Published on TWW Blog — April 2020

Inoculating Our Students Against White Nationalism 

By Christine Saxman and Shelly Tochluk

Over the past four years, white nationalism has been on the rise inside and outside of schools. White nationalists use the internet like a hunting ground to strategically target young white people. Using YouTube, Instagram, and other online platforms, white nationalists take advantage of algorithms to lure viewers deeper and deeper into their networks and ideology. In the New York Times, the Washingtonian, and elsewhere, white parents have shared stories of how their children have been targeted and recruited. With the nation in the midst of the coronavirus crisis and students spending even more time online for distance learning, it becomes even more important to be aware of  the various recruiting tactics, such as the white nationalist passing himself off as a coronavirus expert. Bigoted movements often veil their strategies in jokes and “irony” in order to claim plausible deniability when questioned. They also take a mainstream conservative call to action — such as immigration or race-conscious admission policies — to further a white nationalist agenda. So adults must develop a nuanced understanding about what is happening online and proactively inoculate young people against white nationalist messaging. 

How do we gauge where a young person may be in the indoctrination process? 

Recently UCLA, through the Luskin Center for History and Policy, developed a Scale of Expression rating system. It categorizes five stages on the path to radicalization. 

First, there is accidental absorption. This might look like a student posting memes on social media — jokes that call liberals “snowflakes” or mock “social justice warriors” (SJWs). At this point, the student may not have any real investment in or understanding of the content in any serious way.

Second, there is social or edgy transgression. This could include kids forming swastikas using SOLO cups at a party, or this example of a beer pong game called Jews vs. Nazis. It may even involve a “Heil Hitler” salute. The kids may be joking among themselves, without an investment in causing real harm. But they know that they are playing with social taboos. Zoombombing that actively targets specific groups may fall into this category. High school and college students share ZOOM information via Discord and reddit so that nefarious actors can deluge the group with offensive language and images, including racial slurs and porn.

The third level involves political provocation. This is a wide-ranging spectrum of content. It may not be explicitly racist, but it includes dog whistles scapegoating specific groups — for example, children who raise “build the wall” posters specifically when they’re playing against a mostly Latinx team or chant the phrase in a cafeteria while targeting Latinx students.

The fourth expression contains overt hate. Using content steeped in white nationalist ideology, youth at this stage actively embrace and spread antisemitism, racism, Islamophobia, misogyny, transphobia, and homophobia. They share hateful symbols and speech with full awareness of the implications and often target groups specifically. Gizmodo found in their investigation of zoomboming channels the sharing of “a roster of Google documents listing the Zoom codes of hundreds of support groups in the U.S., along with the days and times each one would meet. Similar documents were created to target meetings for other at-risk groups, like LGBTQ and trans teens.”

Finally, the fifth stage involves calls for violence, such as those from Atomwaffen Division who were prevalent on 8chan/8kun, where the manifestos of mass shooters were posted and celebrated.  This dangerous stage necessitates a multipronged effort for intervention. 

Why are adolescents, particularly boys, susceptible? 

Important insights come from brain science; specifically, the part of the brain called the insula, which is hyperactive during the teenage years. UCLA neuro-biologist Daniel Siegel explains that this part of the brain generates self-awareness. It’s also adjacent to where awareness of the “other” is generated. In other words, young people gain a sense of themselves as well as their understanding of other people’s experiences; they can experience themselves as connected to a larger whole. 

This hyperactivity in the insula, Siegel notes, “leads teens to feel extreme empathy — the kind that urges teens to speak out against the things they see as unfair or unjust.” Such extreme feelings can manifest in many different ways. Many adolescents commit themselves to fighting injustice through veganism or gun reform activism. Others, primarily teenage boys, are manipulated into believing false claims that white people are targeted unfairly by social justice and diversity initiatives and are at risk of suppression or even extermination. Extreme empathy can lead these adolescents to adopt the dangerous and erroneous idea that they need to fight to preserve Western civilization and white people.

What can we do when students show up on the Scale of Expression? 

While the desire to dismiss early flirtations with problematic content as “kids being kids” may run strong among adults, responding appropriately and meeting the children where they are is key. As the Western States Center’s Confronting White Nationalists in School toolkit articulates, one should not overreact or under-react to what young people say and do. The Scales of Expression provide a framework to tailor questions to help adults understand the child’s investment in the content and to work to build alternative paths to a more just and antiracist consciousness. It is imperative that this work be done in a collective. Teachers must work in concert with parents/guardians, counselors, social workers, administrators, coaches, and other collectives (YWCA, religious groups, law enforcement, etc.) to support children in not falling prey to the recruitment or to support them to disengage if they have been recruited. In order to not overreact or under-react, adults shepherding young ones must not respond solely with punishment and consequences. Responses must include love and support for the young person’s well-being because isolation and depression are factors that make white nationalism attractive. To only focus on punitive responses can send young people further into the arms of white nationalists. 

What can we do to inoculate students so they do not show up on the  Scales of Expression?

Adults need to prepare themselves and children to navigate online spaces with sufficient racial consciousness and digital literacy skills so that they are less likely to fall victim to white nationalists’ messaging. Notice the two things named: racial consciousness and digital literacy. Seek out the many resources available to help parents and guardians develop race consciousness with white children; Jennifer Harvey’s Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Kids in A Racially Unjust America and Embrace Race’s Breaking Hate: Supporting Kids to Push Back Against White Nationalism serve as good starting points. Supplement what children are learning about digital literacy in school with resources such as those developed by Teaching Tolerance. As Jesse Daniels explores in Cyber Racism: White Supremacy Online and the New Attack on Civil Rights, “trying to understand [covert online racism] exclusively in terms of skills-based literacy, which lacks critical thinking about race and racism, is doomed to fail.”   

In addition to the literacy work, adults need to work for school-wide, systemic efforts. Racially conscious lessons should help students recognize and interrupt the early stages of indoctrination, helping them become upstanders with their peers. School policies need to specifically address racism, antisemitism, Islamophobiamisogyny, transphobia, homophobia and how they provide entry points into white nationalism. Programs that focus on socio-emotional learning, empathy building, diversity, and equity must explicitly name the different forms of hatred white nationalists use to divide people. 

For teachers and other adults guiding young people through these hate-filled times, educate yourselves and become learning partners with the young people in your life. Encourage and support their critical consciousness. Build on their tendency toward feeling extreme empathy to foster race-conscious and anti-racist stances in order to counter the nefarious influences who would manipulate their energy and brillance toward negative ends. We can do this. Together. 

Other Resources

General Resources

Specific Articles for Teachers

Specific Articles for Parents

Christine Saxman is racial and social justice facilitator, most recently for Courageous Conversations About Race. She also works for the National SEED Project (Seeking Education Equity and Diversity) as part of the National Staff.  Find Christine at christinesaxman.com, on Twitter @xinest, and on Facebook.

An educator, with a background in psychology, Shelly Tochluk is a Professor of Education at Mount Saint Mary’s University–Los Angeles. She is the author of Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk About Race and How to Do It and Living in the Tension: The Quest for a Spiritualized Racial Justice. Free curricula aligned with each book are available at ShellyTochluk.com.  Shelly also volunteers with AWARE-LA (Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere-Los Angeles), facilitating the group’s online Sunday Dialogue. For the last 11 years, she has co-produced AWARE-LA’s 4-day summer institute titled, Unmasking Whiteness, that leads white people into a deeper understanding of their personal relationship to race, white privilege, and systemic racism.