Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Hate is poison. Education is the antidote.

It's easy to say that white supremacists of all types are wrong and I do not support their ideology one bit, but it's hard to figure out what I can do about it. When I couldn't sleep last night, I looked to my past experiences and my community's history for answers.

I have lived in or around Coeur d'Alene, Idaho for my entire life. For most of that time, a white supremacist compound in nearby Hayden Lake cast a shadow over our town. I became aware of the aryan nations group when a bomb exploded less than 500 feet from my first grade classroom. A nearby business owned by a Jewish family was targeted when some members of the group used explosions to distract from their plans to rob a bank.

As I grew older, I remember occasionally seeing a swastika patch on someone's jacket in the grocery store. My response was always to move to another aisle as quickly as possible. There were times that their hatred became more visible. One day, the neighborhoods around my high school were leafleted with racist propaganda and some of my friends brought the papers to school. Some were laughing at the inappropriate jokes inside, but most were shaking their heads with disbelief. I was concerned about my friends who found it funny and remember telling them that the neo-nazis wanted to turn their laughter into hate.

Looking back, it wasn't hard to be honest with my friends about hate. My parents did a good job giving me the confidence to stand up for what was right, but my education deserves credit, too. To counteract the hate in our community, educators made an effort to teach love and acceptance for all, especially those who were different. My fifth grade class was one of the first to attend the long-running human rights celebration that we still hold today. Books like Number the Stars were part of the curriculum, and reading them led to discussions of the toll that hate takes. 

The final hate group march in Coeur d'Alene, 2004
Photo by Cole via Flickr
Our community did its best to avoid adding fuel to the fire. When hate groups marched downtown, movie theaters, the roller skating rink, and other businesses across town offered free alternatives in the hopes that no one would be on the sidewalks to see the brownshirts and klansmen pass by. Most people understood that the white supremacists craved conflict. It was better to turn our backs to them until we were able to drive them from our community.

That day came when they shot at a former elementary school classmate of mine and his mother. I was in college about 100 miles to the south, but I followed the story of how the aryan nations were forced to turn over their property after losing in court. The story is worth reading. "Welcome to Hayden Lake, where white supremacists tried to build their homeland" by Meagan Day is a good overview, and the Spokesman-Review has a number of articles if you're interested in digging deeper.

Of course, closing the aryan nations compound didn't remove hate or all white supremacists from our community. During my first round of conferences as a teacher, I found myself shaking hands with a man wearing a black jacket with the aryan nations symbol on one sleeve and two jagged images of the letter 'S' on the other. Sometimes I catch a student using hateful language or humor, and I find myself pulling him or her aside to talk about it. No matter what happens outside of school, hate is not welcome in my classroom.

I've come to the conclusion that the best way I can combat hate is with the way I teach. First, my classroom is a safe space for all. We work on how to listen to one another and solve problems together. Second, we get to know our fellow humans. As I build my classroom library, I strive to include books with characters that each of my students will identify with. I also intentionally pick books that will allow my kids to get in the heads of people who are very different from themselves. Good, diverse literature helps kids understand others without seeing them as "the other." We also reach out to the world through the Global Read Aloud, mystery location calls, and connections with our class blog. These actions have gone a long way toward inoculating my students from hate by increasing their empathy and understanding of others.

In addition, I plan to address hate when we encounter it in literature and current events. We need to have frank discussions about the hate that exists and how we can keep ourselves and our friends from allowing it to spread. My students need the courage to stand up to their friends when they notice hateful words or actions. I can't stop the white supremacists that take to the street, but I can make sure my students know better than to stand for it.

Note: excuse my lack of capitalization, but hate groups don't deserve to be proper nouns.