My Child Is Sharing Conspiracy Theories and Racist Memes. What Do I Say?
Part Four: Asserting Far-right Beliefs in Daily Life
This post is the fourth in the six-part series “My Child Is Repeating Conspiracy Theories. What Do I Say?” authored by Shelly Tochluk, Christine Saxman, and Joanna Schroeder. Read the first post and access links to the entire series here.
Two characteristics of today’s political climate are the decentering of values focused on the common good and the demand for false equivalence (or the belief that all ideas deserve equal airtime). As a result, openly bigoted and separatist rhetoric has increasingly found its way into the mainstream, contributing to a hostile environment for marginalized people. Such weaponized political speech can signal a thinly-veiled embrace of extremist ideologies and a growing alignment with the interests of authoritarian and exclusionary groups.
This level of expression includes a wide-ranging spectrum of hurtful content that may or may not be explicitly racist. This includes dog whistles that scapegoat specific groups and furthers an extremist agenda.
- Grandparents who regularly attend high school football games hear students chanting “build the wall” when playing a team composed of mostly Latinx students.
- A teacher alerts a student’s parents that she shared a “Don’t Tread On Me” anti-mask meme during a school discussion of the impact of COVID.
- A mother overhears her son and his friends using the term “libtard.”
- An aunt notices anti-feminist memes on her nephew’s Instagram grid.
- Foster parents notice that a child in their care has publicly ended her friendship with another girl for being vocally anti-racist and feminist.
- During a long car ride, a fourth grader’s guardians face overly politicized questions and opinions that didn’t originate within the family or extended friend group, like, “People shouldn’t be allowed to change their gender.”
- A teenager is referred to a social worker after he expresses a newfound interest in politics and criticizes “globalists” for promoting “mass immigration” during class.
Listen for racist or bigoted talking points within broader political debates intended to send a message of exclusion or shaming.
- I understand you’re interested in this issue. I wonder how we can engage this topic without targeting people?
Recognize that questioning settled historical facts about the Holocaust, chattel slavery, the genocide of indigenous peoples, civil rights, and exclusionary policies that have impacted immigrants, women, and religious minorities indicate extremist influences.
- You’ve always had a questioning mindset. I wonder why you’d question ___?
- Do you know the history of these ideas?
- Let’s find sources for these facts together.
Investigate the young person’s level of involvement, either as a perpetrator or bystander.
- How deeply do you care about this?
- Would you take action about this?
Engage Without Arguing
Ensure the child or teen feels you value their voice.
- I’m proud that you are thinking about important issues. I appreciate how deeply you care.
Avoid initiating a power struggle.
- We both have strong feelings about this.
- How can we talk about this without fighting?
- How can I support you in exploring this more deeply?
Become a co-learner.
- I have strong feelings about this too. Let’s investigate together.
- What sources have you found?
- What type of source is it? What’s their point of view? What are their values?
- What other perspectives and viewpoints can we find?
Engage in values clarification discussions.
- Why do you feel so strongly about this?
- How does it fit into your values?
- What future would you like to see for these individuals, their community, the country?
Respond to the use of stereotypes with open-ended, inquisitive questions.
- I don’t think that’s true for all people. Let’s learn more about this community.
- Do you believe that is true for everyone in this community?
Help kids and teens recognize racial, gender, and religious differences while avoiding making assumptions about people.
- We don’t know many gay people. I wonder how that influences the assumptions we make?
Investigate the ways oppression is systemic, ongoing, and foundational to today’s political concerns. Share what you learn.
- I recently watched the movie 13th about the criminal justice system. It’s got me thinking about the Black Lives Matter protests in a different way.
Create space for both intellectual and emotional understanding of controversial topics. Be honest about the fact that unlearning bias is a lifelong process.
- These conversations are hard, but I think they are worth it. What do you think?
- How does talking about this topic make us better members of our communities?
Invite a reflection about impact by posing empathetic questions:
- What is the message you are trying to send?
- What is the difference between sending a political message and targeting people?
- What happens when a political message makes people feel targeted?
Speak to school administrators to find out how parents and caregivers can support student organizations and other school-based initiatives that promote inclusion and justice.
What Not To Do
- Don’t engage in a debate about whether hate speech is free speech. Rather than getting trapped in a back-and-forth about what’s “allowed,” use your own free speech to clearly assert your family’s values and discuss the impact of bigotry on your community.
- Don’t rely on a punitive response to influence a child’s thinking. Accountability is critical whenever harm or injury occurs. At the same time, however, seek and provide opportunities that broaden the child’s perspective and encourage empathy for the person or people they have hurt.