C.J. Pascoe is currently the Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon and author of the award-winning and critically acclaimed book Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School (2011).

In her latest book, Nice is Not Enough, she is given direct access to students, teachers, and parents at a contemporary American high school where she explores how a shallow culture of kindness, promoted at this high school and many others across the nation, can do more lasting harm than good. In conversation with us, she speaks about how she came to write this book and the potential solutions that would assist in solving the broader issues faced in high schools.

What was the process of writing Nice is Not Enough like for you and how did you come to notice that there exists a shallow culture of kindness in high schools?

As is often the case in ethnographic research, what I ended up writing about isn’t exactly what I set out to study in the first place. Originally, I had been intrigued by questions about shifts in adolescent courtship practices. I researched that book in the early 2000s, a time when cell phones were a rarity for teenagers and social media as we now know it was in its infancy. So I was curious how technological (and social) shifts had changed courtship, dating and romance practices for young folks.

However, shortly before I began my formal research at American High (actual high school name changed for the book), the social landscape shifted dramatically with the candidacy and election of Donald Trump. Over the course of my first year there, I saw battles over gender inequality, racism, homophobia and climate change, battles that were playing out across the country also play out at American High. This meant that my focus slowly shifted from dating and romance (though those themes still appear in Nice is Not Enough) to the tensions around these inequalities.

Because American High is a pretty progressive school located in a fairly liberal city in a reliably blue state, I assumed that there would be widespread agreement on these issues. After all, when I walked into the school I was immediately met with student generated signs about bullying and harassment, signs exhorting students to stand up to racism, sexism and homophobic joking. However, what I came to learn during my time at American was that the school community had a hard time about talking about these issues as ones of inequality and were more likely to address them as issues of individual feelings of love and kindness.

As a result I ended up focusing the book on how even at a school full of what one person called “the sweetest people in the world” racial, gender, sexual and class inequalities persist. And it became clear that what I came to call “a regime of kindness” not only made it hard to name these inequalities, it was an active part of sustaining them by making them look like individual problems, rather than systemic ones.

Teenagers can often times feel guarded when speaking with authority figures. How did you get high schoolers to open up about their experiences?

Well, I lucked out here. Many folks at American High described it as a “special place” and that’s exactly what it felt like to me. Part of what makes it special is that the teachers care so darn much about the students and the students feel that care. Even young folks who are not remotely school identified, regularly skip class or are constantly in trouble speak with great affection about their teachers.

Because I made it clear to young folks at American that I couldn’t really get them in trouble and that I was always around as a resource for classwork, life or just to hang out, they often texted me just to see if I was around to chat. Girls would ask me about how I balanced family and a job. Boys would often ask for advice about dating. Queer students would let me know that they appreciated having a grown up queer role model.

As someone who has researched teenagers for almost two decades, in general I see my job as being a supportive adult, one who their stories seriously and can amplify their voices. We often don’t treat young folks with the respect they deserve, so part of my research practice is to actively value their perspectives.

What does a healthy culture of kindness look like in high schools?
There is, of course, nothing wrong with kindness! But it has to be accompanied by policies and cultural practices that support equity and mitigate inequality. When a regime of kindness is used to shut down the ability to address inequality by preventing civil rights activism, participation in queer rituals, or mute the language to tackle gender based violence, then kindness becomes a way to support inequality while obfuscating the fact it is doing so.

Do you have optimism of the culture changing or improving in the future?
I absolutely do! In fact, I described Nice is Not Enough to a friend of mine as a “happy book.” The young folks American High make it so in calling for a robust politics of care and the teachers at American are actively demonstrating such politics. Like many young people across the country, the students at American are fed up with ineffectual approaches to social problems. I document their gun control walkouts, their work to put on a Black Lives Matter display, their efforts in putting together a drag show and their participation in a global climate strike. They didn’t do this work all on their own, they were empowered by adult accomplices who cleared organizational space for them to  demand systemic change – by holding the administration at bay, crafting lesson plans that provided much need information about activism and inequality, or connecting them with resources in the community. These kids are our future and my optimism stems from their demands for a better, safer, and more equitable world.

This post is part of our #ASA2023 blog series. Visit our virtual ASA 2023 website and find out how to get 40% off our books.