Social Studies Opinion

Building Empathy With Students Isn’t Just One More Thing to Do

Educators have a moral obligation to confront white supremacy
By Chris Dier — June 08, 2022 5 min read
Conceptual illustration of a person looking out at a bright day from a dark chasm.
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In one of my Advanced Placement classes in 2018, a freshman raised his hand to ask about the declining birthrates of white people in the United States. This occurred during a discussion about the demographic-transition model, which contributes to understanding and predicting demographic shifts by analyzing birthrates and death rates. The student had no idea that a conspiracy favored by white supremacists was the foundation for his question. It was only upon understanding that declining birthrates are a product of economic development and not an aberration specific to white America that he realized what he’d read online was false and written to mislead.

Like many students across the country, the student came across the “great replacement theory,” while browsing various internet discussion boards. French author Renaud Camus popularized the racist myth in his 2011 book Le Grand Remplacement, but it’s not new. The xenophobic, racist, anti-Semitic sentiment dates back to 19th-century eugenicists, Ku Klux Klan ideology, and Nazi propaganda. It is based on a distortion of statistics, pseudo-history, and white supremacy and claims that Jews and “global elites” are intentionally “replacing” white people with people of non-European descent.

The theory continues to garner popularity among young white audiences on internet forums, seeping its way into mainstream political discourse. Some of its most ardent adherents claim that direct, violent action is necessary to ensure white people are not “replaced.” Adherence to replacement theory has inspired multiple domestic-terrorist attacks by white nationalists, including the 2018 synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh; the 2019 shooting in El Paso, Texas; and the shooting in May in Buffalo, N.Y.; as well as others abroad. These homegrown terrorists have one similarity: Each espoused in manifestos and online forums that they believed in the great replacement theory, among other racist myths.

Considering the atrocities committed in the name of these supremacist myths, educators have a moral obligation to address and directly confront this ideology in our classrooms. As teachers, we need to adapt to the digital age as students enter the classroom with information from a host of sources—no doubt, some of which might be unfamiliar to us. Policymakers need to engage in a large-scale push to assist teachers in combating conspiracies that lead to real, material harm while also teaching students to analyze information critically. Putting the replacement theory under a microscope is a fine starting point. It is wildly inaccurate, rooted in white-extinction anxiety, and stems from a lack of understanding and empathy—all of which teachers can address in a class focused on truthful history and efforts to discuss racial issues directly.

Teachers have a full plate during the age of COVID-19, hyperpartisanship, legislative debates, and standardized testing. After repeated school shootings, including the one last month in Uvalde, Texas, teachers must also worry about protecting their students—and themselves—from gun violence. To debunk white nationalism, teachers don’t need to design lessons from scratch or revamp curricula. We have the ability to utilize existing content to foster empathy among our students and to help them build bridges with those different from themselves.

Teaching through this culturally responsive lens reaches hearts and inspires autonomous growth and human connection.

As a history teacher, I often incorporate marginalized perspectives, highlight historical patterns, and teach students the skills needed to evaluate sources critically. We analyze the nativist sentiment in the 1920s that led to a rise in hate crimes and curtailment of immigration. This knowledge can enable students who hear this rhetoric or notice similar policy changes to understand the historical context rather than assume the sentiments exist in isolation. My students practice the skills required to scrutinize historical documents, understand sourcing and bias, and corroborate evidence to establish a firm comprehension of history. These skills offer students the necessary and transferable tools to analyze and critically evaluate the vast amount of internet media they consume every day.

Science teachers can debunk scientific racism and racial myths founded on pseudoscience. English teachers can utilize diverse texts, highlighting empathetic texts from differing perspectives to introduce all students to experiences of those different from them. A 2016 report from the Century Foundation concluded that when educators expose students to a diversity of thought, including people whose ideas differ from their own, they can have “improved cognitive skills, including critical thinking and problem-solving.” Teaching through this culturally responsive lens reaches hearts and inspires autonomous growth and human connection. Teachers can make that empathetic world a reality each day in their classrooms; students deserve a world where that reality is their own.

Regardless of how teachers approach education for empathy, one thing is certain: As educators, it is our moral obligation to directly confront white supremacist ideology and white nationalist myths. Too many students are getting stuck in these algorithmic cul-de-sacs with no outside information permeating their bubbles. Teachers are overworked and juggle many plates in their day-to-day lives. And yet, we have vast potential to challenge hateful ideologies and instead create empathetic communities to bring awareness and hope to our students. To fight the most recent surge of racist ideology, we need to harness this powerful and compassionate energy in order to educate our students and protect them—and our future.

Today, the families of the victims of the massacre in Buffalo and the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde are testifying before the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee in Congress. Miah Cerrillo, a 4th grader who called 911 for help and then put her friend’s blood on her own body in order to play dead, is also testifying. Every one of us should amplify their voices and be moved to action by their words.

A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2022 edition of Education Week as Building Empathy Can’t Be Just Another Task


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