At her “Hate Speech Hate Crimes” lecture on Feb. 28, Webster University professor Linda Woolf referenced the multitude of hate flyers she has collected on campus. Groups like Identity Evropa, labelled by The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as a white nationalist hate group, hung such flyers just last year. Woolf said the presence of the propaganda solidified the importance of monitoring and avoiding temptations to join such groups, especially given their focus in recruiting college students.
Woolf presented her lecture at Webster’s Diversity and Inclusion conference and said people often assume involvement within hate groups is based in individuals’ hatred toward others. According to research done by the SPLC, Woolf said the generalization is not always accurate. She said the organizations mainly offer a sense of community for people who may not otherwise have one.
This same lack of support influences college students to feel more stress than the average group according to Woolf. She said coming to a new place with a larger workload and fewer connections makes students crave a place to belong. When no one on campus reaches out and includes them, she said hate groups like the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) and Westboro Baptist Church may be the first to contact students.
“[Hate groups] are reaching out to students because they know there are students sitting in dorm rooms who are feeling stressed, confused, lost and alone,” Woolf said. “They are the target audience.”
“Imagine that you all of a sudden find yourself enveloped in a new caring family with immediate friendship–a family that respects and values you, all the while providing security, a clear life-path and perhaps someone else to blame for your troubles,” Woolf said. “Cults use the same sort of recruitment strategies.”
Jessica Alvarado performed in Gitana Productions’ showing of “New World” on the last day of Webster’s conference and attended Woolf’s lecture. Alvarado played a woman fleeing Afghanistan and adjusting to cultural differences in America. She said learning about real-life situations similar to those of her character influenced her future decisions when confronted with hate speech and groups.
Alvarado wanted students to be more engaging with those most at risk for joining such organizations. She said students should never put themselves in danger, but she believed being brave could help lessen the effects of hate speech and crimes on and off campus.
“We have to be brave,” Alvarado said. “There’s a level of courage. It does take a level of saying, ‘You know what? I’m going to be bold here.’ We can’t all sit back and avoid [confrontation], because look what happens [when you do].”
When being brave proves difficult, Woolf said reverting to aggressive action against hate groups was rarely effective. She said doing so may actually help the group.
Woolf suggested educating students through peaceful protest or efforts to counter the discriminatory messages students receive.
“Countering hate with hate and violence usually just further divides and provides fuel for a hate group,” Woolf said.
Outside help is influential in keeping students from the seeming comfort of hate groups, Woolf said, but there were other ways to prevent the temptation. Woolf said students needed to remind themselves of their values and avoid blaming others for their own life situations.
“Be aware of who you are and your personal values,” Woolf said. “Use care with who you take into your life as friends and know their values. Don’t give up your personal identity and values to just fit within a group.”