It’s fair to say that America hasn’t yet reckoned with its racism, and our children are paying the price. The tragedy plays out in Dashka Slater’s narrative nonfiction book Accountable: The True Story of a Racist Social Media Account and the Teenagers Whose Lives It Changed (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Aug. 22), when a high school in the small town of Albany, California, is torn apart by the discovery of a private Instagram account on which a student has posted racist and sexist memes—some of which include his fellow classmates. Slater skillfully detangles the monthslong investigation, court cases, and community fallout that follow and includes reconstructed conversations, text messages, poems, and essays to tell the story. The book is a cautionary tale about the dangers of social media, as well as an accurate portrayal of how race and class continue to operate in America. I spoke with Slater over the phone about the book; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

This book took four years of research and listening to testimony from the teens who made and followed the account and the teens who were harmed by it. What were some of the challenges of writing a story with so many moving parts?

There were a lot of challenges. First of all, just getting people to feel comfortable talking about it was a very slow process. I knew that I didn’t want to do the book at all if I didn’t have the participation of both sides involved. Some were on board right away, and some weren’t. It was a lot of getting people comfortable, and then what happens with any group of young people is that once one person starts talking, things become a lot easier. I also had these enormous binders full of legal documents, and I had a lot of reconstruction to do from the documents.

Did you set out to write the book for a teen audience?

I have a special affinity and allegiance to young people because they’re right at the front lines of this brave new world we’ve created for them, in which they’re constantly exposed to everything. The world is bombarding them with ideas and images and beliefs that they often don’t have the tools to sort out or to investigate the source of.

Throughout the book, you include some first-person narratives, often from the point of view of a Black student. Were those written by the students you interviewed?

Several of the chapters that are set as poems are actually verbatim quotes. A poem from one of the Black girls at the school during the citizen demonstration is actually a quote that’s just broken into lines. And there’s another quote from one of the boys who was a follower of the account, and again it’s just broken into lines. Some of the poems are in my voice, where I try to summarize things that people have told me in interviews that, for one reason or another, it felt better to try and communicate myself. A few people spoke to me for hours and hours and days and days but then didn’t want to be quoted directly or didn’t want to be a character in the book. When I’m working with those kinds of constraints, I put the material in my voice and try to show the kinds of things they’re saying.

Some of the content seemed aimed at an older demographic, like the chapter devoted to showing how Instagram works and the explanation of a Snapchat streak, which may be useful to parents and caregivers of teens. Do you think parents today are aware of how big a role social media plays in the lives of young adults?

I think parents often have no idea. I’m the parent of a young adult, but when I started working on this book, he was still in high school. Even though we live in a household where we talk about race and gender and justice, if I’d known how much stuff any kid can encounter just by being online, I would’ve had much more specific conversations. I really want adults to know and understand the sets of incentives kids are responding to. You mentioned Snapchat streaks, which is one that I didn’t know about until the kids explained it to me. It’s such a perverse kind of thing that can get kids into trouble for no reason. They’re responding to a set of incentives that a social media company has set up to encourage engagement with their product, but kids are not necessarily thinking critically about who’s behind these incentives.

It seems we’re failing to properly educate these kids about slavery and institutional racism and the impact it continues to have on Black Americans today.

As adults, we forget how little historical perspective kids actually have about something that happened even 10 years ago. That’s like ancient history to them. These were kids who grew up with Obama as president. This incident happened in 2017, and in their limited understanding, racism is over, right? We were in a “post-racial society” because we had a Black president. We have to make sure that we’re connecting these appalling parts of our past—slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow—that for many of us are in living memory or in stories our families have passed down. But there are a lot of kids who can sort of set that aside and say, “Well, that was a long time ago, so we can joke about it now.”

You spend a lot of time describing racism and racist ideas to the reader. As I was reading, I kept thinking about the target audience for this book. Who would you say that is?

When I’m working, I’m always imagining how what I’m writing is going to land for different audiences, but the people I think about probably more than any others are white boys, about how to give them the tools and the awareness and the empathy they need to interrupt what’s happening in “boy world.” This is the second book I’ve written in which boys who are trying to be funny cause harm. I have some sense of how much pressure there is on boys to be funny and not to register the impact of hurtful humor. I really want boys to have the tools and the awareness to not cause harm to other people.

Did you have any personal revelations as you were writing this?

I kept a journal while I was working, and I felt like everything I was hearing and seeing, thinking, and reading about was just making my brain light up in all kinds of ways. Certainly, the shame piece was a big one—seeing the ways in which shame can be the enemy of accountability. True accountability requires having enough support from the people around you to allow yourself to take in the pain of the harm that you’ve caused. Another revelation was the amount of ambient anti-Blackness that exists on the internet and the ways that it’s being taken in by kids who aren’t even aware that it’s happening. Without the tools to critically analyze what they’re seeing, inch by inch, step by step, those things become normalized.

Mariette Williams is a South Florida–based writer with bylines in Travel + LeisureTeen VogueCosmopolitan, and Essence.