The common use of racially charged speech at school creates a permissive environment for white nationalist engagement. Racially charged speech is so pervasive in society that its range far exceeds those students who have been specifically exposed to white nationalism. But when it is allowed to become normal it can make the spread of white nationalism easier. If a person in authority stays silent, the effect is to empower that speech.
Tone matters. When a teacher interrupts racially charged speech, it’s important to make clear that the impulse is to teach, not to punish. Beginning with a simple, non-aggressive question can shift the focus from your authority and give a student an opportunity to retract: “Why did you say that?” “What did you mean?” Overreacting or using a harsh tone can be counter-productive. If the context is a busy hallway rather than a classroom, it may be necessary to speak louder, but avoiding an angry tone is still important.
If a student’s use of phrases, signs, symbols, or other items are more explicitly associated with white nationalism, more extensive intervention may be called for. For example, if a student is wearing clothing, jewelry, or other personal adornments bearing white nationalist symbols, in some cases alerting the administration may be an optimal response. In other cases a teacher may have a connection to the student strong enough to raise the issue directly. The best response may also vary according to whether other students have become aware of a symbol’s meaning. It’s important to confirm that the student is actually aware of the problematic meaning of symbols they may have adopted. Sometimes simply asking, “Are you aware of what that symbol means?” could be all that’s necessary.
If a student has become engaged with white nationalism, tone matters here too, as does learning about the underlying causes of a student’s attraction to white nationalism. In many cases, young people become susceptible to white nationalist recruitment during periods of family stress or social alienation. The real or virtual society of white nationalists may have become the student’s primary comfort zone, and self-identification as a white nationalist at school may be expressing socially confrontational attitudes.
If possible, and if the situation doesn’t involve obviously demeaning speech, it may be better to avoid responding when other students are present, because that could result in additional social isolation.
In addition to focusing on the needs of the student, the potential effects on other students need to be addressed. Some of these can be addressed on the group level, others may need individual follow-up:
- On the group level, consider ways to emphasize in the classroom the positive values of the school
- Consider whether there are ways to approach class material that will emphasize those values
- On the individual level, check in with any students who may have had an adverse experience because of the visibility of white nationalism in their classroom
- Consider having individual discussions with those students and/or suggesting follow-up counseling