Since the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville earlier this month, the question of what to do about neo-Nazis, white nationalists and other racists marching in the streets has dominated news cycles. For those who are willing to put their bodies on the line to fight fascism, the answer is unequivocal: These people need to be stopped from gathering in public, from organizing and growing. For decades, anti-fascists have dealt with Nazis by showing up in person to confront them and reduce the harm they can do. But invariably, liberals, moderates and conservatives alike have advocated another approach: Just ignore them. That was the ultimate conclusion of Tina Fey’s “sheetcaking” rant on Saturday Night Live (which made some otherwise smart and critical points). And it’s a sentiment that may sound familiar to anyone who was bullied as a kid.
“Just ignore them” seems to be adults’ near universal advice to generations of bullied kids. I’m a millennial, and despite our reputation for living our childhoods from one coddled participation trophy to the next, there wasn’t a widespread, organized effort to address and prevent bullying in schools in the United States until after Columbine. It’s been a difficult process for educators to find and implement practices that effectively reduce bullying – in part because, despite how adults talk about it, bullying doesn’t start and stop with kids. But, to the surprise of no one who remembers hearing it themselves, it turns out “just ignore it” is not an effective solution to violence.
I’m an educator, and I understand where “just ignore it” comes from on a kid level. There are plenty of times when kids are engaging in a behavior purely for the reaction they get from the other kid. (This will also sound familiar to siblings.) But for a child who is being bullied, who takes the step of seeking help from an adult, being told to “just ignore it” is a kind of sanctioning of the initial violence. It not only minimizes the harm being done, but validates it. The adult who, instead, acknowledges and addresses the hurtful behavior sends a message not only to the bully, but to the bullied: This is not OK. Even if an adult can’t actually stop the bullying, it matters to children that their pain is recognized instead of dismissed.
Although it might feel like a stretch, it’s actually very instructive to think about childhood bullying in the context of white supremacist violence. When we think about bullies, we often think of Moe from Calvin and Hobbes, Nelson from The Simpsons and Regina George from Mean Girls – individuals who are exceptionally mean for no reason. But it’s much more useful to think of bullying as a behavior than an identity; that helps explain why many of us who were bullied learned that we could bully the kid below us on the social strata. And when you think about what kids get bullied about – being fat, queer, poor, disabled or otherwise different from dominant gender, sexuality, race and economic norms – it makes sense why bullying is so hard to stop, even when educators try. Bullying is the manifestation of white supremacist patriarchal violence that is integral to this country’s history and continues to dominate its politics and culture. Adults think kids are the ones who start bullying, like it’s an instinct ingrained in them that spontaneously appears on the playground and in the classroom. In fact, kids are play-acting hate with each other as it plays out everywhere around them. The difference, of course, is that children – even children who bully – are innocent. They aren’t responsible for the violent culture that they’re learning from.
That’s why it’s so damaging to tell a victim of violence to “just ignore it”: It codifies the violence even further into a shared value system. For kids, it teaches them that’s how things are done. Confronting the violence, then, shows kids that this is, in fact, not how it’s done. That’s why some schools have been effective in stopping bullying – when it’s prioritized and invested in, it is possible to build a culture that recognizes and rejects violence.
And the best way to prevent violence is to build solidarity. Ignoring bullying doesn’t make it go away, but organizing the community against it can. So it’s not just that ignoring white supremacist violence won’t make it go away, although of course it won’t. It’s that to ignore white supremacist violence, as a society, is to sanction it.
To say “just ignore it” only makes sense to those who are not at risk of directly experiencing violence at the hands of violent racists. The flip side of that coin is that it’s easy to ignore the KKK when your skin color doesn’t make them want to kill you. It matters deeply that institutions and individuals condemn white supremacy and Nazism and stand in explicit solidarity with those who these hate groups would like to see gone from the country or dead. And that solidarity isn’t for symbolism, it’s for building actual power to stop actual violence.
What that looked like in California this past weekend, and in Boston the weekend before, was thousands of people in the streets – so many that the white nationalists weren’t able to meet in public. It looks like the outpouring of financial support for the protesters injured in Charlottesville. It looks like people in Charlottesville handing out sandwiches and water to protesters, community organizations who do this work every day, and lawyers and activists who provide jail and legal support for people who get arrested protesting fascism.
For those who could otherwise choose to ignore it, paying attention and showing up is a moral imperative right now – not just to stop these particular Nazis, but to build a culture that teaches young people how to reject violence, rather than perpetuate it.