Young Adolescents’ Reactions to the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville


  • Recent 2021 opinions from the Virginia Supreme Court have allowed the City of Charlottesville to consider acting on Confederate monument removal.
  • These statues have been a topic of petitions and rallies since 2016, including the deadly Unite the Right Rally in August of 2017.
  • New research sheds light on how adolescents were making sense of the rally and events that unfolded within their community in 2017.
Source: Journal of Research on Adolescence and the UVA School of Education & Human Development

In the spring of 2016, Zyahna Bryant, a 15-year old high school student at the time, wrote a petition to City Council calling for the removal of the Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee and the renaming of Market Street Park (then still named Lee Park) in downtown Charlottesville. Although the park has changed name twice (first to Emancipation Park, and then to its current name, Market Street Park), the statue remains in place despite calls for and multiple attempts at its removal.

In addition to being home to the statue, Market Street Park was the main site of the 2017 Unite the Right rally where members of white supremacist and affiliated groups gathered to protest the statue’s removal. At the time, this was one of the largest and most violent U.S. gatherings in decades.

In April 2021, the Supreme Court of Virginia issued an opinion to reverse previous circuit court rulings that had prevented the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue. As the City of Charlottesville starts a process to act on the monument removal, Youth-Nex is revisiting new research findings about adolescents’ perceptions of the Unite the Right rally that occurred in their own town, during the summer of their middle school years.

Dr. Joanna Williams, a Youth-Nex faculty affiliate, was interviewed by Kalee De France and the Society for Research on Adolescence (SRA) to explain this unique and important research of how young adolescents were making sense of the events that unfolded within their community.

Question: What, in your opinion, is the main takeaway of the article?

Williams: I’ll start by saying there’s like a lot of context to this paper. All of the authors were living in Charlottesville in 2017 when the Unite the Right rally happened. We were about to start year two of a mixed-methods project that was focused on investigating diversity and social relationships in early adolescence. The Unite the Right rally happened in August of 2017, about two weeks before the school year started and, because of the focus of our project, we decided to ask students about their understanding of what had happened.

One of the key takeaways is that we should expect heterogeneity in how youth process events like this. There was a lot of heterogeneity in how kids interpreted and were responding to the Rally. One group of students said things along the lines of “Yeah, I know what happened, but it’s not really on my radar.” A second group knew a lot of the details of what happened but didn’t feel personally impacted – they sounded like news reporters in their accounts.

Another group of students had spent a lot of time processing and talking about what happened. And for some of them, their processing led to disillusionment, like “I can’t believe that stuff like this still happens” or “I thought we were beyond racism”.

There was a fourth group who were feeling, either at the time or a few months later, a sense of fear and vigilance. They said things along the lines of “We know why the KKK was here, and I’m Black. And I know that they were here because of people like me”. These students shared feelings of anger, fear, or just general concern. And, finally, there was a smaller subset of students who were sort of dismissive—they felt like people were overreacting to the situation. They said things like “I’m embarrassed to live in Charlottesville because we’re getting so much attention because of things like this”

The second type of heterogeneity that we saw was in relation to who belonged to these groups. On one hand, the group of students who expressed fear and vigilance were all students of color and most identified as Black. On the other hand, there were also many Black and other students of color who did not express any personal stress or concern, but there were White students in this group as well. White students made up the bulk of students who sounded like reporters or who expressed disillusionment or sympathy. The small group of dismissive students all identified as White.

It’s important to make sense of this heterogeneity in the context of what we know about young adolescents: they’re making meaning of important and abstract concepts, like racism and white supremacy while also trying to make sense of their own identities.

For more from this Q&A including the experiences of Dr. Williams’ team when asking these tough questions and what she is looking forward to seeing in upcoming research, please see the SRA blog. For more on these research findings, please see the Journal for Research on Adolescence article entitled “From Apathy to Vigilance: Young Adolescents’ Reactions to the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Media & Black Adolescents Series: Black Femininities & Masculinities and a Critical Lens on Class in Grown-ish

By Kimberley Castano & Claire Netemeyer, University of Virginia students

This blog post is the fifth and final in a Media & Black Adolescents Series by youth analyzing movies and TV series that reflect the experiences and identity development of Black adolescents. For more posts, please visit our blog. Special thanks to Dr. Valerie Adams-Bass for her support of this series and the youth in her classes. 


  • Undergraduate students taking a “Media Socialization, Racial Stereotypes and Black Adolescent Identity” college course were asked to critique movies and television series, analyzing the media content and applying theory or research.
  • This Media & Black Adolescents Series reflects on a spectrum of experiences for Black adolescents that are grounded in racial and media socialization reflected in the movies. These blogs address racial stereotypes as they relate to contemporary social issues and the identity development experiences of Black youth.
  • For this final of five posts in the series, the two youth writers review “Grown-ish,” a spin-off of the hit show Black-ish that follows young Black woman Zoey on her journey at college with a group of friends.

For parents or educators who may choose to use this TV series as a teaching/learning tool, here are some possible discussion questions:

  • Based on the summary of the episode, do you think that these characters in Grown-ish falls into historic Black stereotypes or not?
  • What effect does watching a show featuring mostly Black characters have on potential adolescent and teenage viewers? On both Black and White audiences?
  • Do shows/movies that have a majority Black audience have the obligation to inform their Black audience of real world issues and realities they may face later down the road?
  • Why is it consistently the audience who has to call our directors and creators when creating media. Are there ways to change the narrative of these shows and will we ever see big changes?

Source: Freeform

The TV series Grown-ish is a spin-off of Black-ish, following the life of the eldest daughter. Yara Shahidi plays Zoey Johnson, and viewers see her experiences as she maneuvers life at Cal-U, a fictional university in Los Angeles. When I was in high school, I began watching this show, and it made me fantasize about college and all the people I would meet. However, now that I am in my second year at the University of Virginia, I recognize that the image of college portrayed in this film is far from the truth. I chose to analyze the episode titled Can’t Knock the Hustle in which Zoey is cut off from her father because she cheated and was almost expelled from school. 

Children learn many behaviors from television, and the exposure to certain shows is what they will take away as the program’s overall meaning. According to Brooke and O’Connor (2000), racial socialization is the process in which Black parents equip their children with the skills and strategies necessary to cope with the knowledge of being Black in society (pg. 512). However, the media also plays a major role in the socialization of Black children. When shows like Grown-ish alter the reality of real-world experiences, children can be deceived and disappointed when they are put into those positions. In this case, Zoey is cut off financially by her parents, but she is still wearing high-end designer brands like YSL and other expensive clothing from Barneys and Saks Fifth. Her situation is far from the struggle that the episode depicts.

Read more from this critique by

Source: TV Promos

A spin-off of the hit shows Black-ish and Mixed-ish, Grown-ish follows young Black woman Zoey on her journey to college and details not only her own life but also that of her friends. Featuring both Black and non-Black characters, the show must negotiate the historic stereotypes of Black individuals that seem to both highlight and combat them.

I watched season one, episode ten of Grown-ish where main character Zoey’s friends are hanging out in a bar, and twins Jazz and Sky start talking about how Black men at their college are only interested in dating White women. They share their struggles to find partners as Black women to their friends, and mention “the list” of most dateable women in which White women are most preferable and Black women are the least. They also observe their friends and others flirting at the bar. The conversation and character actions over the next day reveals critical themes and ideas about Black femininities, masculinities, and their accompanying stereotypes (the brute and the sapphire).

Read more from this critique by

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Kimberley Castano is a second-year at the University of Virginia originally from Queens, New York. She is majoring in Global Development studies with a minor in African American and African studies. She is interested in studying the ongoing effects of colonization, globalization, and imperialism on different communities in the African-diaspora, specifically in the Caribbean. In her free time she likes to try new foods, create art with friends, and watch movies.

Author Bio: Claire Netemeyer is a fourth year student at the University of Virginia and is studying Media Studies and Spanish. She will be attending Teachers College at Columbia University next year to study higher education and hopes to use her communications background in a career in college admissions with a focus on inclusivity and diversity. In her free time she enjoys musical theater, baking, and spending time outdoors.