIN: But as soon as camp started, V put those details about herself away. When they were going around a circle making introductions, the only white counselor, Jordan (ph), mentioned that he was eastern European, German, Polish. And one of the kids yelled out, you're white. And they all burst out laughing.

(LAUGHTER)

ROSIN: So V right away took the cue and condensed her bio. She thought she might mention the Italian part. But instead, she just said, I'm V. I'm white. First lesson learned.

V: For white people, we really want to say that we have a culture, which we do. But I think we use our ethnicity as a way to be like, well, we're also people of color. But we're not. So I think that's what was running through my head.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: V had already adjusted her identity. She was the ambassador of white. And she was pretty much learning new lessons by the hour, like at the ice cream game. In her mind, she'd been doing a good thing by running around, helping people avoid arrests and giving out donations. But in the breakout sessions after the game, she learned that trying to help in this way was not necessarily a good thing because it could be white saviorism - you know, the white hero swooping in to rescue the brown people as the light shines on the white guy's glory.

How V understood it was she had to ask herself if what she was doing was about making herself feel good and easing her own guilt or if it was more about what the people in Chocolateville actually needed and wanted - so a fail.

V: I guess I just slipped up. I felt guilty. And I felt embarrassed. That's, like, the opposite way that you want to go.

ROSIN: There were all kinds of new things V was learning that made her rethink stuff.

V: White people are so afraid to be called racist. And that also causes a lot of ignorance because if you're so afraid of something, you end up becoming that thing.

ROSIN: And V was determined to be different. So when it came time for her to do the Speak Out, she felt ready. She was not going to be just another dumb, well-meaning white person who couldn't face the truth - I mean ready, still nervous.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

V: Our group was small. And I was really nervous. Like, if things weren't going to come out - if things weren't going to - if things were going to come out as racist. That's what I was really nervous about.

DAVID: The white affinity goes first, then Asian affinity, then Latinx affinity and then black affinity.

ROSIN: About 60 people were gathered in a giant circle on foldout chairs. At that point, another girl, who was biracial, had been added to white affinity. V got up from her chair and moved to the middle. She sat on the floor with Jordan, the white counselor, and that other girl. She looked at her notes and started talking.

V: I've been thinking about this a lot. But I want to continuously challenge white supremacy in white spaces. And that will be uncomfortable for me. But I want to be uncomfortable more. And I'm willing to give up my comfortability.

ROSIN: She spoke a few more lines and walked back to her chair. She seemed relieved. Now it was her turn to be anonymous again, to be quiet and just listen. And then after a few minutes, it was black affinity's turn. And it was nothing like V's cautious monologue. It was 30 teens' worth of nervous energy, a sense in the room that something big and important and thrilling might happen. They didn't stand in the middle of the circle. They walked up onto the stage, propped their big white paper on an easel and started reading one by one.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: Stop approaching us as that black, thick b**** because I'm not a b****.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: We deserve the same pay rate as any other white person.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: Just because you say you have black friends doesn't mean you're not racist.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: N had gone on the stage, too. But she decided to sit down at the edge. She'd been through a Speak Out before last year, that F white people speak out. And it had changed her life. And as a budding counselor, she decided she'd give the new teens a chance to have that same experience. So at first, she just sat back and watched.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: If you are not black, stop saying n***a - period.

ROSIN: And as they were talking...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: Don't fear us. We don't do s***. We should be fearing y'all.

ROSIN: ...Her mind started to wander. And she stopped paying attention to what the black kids were saying and drifted, instead, to what V had just said a few minutes earlier.

V: And I'm willing to give up my comfortability.

ROSIN: The words rolled around in N's head like broken shards. Willing to give up my comfortability? Wasn't that like a white person telling a black person she was willing to give up her extra pillow, willing to give up her half-empty Starbucks cup?

N: Oh, yeah. I'm willing to give that up. I'm willing to give this up. I don't want the rest of your Starbucks. I want something greater. I want something bigger.

V: And I'm willing to give up my comfortability. Willing - willing - willing to give up my comfortability.

ROSIN: And then she thought of last year's Speak Out, when she said the worst thing she could say. But it didn't do much. And then some of the white people left. And she thought, this time, I'm going to say exactly what I need you to hear, and not just curse, but give specific instructions. And I'll say it now in case I don't see you again. So N got up and walked to the mic again this year.

N: Not to go against what other people had said, what other affinities had said, but when the white affinity says what I'm willing to give up, it showed that, at the end of the day, that, oh, yeah, like, I got this, but I'll give up that and that. And at the end of the day, I'ma (ph) go to my house in my suburbian (ph) area, and I'ma be fine.

ROSIN: And it took V a minute to realize N was talking about her, to her. So V stopped twisting the string of her hoodie and concentrated on doing just one thing - sitting still and looking N in the eye - because she knew now that everyone would be watching her.

N: It's not what you're willing to give up. It's what you have to give up. It's what you have to be uncomfortable to give up. You can't be willing to give up - oh, I'm willing to give up my comfortability. No. Give up your opportunities. Give up your position. Stop taking positions just because you're white. Stop taking positions just because of the school that you go to. Give that up, and then we can start talking.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #18: Preach, sister.

ROSIN: Until this moment, I'd been debating with myself about whether it would be a good idea for my own teenage kids to go to the program. There was a lot for them to learn here. And a little tough love never hurt anyone. But seeing it unfold in real time, I just wasn't sure, and not just because V was the white girl and I was thinking of my own daughter.

At this point, a day into camp, V and N did not even know each other's names yet. There's confrontation where you make a person sit in a room and listen, and it hurts, but it opens them up. And then there are strangers yelling at each other, which I see, we all see every day in Congress, on Twitter. And that feels like it's going nowhere. And I just wasn't sure yet what this program was selling.

It felt like what I had just witnessed might have been turning people who were trying to be friends into strangers. And now one of them was walking into the bathroom to cry and entertaining thoughts of quitting the program.

V: Like, I was just targeted. I was just like, oh, my God, I'm such a mess up. And then everything kind of crashed.

SPIEGEL: Could V handle it, or would the white population be reduced to zero? NPR's INVISIBILIA will be right back.

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SPIEGEL: This is NPR's INVISIBILIA. And today we're telling the story of a program for teenagers that believes in teaching people how to directly confront uncomfortable realities. I'm sure, for some of you, it was a relief to hear that last scene. And for some of you, what you heard was a little bit disturbing. But the thing is, this experiment has been tried before.

Here and there in our history, people have attempted to put black and white people in a room together and pushed them to say out loud the unacceptable things that they are thinking in secret - the racist things, the hateful things, whatever is eating them up. We tracked down people who took a class almost 50 years ago that used this teaching method to see whether this style of confrontation had hurt them or helped them in their lives. Here's Hanna.

ROSIN: So didn't it shock you to have a, like, just walk into a classroom, be confronted like that?

JUDY BENSON: Totally. Totally.

ROSIN: And had you ever been confronted by a black person before?

BENSON: No.

ROSIN: You'd never been told the truth by a black person?

BENSON: No.

ROSIN: And what did it feel like on your body to hear - to be told the truth like that?

BENSON: Shame is the biggest thing I can think of, just mortified.

ROSIN: The first time Judy Benson (ph) heard the truth from a black person, she was 25 years old. It was 1973. And she was taking a class at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville called Human Conflict - Black and White. The class was truly radical for its time and place.

1970s Jacksonville was still raw around civil rights - new to school busing, new to desegregating jails. The laws were in place, but the city was totally divided, with violent race riots in its recent history. But Judy, she thought she was beyond all that. She was like the well-meaning white girl of her 1973 class, thinking she was evolved. She knew what the problems were.

BENSON: When I had accused my mother of being a racist, her retort had been she didn't agree with that at all. She said, I loved my mammy. She said, I slept in her bed. In fact, I thought I was named after her.

ROSIN: So that's where she was on the first day of class. Judy walked into the room, and there were five black people and four other white people and the professor, Peter Kranz. He directed them to go round the room and say what they really thought about each other. So they did, one by one, as the professor wrote their statements up on the board.

BENSON: All whites are rich. Blacks steal. All whites are racists and can't trust them. Black men want to rape white women. White men want to rape black women. The one that really surprised me was when they said they didn't think white people loved their children. That's why they had mammies to look after them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BENSON: It came up that white people thought black people smell. But guess what? Black people think whites smell like wet dog.

PHILIP MOBLEY: I remember - I was in one that said that I that white people, when they got wet, smell like a dog because that's what I had heard.

ROSIN: That's Philip Mobley, who was then 19 and took the class with Judy. He was also the one who said he thought white people didn't love their children, because if they did, they would raise them themselves instead of hiring black nannies. Philip was raised to hold his tongue around white people.

As a kid, his father kept him mostly sheltered on the black side of town. But every once in a while, while out on errands, they would encounter a white person, like this one day when they went to a white butcher who got upset because they were late, and she had somewhere else to be.

MOBLEY: She talked to him like he was a child. She just yelled at him as a child. And he just said, yes, ma'am, yes, ma'am. And when he got back in the car, I was just like, wait - why did you let this lady talk to you this way? And to him - his response was, I have to take care of my family.

ROSIN: So when Philip walked into the class, he had absorbed the idea that speaking honestly to white people just wasn't an option. He'd learned to keep his place.

What kind of person were you, if you remember?

MOBLEY: Very polite, very - in a way, I tell people I was kind of a nerd.

ROSIN: And, really, they were all a little polite.

BENSON: I would say, way back then, like most people, I really tried to avoid confrontation at all costs. I was such a mouse.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: Week 1 - confess your deepest racist thoughts. Week 2 - read the autobiography of Malcolm X. Discuss. Confess again. Week 3 - read "Confessions Of A White Racist." Pour your heart out in your journal. Week 4 - entertain a visit from a local Black Panther. Feel ashamed. Week 6 - visit a historically black university.

They were all required to keep journals. The most biting was by a black woman named Ann Hurst, who died a few years ago, though Kranz still has her journals. She writes - Judy; typical white woman, feels and lives white supremacy, deeply embedded beliefs about blacks, fighting herself with what is right versus what she was taught to be right. Philip; likes being a token black, has a feeling of superiority where most blacks are concerned, and likes the idea of being a minority in the company of whites. He's begun judging himself according to the white man's standards, uses being black to compensate for other shortcomings.

Ouch. But underneath all the harshness and noise, there was another agenda. The class was inspired by a program developed by two black psychiatrists, William Greer and Price Cobbs, who'd recently published the book "Black Rage." The idea of the book was that black people were enraged by all of it - racism, the history of slavery, the day-to-day slights. And the rage was suppressed and eating them away. And the first step to purging was telling some basic truths. And, really, you would not believe the basic things they did not know about each other.

BENSON: I can't believe I thought they didn't go to school just because I didn't see them in school - never occurred to me they had their own schools, never dawned on me. They weren't anywhere in sight. You know, so you begin to believe some of what your parents are telling you because you have no evidence to the contrary.

ROSIN: So the professor was determined to give them that evidence. One of the more radical class requirements was that each person had to stay in the house of a person of the other race for a week, which was unnerving for all of the students. Philip was so freaked out that he made sure he had a friend nearby, like as a lifeline.

MOBLEY: And I remember telling him. I said, when we get here, I need you to kind of rat around for about 30 minutes and make sure that I'm OK because I'm not comfortable going and staying with these white people for a whole week.

ROSIN: But he did. They all did. They sat in the class week after week, until the stereotypes faded and all the feelings came out.

MOBLEY: I think what was happening more is the white kids was feeling more emotional and embarrassed. And the black kids was being more - probably a little more assertive and free. You've been oppressed for so long, and then all of a sudden someone give you the opportunity to say what you feel. Oh, yeah. It was liberating.

ROSIN: From the student diaries, you can see that there are a lot of profound transformations over the course of the semester, like the white cop who wrote, I kept telling myself I could bluff my way through it. Just hang in there, and [expletive] won't get to you. And by the end, he was writing, I confess I'm a racist. I confess the poison was deep. And he was wondering if he and his wife would split up because they fought so much over the issue now, which is great. We've all seen that movie.

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ROSIN: But the real lesson of the class is more boring. It taught them that confrontation is critical, but it's not the last stop. It's the start of a process. You say the secret out loud to the person's face. You hear everyone in the room do that same thing. You sit, and you listen. You walk away angry or defensive or still full of rage. But it doesn't kill you. You just go back to class again the next week and work through it.

BENSON: You know, by having to expose yourself and finding that you weren't going to drop through into an abyss, that makes you stronger. And the first time you're able to say something honestly without being attacked, it makes you stronger.

ROSIN: So for the rest of her life, Judy was definitely no longer a mouse, not with her ex-husband or her mildly racist acquaintances or anyone, really. And for Philip...

MOBLEY: I really didn't understand the value of the experience until many years later.

ROSIN: It was after he had children. His son came home from school one afternoon angry about something he felt was racist. And Philip was able to give his son guidance that his own dad would not have been able to give him. That year, in Philip's son's school, the class president was black. And the principal declared that for the first time, the class president would not automatically get to give the commencement address.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOBLEY: All of the black kids were angry. And I remember they came to the house. And we talked about it. We expressed that anger. And I prepared them to say - you need to go and let the administration know how you feel about it.

ROSIN: To Philip, this was his way of giving his son options he didn't have as a kid. Don't get lost in the smallness of anger. But don't keep it in because it can eat you from the inside. And then you will never win or make anything better.

MOBLEY: There is a need for certain people to be in your face. Here's the situation. We got to be able to address it. But I think at the same time, there has to be meaningful and purposeful conversation behind it. Because if I'm just going to make you mad without doing the bonding and the education and the growth, all I've done is made you mad. I just made you angry.

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ROSIN: So back to the Boston program, where the Speak Out just ended.

(CHEERING)

ROSIN: The teens in black affinity are still hyped up. They just had their moment. And while it wasn't quite screaming F white people, it felt good. When do you ever get to just say the thing out loud to people's faces? I, meanwhile, am looking for V. I caught up with her as she was walking towards the dining room by herself. And she said, I wasn't the first one to come looking.

V: They were asking me if I was OK because my face. You know when you cry and your eyes get red and your face is kind of puffy? And I was, like, kind of trying to hide it. And, yeah, they were - I was like, yeah. I'm fine. I'm fine. And then I think they knew that I had cried. But they kind of - they knew that I didn't want to talk about it. And I appreciated that. So...

ROSIN: I know you don't want to be a hero. But it is a little hard to be you (laughter) in this situation. Like, you're doing your best, you know? And you could be better. But I'm just putting it in the ether that it's not the easiest (laughter) thing to be in your situation during these days.

V: Yeah. I just try to remind myself that this is how people of color feel every day. So...

ROSIN: It's painful for me to listen to this tape now - not V's part but mine. My insistent maternal protection, my need to convince V that she's out of touch with her own feelings and needed emergency intervention. It's obvious listening now what's going on in my head.

As soon as I saw some genuine hurt feelings, as soon as it touched something deep, I started to question the whole enterprise, whereas V had moved past me. She's just going through the necessary steps. She's listening, feeling a lot, going back to her affinity group, processing what she's feeling, crying some more and then going back in the room.

V: You learn the most when you're in an uncomfortable position because you're just more - I don't know. Like, you're just more aware of things, I guess. I don't know. So you kind of realize - you kind of notice your insecurities and things that you wouldn't notice when you're in a comfortable zone, in your comfortable place. And once you have, like, noticed those insecurities, once you're back in a comfortable place, you can kind of work on figuring those out.

ROSIN: As for N, as far as I know, she has not yet gone forth and organized the great national teen Speak Out of the century. A summer program is not life. And N has decades ahead of her to figure out how and when to use her voice because it turns out she's actually shy.

N: I'm not shy here because I know my support system. I know that I have backups. And I know that, like, at the end of the day, like, my voice matters. But when I don't feel comfortable in a situation to do that, like, I feel like I don't have a voice. And I - like, I turn introvert. And I stop speaking. And I feel like, oh, my God. That's not your place. Like, don't tell a white person to shut up. How dare you?

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ROSIN: As for David, I'd missed some things about him, too. I realized that later when I was listening to tape of him being interviewed by our intern Oliver Whang.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OLIVER WHANG, BYLINE: Are you ever worried that, like, what you say will hurt someone more than it will help someone?

DAVID: One-hundred percent. All the time. I've hurt as many people as I helped because the people that I hurt, I did not just leave them to be hurt.

ROSIN: What I had paid attention to was David the showman jumping and yelling on stage. What I had missed was David on cleanup duty, going from teen to teen all day and up until midnight, seeing who was rattled, who was crying, who was stung by something he'd said that day, and then doing the work of helping them get past it - in other words, the tedious work of moving through the process.

DAVID: Feelings are always great when you can go through them. So whether it's a good feeling, bad feeling or just even a eh (ph) type of feeling, the work is to move past the feeling. And a lot of people will just want - leave somebody happy and be like, I did my job. No, you didn't. Your job is to push them past the feeling so that they can move on to other feelings because all feelings are valid. Like, me checking in - you all right? You good? You know, I'm not - I don't really care about your white feelings, but I care about you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #19: Madeline (ph). Vivian (ph).

ROSIN: By the end of the three-day retreat, David's caring was running on empty. The kids, however, seemed refreshed. As they boarded the bus to go back home to Boston, they played Heads Up, argued about Celine Dion. They seemed more bonded than when they'd started, like they'd gone to school together for years. David didn't take the bus. He drove home separately. He'd done enough talking for now.

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SPIEGEL: That's Hanna Rosin. Stick around for a sneak peek of next week's INVISIBILIA.

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SPIEGEL: Next week on INVISIBILIA, Joy was 60 when she discovered she had a superpower - a literal superpower certified by science that allowed Joy to see part of the future.

JOY: I have this ability, but it's not something I can just use as I choose because that's not fair. That's intruding into other people's privacy.

SPIEGEL: A story for those of us worried about the future, next week on INVISIBILIA.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: INVISIBILIA is hosted by me, Hanna Rosin.

SPIEGEL: And me, Alix Spiegel. Our senior editors for this season are Deborah George and Anne Gudenkauf. This episode was produced by Kia Miakka Natisse. INVISIBILIA is also produced by Abby Wendle and Yowei Shaw. Our manager is Liana Simstrom.

ROSIN: BA Parker and Oliver Whang, thank you for being game and great reporters. Also, thank you to Alec Stutson, David Guthertz and Rachel Carbonara (ph), Mark Memmott, Micah Ratner, Emily Bogle and Gerry Holmes.

SPIEGEL: Fact-checking today by Stephanie Hayes and Greta Pittenger. Our technical director is Andy Huether. Our senior vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann.

ROSIN: This episode was mastered by Jay Siz (ph). Infinite gratitude to all the teens who spoke to us for this story and even the ones who didn't but who let us watch them go through the sometimes excruciating process, also the program leaders - Marico (ph), Omotola (ph), Jordan (ph), Bethiel (ph), Royal (ph), Chai (ph) and Charming (ph) - also to Terence Clarke, whose book "An Arena Of Truth" tells the story of Peter Kranz's unusual class and to Kranz himself for bothering to save all those journals.

Special thanks also to Kiara Brown, Neva Grant, Stephen Margolis, Mayowa Aina, Liza Yeager, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Nicole Hill (ph), Veralyn Williams and Lina Misitzis.

Music for this episode provided by Connor Moore from CMoore Sound, Physical Fitness, Firephly and Yung Kartz. Additional music from Blue Dot Sessions. To see an original illustration for this episode by Leonardo Santamaria, visit npr.org/invisibilia.

SPIEGEL: And now for a moment of non-Zen.

ROSIN: (Vocalizing) There's some way you're supposed to say it really bad, and then you can say it good.

SPIEGEL: Join us next week for more INVISIBILIA.

Hey, everybody. Alix here. Just wanted to let you know that there is a way to get a little more INVISIBILIA each week if you are interested. We have a newsletter that we will deliver right to your email inbox every week during the run of our season. We send it out. It is packed with exciting bonuses like original episode illustrations and photo essays and web stories and even the occasional animated video. So just go to npr.org/invisibilianewsletter, and there you will be able to subscribe. The end, by Alix Spiegel.

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