Jessica Acee and Nora Flanagan are two of the authors of Western States Center’s toolkit, Confronting White Nationalism in Schools, now in its second edition.
As career educators committed to fighting hate in schools, they’re concerned that social isolation, political polarization and unprecedented amounts of unsupervised screen time have created an ideal opportunity for white nationalists to target young people and push their dangerous rhetoric online.
We sat down with Nora and Jessica to ask them about what educators can do to help guard against this rhetoric and how the Confronting White Nationalism in Schools toolkit can help.
What do you want educators to know about the Confronting White Nationalism in Schools toolkit?
Nora Flanagan: We wrote this toolkit hoping that it would be useful for every stakeholder in a school community. We hope students will feel like they have some guidance on how to approach the adults in the building when something is making them uncomfortable. We hope teachers will realize that this absolutely is their business because sometimes teachers feel like they’re not supposed to get involved. We hope counselors know they’re not the first ones encountering these situations of students expressing white nationalist ideology.
It’s happening in all kinds of school settings. Until we realize that, we’re going to just keep trying to reinvent the wheel every time we encounter it. The idea of the toolkit was to say, “Here are some good ways to approach it. Figure out what might work best in your school community.”
Jessica Acee: I really like the proactive steps and best practices sections. They are really specific, actionable steps that we can take to build stronger school communities. And a lot of them can be tweaked to apply to learning in the digital world. Another section that I always point people to is called “Five Common Defenses of White Nationalist Ideology.” It’s a short section, but the idea is if you are confronted with one of these five really common defenses, like the claim that reverse racism exists, here’s some language and a little bit of an explainer on what you might say in response.
What suggestions do you have for educators whose students may be absorbing white nationalist ideas?
Jessica Acee: White nationalists are capitalizing on the social upheaval of this moment to spread misinformation campaigns, conspiracy theories, and racist and xenophobic ideas. We always have to be vigilant about these messages and ideas, but this moment calls for it even more. We must make sure our students have some digital literacy. We must make sure they understand how to sort through and categorize all the information they are bombarded with online.
No teenager wants to feel like they’re being manipulated, and it’s not a stretch to explain to students what’s happening, how their data is being used and what cycles of confirmation bias they’re prone to in their digital lives. We should seize this moment to educate our students on digital literacy and to highlight what is real and what is not. White nationalists in online spaces are heavy-handed right now with their rhetoric, and some students are going to bring that back to the classroom.
Nora Flanagan: In the immediate moment, my advice is, “Always keep the conversation going.” It can be so tempting for teachers—with the absolute best of intentions—to shut a kid down because we need to make immediately clear how completely unacceptable that is.
Now, if a student uses a slur against a fellow student, absolutely take a stand right there. But if students are giving you more subtle indicators, that’s something that you can take a little more nuanced of an approach to. If you lower the hammer on the kid, they’re never going to let you in on how that happened. Decide carefully how strongly you respond based on the incident, because over-responding can backfire as much as under-responding.
Then, I would say that a teacher or staff member needs to reach out to their colleagues, to the counseling department, talk to the administration. Here’s where the pandemic comes in. Everybody’s really busy, and everybody’s worried about giving anyone else more work to do. We’re all stressed. But I worry that it might lead people to not reach out for help in managing a situation like this.
We have one social worker for 1,150 kids, part-time. She’s overloaded, but I need to know that I can go to her and say, “We have a kid expressing some frightening ideology, and I need your help,” and she will help. I worry that we’re all so overwhelmed that we’re not going to collaborate in support of students who need us.
We know students are spending more unsupervised time online than ever before. What are some of the potential consequences of this that might bleed over into the classroom? How can educators respond?
Jessica Acee: When students are in school, educators have more information about what kind of things are trending among the student body. What are people talking about? What social media are they consuming? How are friendships playing out? I’m not saying we know all of that all of the time, but it’s a lot harder to know what’s going on when it’s all online. I think this is a really unique opportunity to try to home in on our students’ experiences.
Surveys are an anonymous way for students to share conflicts that are coming up among their peers that we wouldn’t otherwise see in a virtual classroom setting. It’s a way to say, “Hey, you know, I think these students could use some help with X” or “I think my school could do better at Y.” That is one of the tips in the toolkit, and I think it’s really useful for building positive school culture—whether we’re online or not. Make sure that there’s a channel that students can use to share with the school what they’re seeing or experiencing so that you can be on top of what’s happening in your virtual school community.
How can schools seize the opportunity to clearly articulate their values this fall? Why is this important in the context of confronting white nationalism?
Nora Flanagan: I think one unexpected advantage of starting remotely might be that we are going to put a lot of things in writing we might normally just say out loud on the first day and hope it sticks. One of the best practices for the remote classes that I’m seeing and hearing, again and again, is: Repeat your norms. Put a slide up of your classroom norms at the start of every class. That might actually be a good byproduct of these new class meeting structures.
You just keep putting key info in front of people—including contact info—and reminding them how to reach me outside of class. We could actually use it as a way to just keep checking in with kids again and again about how we interact and how we are communicating with each other.
Jessica Acee: Schools communicate their values through their actions, and we should really focus on that, especially now. I think when schools are making changes, they should share them.
Let’s take hiring, for example. If [your] school or a school district is making a commitment to engage in more diverse hiring practices or trying to support teachers of color who might be new to their school community, say that. Don’t just tell your school board. Say that to your students, to your families.
Frequently, bigger, structural changes at schools don’t get communicated to the students or the parents, and sometimes not even to the faculty. This is really important because we want to model for our students what it’s like when you recognize something’s wrong, and you’re trying to do better.
For those of us in communities where students are going to be coming back with a lot of anger and frustration at this moment, we have to show that we’re in tune with that, we’re taking it seriously, and we’re taking steps for our schools to lead with values that recognize everyone’s humanity.