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Hate Speech and White Nationalism in Schools - The New Playgrounds of Power

The use of hate is seen in our everyday lives. From crude magazine covers to swastika stickers sprinkled throughout cities, it is becoming impossible to spend a day without witnessing hate. The real concern, however, lies in the way students have been encountering hate speech within the walls of their school and community. The influence of both outside and inside perspectives can cause and ultimately result, in immense unease as today's students are the future of our tomorrow. 


To look more closely at hate speech in schools, I met with Jessica Acee who has been analyzing this exact impact at the Western States Center. The Western States Center is a national civil rights organization that is based in Portland, Oregon, that focuses on defending democracy through supporting voting rights, uplifting pro-democracy candidates, and battling white nationalism. Jessica and one of her colleagues partnered with Western States Center to write and produce a toolkit for combating the white nationalism present in schools.


Jessica has been working with the Western States Center as a Senior Fellow for four years while simultaneously engaging with a high school in Oregon as the Director of Student Leadership and Activities. Her experiences in combating hate speech are not limited to her work with the Western States Center, as she has worked on oppositional research with immigrant and worker rights organizations and monitored hate groups in different areas of America for the past 18 years. Through her work with these organizations, she was able to discover the messages that other people were putting into the world whether they be hateful or not. This combined work led her to the Western States Center to co-create the first of many toolkits for schools on “Confronting White Nationalism in Schools”.


While talking to Jessia, we dove into the specifics of what hate speech in school looks like today. As hate is rapidly spreading through the country, many are becoming emboldened to bring more hateful ideology into classroom discussions and school spaces. That can be in the form of the graffiti of a hate group symbol, anonymous online content against marginalized people, or the use of propaganda in classrooms. Jessica clarified the presence of this hate as erupting from the messages of outside hate groups. She described that “hate groups are recruiting young people to build their own political power. Even when a young person hasn't engaged with a hate group, they can still bring some of that ideology to school because it is so prevalent in society.” This was not a focus of hate groups in the past, as building, controlling, and maintaining power are becoming associated with the notion of success. As schools are a piece of the public sphere and a formation of communities, this hate speech prevents students from entering a safe learning environment. 


How are the cruel intentions and messages of white nationalism entering schools to affect students? Schools are establishments made up of people from different experiences, and students are encountering a mix of different beliefs in their education. Hate groups specifically target school board administrators, parent groups, and elected officials to gain power and bring their ideas into the conversation of those involved in the school's system. As white nationalist groups try to weigh into school decisions, “schools are becoming battlefields” and hate speech is creeping into the lives of students. This creates an overall threat within communities. 


The use of the word hate sounds daunting and impossible to dismantle, but there are many tools one can use to build stronger school communities: 

(1) Reach Out. By using and understanding the resources you have as a teacher, parent, or student, you can begin to confront hate. These resources can include teachers reaching out to colleagues, schools fostering support for faculty members to connect, and using partnerships with community organizations to support schools. Confronting this issue is not something a person can do alone, and community is necessary. 

(2) Address It. Don’t avoid the difficult conversations that interrupting these hateful forms of speech can lead to. By addressing the hateful ideology wholistically, many can understand the harsh intentions of white nationalism. Using school counselors and librarians to continue the learning process can be a great first step in school communities when advocating for a change in hate speech. 

(3) Lean In. Finally, lean into the continued education that is required to fully grasp the whole meaning of hate speech. This takes practice, and teacher programs often fail to offer any training on racial literacy. Throughout the toolkit, and my conversation with Jessica, she highlighted the importance of doing something. Encouraging that “we have to be willing to take back some of the space and power that schools have ceded to white nationalists.”


These are only a few of the many best practices when addressing hate in schools. Hate speech plays a huge role in schools as students are becoming caught in the power struggle of white nationalist organizations. Encountering and confronting these scenarios can be difficult, but through my discussion with Jessica, I was reminded that in “any kind of work we do, we have to do it in the organization of other people”. There is no acting alone in this fight. There are organizations, teachers, administrators, and other students willing to support and fight too. 


To learn more, visit Confronting White Nationalism in Schools for an in-depth toolkit on countering white nationalist hate speech and actions.

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