White nationalism is in the news and our kids are listening. In addition to the anxiety and anger provoked by the headlines, kids are also encountering this hateful ideology online, at school, in their peer groups and communities. Parents and youth workers need to know how to recognize signs of recruitment efforts, as well as the vulnerabilities that might leave a young person susceptible to recruitment.
On this episode of Talking Race & Kids, Andrew and Melissa speak with teacher Nora Flanagan and youth worker Christian Picciolini about how our children can be stronger upstanders if they see signs of hate, how they can resist increasingly insidious attempts to engage them in organized bigotry, and how every adult can help strengthen their communities against white nationalism. Watch the video, get the tip sheet, find the lightly edited transcript of the conversation below followed by the community Q & A and fuller guest bios.
EmbraceRace: We want to start with just a basic question - how did you get into this work? We know some of that from your bios, that you weren't always on the same side, fighting white nationalism, the way you are now. But if you could each take a turn at telling us those stories.
Nora Flanagan: Yeah. Christian you should probably start.
Christian Picciolini: I was going to say, Nora you've been doing this much longer than me. You should start it. But I would be happy to go first. I just want to acknowledge it's a huge privilege to be here, knowing that there are a lot of people who are not getting the same second chance that I got that don't look like me. So it's always a privilege to be able to speak to people about my story. But to try and raise their voices while I do that as well.
I was 14 years old in 1987 when I was recruited into America's first neo-Nazi skinhead group. I spent 8 years in that movement. I became a leader of it until I got out at 23 years old. But my story is a typical story but it's also the story that most people don't think of. I came from a pretty normal home. And that is pretty standard with people who join these types of movements. My parents are Italian immigrants who came to the U.S. in the mid 1960's and they were the victims of prejudice. So it wasn't part of my family foundation to be racist but I was looking for 3 very important things that I think every young person was looking for. A sense of identity, a community, and a sense of purpose. And I found it in an alley in 1987 as a lonely, kind of marginalized kid, looking for a family. And the rest was history.
I've been, for the last 20 years, I've been out for 23 [years]. But for the last 20 [years] I've been doing work of helping people disengage from hate groups and from extremist movements. Everything from neo-Nazis to white nationalists to former ISIS members and I also teach my process of disengagement. All different levels, from high school to college to military and law enforcement as well.
Nora Flanagan: So this can be where I come in. Where to start? So if you read Christian's book (White American Youth: My descent into America's most violent hate movement - and how I got out), and you should, he talks about how he immediately started recruiting more people and tried to be as visible as possible. And what probably most people watching don't know is that Christian and I grew up about a mile, a mile and a half away from each other on the South Side of Chicago.
So when Christian was out recruiting and tagging and you know getting as many people on his team as possible, I was seeing it as like a 13, 14-year-old kid wondering what the hell was going on in my neighborhood. And it was really upsetting because I was not only not raised to be racist, I was raised to stand up to bullies and all of a sudden there was like a very bullying climate in my neighborhood.
So I kind of grouped up with the other punks who were really worried about this. And that's how I became part of the anti-racist movement. And Christian and I didn't meet. When did we meet, friend? Like 10, 12 years ago. I mean, he had been out for years and years. And he actually approached me when he was getting ready to publish his book. I mean he had written a draft and he wanted help from somebody who would know the story. And also it doesn't hurt that I'm an English teacher and I know about commas and stuff. *laughs* So he asked for my help. And if anybody watching right now is like, "Why does he get a second chance? Why? You don't get to be the hero of the story if you were a Nazi." That's exactly what I thought when he asked for my help and I was incredibly resistant to work with him, to even meet him, to speak to him. But the fact that we've been working together and collaborating and genuinely friends for the past more than a decade, sometimes it's worth it to give somebody a second chance because we've been able to do some great work together. So that's how I started. Friend, I appreciate you.
Throughout my career since I knew about this stuff, I was kind of informally the teacher on the faculty that could spot when a kid was going that way and would really awkwardly approach my administrators and be like, "Hey guys, we got to talk to this kid." And they'd be like, "How do you know?" And I'd be like, "I don't know." It was a really awkward conversation with my boss, but I would try to stay quiet about it and just kind of play it low that I knew this stuff. And then over the last few years, it's hard not to be quiet anymore so I've been doing more visible work and publishing. So I hope that covers it in a few minutes or less.
EmbraceRace: There's obviously a lot more to dig in there about your own personal stories. So certainly I'm fascinated by, Christian, you say, and you already said it, it's counter stereotypical as they say that you grew up in essentially a normal family, one where there's it doesn’t sound like there was all kinds of racist ideas and ideology being openly promoted. You said you were looking for purpose. You were looking for a community and so on.
And then, Nora, at 13, 14 [years old], you were identifying with other kids who wanted to push back. I mean that sounds extraordinary.
Before we even get into that a bit more, I wonder if we can get some basic terms down. Christian, you refer to sort of these types of groups and we hear a lot of terminology, but I imagine many of us who aren't nearly as sort of learned as you two on these issues don't understand the distinctions or whether they matter.
So I'm talking about "white supremacist groups," "white power groups," "white nationalist groups." Not to mention neo-Nazi and more recently alt-right. So can you give us just a quick primer on what do we need to understand about distinctions, of any, among these terms and what they refer to?
Christian Picciolini: You know, I think like anything else in the world, it's complicated. There is no simple answer and there is no black and white solution for it. You know, I think ultimately if I were to classify it, because terms like "white nationalist" and "alt-right" are relatively new terms. I would say that there is a large white supremacist umbrella, that there are many different nuanced subcultures that fall under that. That in some way are aligned with kind of that umbrella term. You know certainly if you're a neo-Nazi, that's a little bit different than being somebody who's in the alt-right.
But ultimately they're kind of looking for the same goal, whether it's you know trying to fight for a white race that they believe is being replaced or is dying. Or to save a homeland that they believe is being taken away. And I think all of those groups ultimately will agree to that at some point. But they're nuanced. You know, certainly Nazis believe something different than the Klan versus a fundamentalist Christian militant group or things like that. But that's a common thread in my opinion.
Nora Flanagan: I found that over the years, I mean there's a new name every few years and a new outfit and some new logos but it's the same stuff. And I mean organizations have kind of mapped the lineage from those same neo-Nazi groups in the late 1980's and early 1990's right down to the modern anti-immigrant groups like Turning Point. We're not reinventing the wheel. That wheel has been rolling for decades.
Christian Picciolini In many cases, too, I would say that terms like "white nationalist" and "alt-right," they're marketing terms. If you can imagine them sitting in a boardroom trying to come up with names to make them seem less racist in order to attract more people. That would be an example of alt-right, which is a manufactured term. So Nora is absolutely correct. It moves really, really quickly. They have to because none of their ideologies make much logical sense so they have to keep moving. They have to keep shapeshifting and metastasizing. And now unfortunately they're really, with the Internet, able to reach our young people much easier than, for instance, when I was 14 years old.
EmbraceRace Right. Christian, I want to understand a little bit more, because I think a lot people don't think that their kids are vulnerable. And I imagine your parents didn't imagine it. You say you were looking for family but you had a family. So what do you mean exactly?
Christian Picciolini Yeah. So in my situation, my parents are Italian immigrants who came over in the mid 1960's and they had to work 7 days a week, 16 hours a day to survive. They were trying to run a small business. So I didn't see them very often. They were good parents. They loved me, they were kind. They didn't have vices. They didn't raise me to be a racist but they weren't there.
And as a young person, I often asked myself, "What did I do to push them away?" without knowing how to really communicate my confusion or anything like that. So I became really detached, and I think certainly having the benefit of looking back now and having my own children, I think I was really trying to get their attention because I really felt invisible. Not just with my family that wasn't there but also in the community that I lived in. My parents moved into a community on the Southwest Side of Chicago with other families from the same villages in Italy that they came from. So it was like this insulated community where everybody kept together. So I felt like an outsider in America growing up. You know, people made fun of my name. My parents took me to a suburb to take me to a private Catholic school where I was suddenly the outsider and I didn't fit in.
So I think part of you know people ask all the time like, "What do we look for?" Well one, it's not always the very evident warning signs of shaving your head and getting tattoos. It's the same things that we would look for drugs or for gangs, you know.
Are they feeling isolated and detached? Are they not building connection with people in the real world? Are they depressed? Are they saying things that are out of character? I mean all the things that we're taught as parents and teachers to look for are the same things that I would say look for that in your children because these are signs that they're vulnerable to being intercepted.
Suicide is an extremist behavior. Crime is an extremist behavior. Drug addiction is an extremist behavior. So is being a Nazi or joining ISIS. It's really about what intercepts you to manifest that? Which gives you some feeling of agency. You know, our radicalization starts the day we're born. It doesn't start when we grab an ideology. That's just the final component. That gives us the license of who to blame for our anger or self-hatred or our grievances whatever. So people ask me all the time like, "Are you talking to people who are too young?" I say “No. I was 14 and it started much younger for me.” It doesn't just start when they start denying the Holocaust. It starts much much earlier.
EmbraceRace: Christian, so what I hear you saying yeah, there's these needs, right. You talk about sort of alienation, disaffection, loneliness, isolation.
Christian Picciolini: Trauma.
Christian Picciolini: Trauma. Emotional trauma. Physical trauma or psychological trauma. That's what it boils down to. I call them potholes you know, the things that appear in our journey of life that detour us. That if we aren't careful, if we don't have good navigation or a support system or tow trucks to come pick us up when we're in trouble, sometimes we get detoured to the fringes and there are people waiting with a narrative that will empower you falsely. It doesn't matter today if you're 10 [years old] or 70 [years old]. The internet changed things. I had to be standing in an alley. Somebody had to approach me, hand me a flyer, invite me to a meeting. If you're feeling disaffected today, you're probably living your world online or in video games and things like that.
So unfortunately, they've gotten smart. Recruiters have gotten smart to look in those places. Places like multiplayer online games our kids are playing with headsets. Had a mother just last week sent me 800 accounts that she looked up in the game Roblox which is a children's kind of a game, Lego kind of building game, that were white nationalist accounts that were on there just creating profiles to recruit people. So that unfortunately is the new reality now that we opened this frontier.
EmbraceRace But let's come back. Let's come back for sure to the whole issue of recruitment. Nora, I wanted to go to you though for this sort of the flip side question of again remarkable right. That as a 13, 14-year-old you were seeing this stuff and saying, "I don't want this in my community." And you're telling your teachers, "Wait. You may need to have a conversation with this kid." So I'm thinking about yes middle school and the power of influencers, right, for better or worse in these kids.
Also 13, 14, 16 years old who might be positive influencers and of course, or I suppose of course, it would be nice to be able to support children who have that impulse right, that inclination. Is there anything you can tell us, whether from your own background or your work now, maybe drawing from the toolkit you co-authored for Western States Center, how can we support kids who want to play that role in pushing back against this stuff?
Nora Flanagan: I think step one is your kids have to be comfortable coming to you with something that might make you really angry. One of the things that we added to the tip sheet for tonight's webcast is when you're talking to your kids about this, stay calm. Because when my older son was in fifth grade, he started seeing racist graffiti on the bathroom wall at his school. And if we do the math, I think he was 10 [years old] at the time and I really had to check my anger level because I wanted to just absolutely blow up at just how awful that was and ah! But if I did that, he was never going to come and tell me anything again. And I mean any time we want to be there to support our children through anything difficult, they've got to see us stay calm while they explain it to us. So that would be thing number one.
And ask lots of questions and get clarity. I mean, we talk a lot about how to raise an upstander and someone who will speak up. You need to teach them those skills too. I had to teach my sons to not be scared to go tell a teacher or administrator something or how to talk to their friends about stuff because I don't know why but we assume kids know how to have these conversations. Kids only know how to have the conversations that we model for them and coach them in having so talking and talking and talking is huge. Beyond that I only found out about that bathroom incident because I randomly asked. I randomly asked. I said, "Are you seeing anything weird at school?" Because I was hearing it from educator friends. And my son was like, "Actually..." And then I wonder like, what if I hadn't asked? So ask and you'd be amazed what they're seeing and hearing.
We had incidents here in Chicago grade schools of anti-Semitism in the game Clash of Clans like 5 years ago. So we were already seeing it in online game platforms aimed at elementary school kids. These aren't the games that high school kids are playing. These are the games that fourth and fifth graders are playing on their first devices that they get. So looking and listening and talking. That's got to come first.
EmbraceRace: That's such good advice and so hard. You know, I just am thinking of the times when I blew it in terms of staying calm when they're telling you something hard. So that's really important. And always in parenting, ask a question! What do they think? And then listen. *laughs* It's hard, right?
So Nora, Andrew was asking about what made you an upstander and I'm guessing that you would not say you responded that way because you're just a better person than Christian?
Nora Flanagan: No I just have a really big mouth. I'm so bad at keeping my mouth shut. *laughs*.
EmbraceRace: So I'm imagining Christian growing up not being able to talk, not having the attention because his parents have to work so much. And you somehow aren't having that experience maybe because you're good at getting the attention or talking ...
Nora Flanagan: So I grew up with 2 brothers in a big loud family in an Irish American community where the nuns would tell us to just take our fights across the street from school. So I grew up being comfortable with conflict. I'm not afraid of uncomfortable conversations. I'm not afraid of confronting folks about stuff and sometimes that gets me into a lot of trouble. But I mean, that's what I credit to speaking up at a young age and then speaking up through adulthood is because that's what I grew up doing.
EmbraceRace: That was a good example.
Christian Picciolini: Well, let me just say this. You know, had somebody approached me before America's first neo-Nazi skinhead did in an alley at 14 years old, somebody from Nora's side, I would have gone that way. You know, had a baseball coach approached me in that alley, I would have played baseball. I joke, had a ballerina troupe been across the street, I could have been the greatest dancer on Earth. You don't want to see me dance. Trust me. But it's true.
Young people want to be seen. They are smart. They want agency just like we do as human beings. And I think that we're making mistakes by not amplifying their passions. I mean let's face it, they live in a kind of a dictatorship until they leave the house. Right it's our rules as parents. They have to be in at a certain time. You know, follow certain standards, whatever.
And I think to riff on what Nora said, if we can learn to be cautiously vulnerable with our children and explain to them, we're not perfect and tell them why, then maybe we can expect the same from them. But if we don't ever tell them that, you know.
Because they think we're perfect. They're always trying to live up or be better than us. And you know, we're all dealing with something that nobody knows about. Every single person. And I think maybe it's time that we start having those more vulnerable conversations with the people that we love, you know, with less repercussion so that we can expect them to come to us when they really have those questions or that confusion.
EmbraceRace: That's really true. Let me ask a bigger question about what the two of you are seeing now.
So on one hand, clearly this white nationalism question is a very big one. It really does affect a lot of kids and all of that stuff. We know about the explosion of hate groups of the last few years. All of it, right. And my question I guess is, why is that happening and where is this headed? Christian, you especially mentioned the Internet. That the Internet has really changed things in terms of recruitment. And yet some of the fundamental things, maybe those have changed too, but some of the fundamental things you point to- again alienation, disaffection right, kids looking for meaning who might get it from any number of places. And unfortunately too many of them are getting it from white nationalists or organized hate, but can you help us wrap our minds around ... why is this? Of course, the support in high levels of government has helped, but, besides that, what's your take on why is this such a huge deal right now? What's your sense for where this is going?
Christian Picciolini: There's really one word I think to sum it up is uncertainty. I think when environments are uncertain, extremist narratives thrive. That's just been true throughout history and you know we have a lot of adults on [the webinar] right now. I would ask, how many of you are certain about the world we live in right now? No matter what side you happen to be on. We are uncertain. And if we are uncertain as adults, imagine what our young people must feel like when normally they're supposed to rely on us for our guidance and for our being adults. And I think that you know maybe we're not doing such a good job of that right now.
Nora Flanagan: I want to add too from the school perspective. So I teach high school, and I live in Chicago which is one of the most infamously segregated cities anywhere. So when students make that jump from grade school to high school in Chicago, often they're experiencing a level of diversity they have not previously encountered. This also happens in the suburbs when they make it to middle school and then again to high school because they're entering a larger geographic feeder area. So there's that uncertainty and that vulnerability kind of at educational milestones. And we see students, like we've mentioned a couple times, from really progressive homes who've been raised to appreciate diversity. We should talk in a second about the difference between telling your kids to appreciate diversity and modeling that for them and really actually doing it.
Because those kids get to high school and they feel socially unsteady. Not everyone in the room looks like them. They've been hearing about Muslims but now there are Muslims in their classes. And you know, if you watch the news maybe your impressions of people of other races aren't the best. So you're now negotiating this new kind of demographic in your education setting and that unsteadiness makes a kid vulnerable. A kid who otherwise, you know like Christian was describing earlier, has a great home and everything provided for them. But all of a sudden, these messages about alienation and about you know not mattering as much and they're trying to get rid of us. All of a sudden they resonate and you wouldn't expect it, but they resonate with all kinds of kids.
Christian Picciolini: And sometimes it's as simple as who pays attention to them first.
EmbraceRace: Right. It certainly does feel like it has a lot of implications for how do lots of things but including school, how we do school. You know, which can be such a lonely, and as Christian said, it's sort of a prison for lots of folks, right. Just there's a dictator and a lot of rules. And how to get in touch with your passion and feel like you probably did Christian. I mean you showed tremendous leadership skills, right, as a young neo-Nazi leading a movement out of your neighborhood. And now you're using the same skills to fight that.
Christian Picciolini: I am. I'm still looking for vulnerable young people but I'm trying to show them the right path now as opposed to leading them down a kind of a path of destruction as before. But I just think, you know, had I at 14 years old, I mean I would have used those same skills and developed those same skills in a positive way had I had that sort of guidance. And I didn't, you know. But there are millions of kids who feel lonely and abandoned and don't become extremists. And in certain cases it's because they have support systems or you know they have something that can help them navigate those roads. And sometimes it is about privilege and skipping over them.
But also I should say privilege can be a pothole as well. You know, if it keeps you so isolated that it keeps you from understanding the world around you. You know, people say, "That persons got a degree and seems well off and well-spoken. How can they be a racist? I thought it was just about, you know, a typical kind of dumb skinhead kind of thug person." And it's not. People like that can develop potholes too. They can have emotional trauma. They can be lashing out through their grievances in other ways. And that is in no way painting you know a pity party for them. Just to help people understand. Nobody is born a racist. Even somebody who's awful and commits an act of racist violence. At some point in their life was playing with trucks and Matchbox cars and coloring books and things like that. There was a shift. And if we can just make sure that we are with young people all the way so we can see those shifts before they are supposed to happen. I think that we have a shot.
Nora Flanagan: Can I add one thing to that too that hasn't come up yet but really should be coming up in every conversation. Another early indicator is misogyny. In so many of the recent tragedies where someone invoked white nationalism, there was a long history of misogyny. There was a long history of hating women before they hated everybody. And we talk about that in the toolkit. Sorry. Somebody asked in the chat. This is the tool kit that I co-authored with two other women through The Western State Center.
And one of the things we realized we had to include was a sub section about misogyny and the role that that's playing more and more and how that's a point of entry. I mean, I'm raising two sons and we do live in a culture that as soon as boys are hitting that insecure puberty time, there's somebody there to blame girls. And we joke, we so destructively joke about you know bothering the girls you like and all that terrible stuff that we grew up with. But you know, they're still finding their way to blaming girls for how uncomfortable they feel and how something's not going right for them and it is morphing into a really dangerous misogyny. So that's something we got to cover.
Community Q & A
EmbraceRace: Talking about things to cover, there's a lot to cover. We have questions from the folks who registered. We have some questions coming in from this live audience. One is about being an effective upstander in the digital world. How do we do that? And the second question is about how we get our public schools to do some of this media literacy, right? How do we get them to understand the story that you're telling? The person goes on: “Our elementary principle cut 20 minutes each week from each class- library, art, music, and P.E.- to create a new 40-minute weekly class- "Technology." How do we get schools to recognize this threat and to have a mounted institutional response to it?”
Nora Flanagan: I'm going to go ahead and unleash the fury and start by saying every school needs a librarian. And so many schools don't have librarians now. In Chicago, we are fighting hard for them because we've lost a lot of them. That's it. That's a big part of the fight that the teachers in Chicago are launching like literally today is we want librarians because they teach media literacy and they teach our kids to vet sources and they teach our kids how to navigate the Internet. And they are disappearing from schools and that is nothing short of tragic and dangerous. So that's where you start is you have the people there who are capable of doing that. It's great that a principal pulled time or it's great that you know, as an English teacher, I cover that in some of my classes. But every school needs someone who is qualified and tasked with doing that. So that's a start.
Schools adopted anti-bullying programs, but a lot of them were pretty surface. A lot of them were just all right, we're dotting that I. We're crossing that t. But we're not actually listening to what's going on in our school community. So one of the things I always say is listen to the students because by the time one adult in the building knows what's going on, every kid already does. So start by listening to the kids. Sorry. Long day of teaching the youth.
That's my starter points for building that literacy is the qualified folk and listening to the students. We advise in the toolkit to form a student voice committee or a culture and climate team or both to have those conversations before something happens to strengthen your community and communicate those values and make sure everybody knows where everybody stands before a problem comes up. Like be proactive about it.
EmbraceRace: This is sort of stuff that we talk about all the time in different contexts when talking about creating inclusive communities, right. Like just be explicit. Be on the ball. Ask them, right. So we have a question from someone who doesn't give a ton of identifying information but says, "As a marginalized student, I have talked to teachers about things as small as micro aggressions and as big as outright neo-Nazi behavior. I'm worried they're starting to think I'm too sensitive. Am I overthinking it? How do I tell the difference between a warning sign and a different political view? At what point do I talk to adults about it?"
Nora Flanagan: That's a really great question.
Christian Picciolini: I would say I would actually be worried about the opposite, that administration may be normalizing it and to never be afraid. If it evokes an emotion in you, especially fear, you should never be afraid to speak up about it, especially in a safe place like a school. And as teachers or administrators or adults, we should never turn you away from that. Because Nora's right. When it gets to us, young people already know. They're already masters at it. You know, we're just late to the game. So you know by the time they come to us, there may already be a lot going on. So I think that as adults, it's our responsibility to listen, to hear. And not just listen, but to hear and to actually do something. At least to make that student feel comfortable and safe.
EmbraceRace: Here's another one. Thank you for that. Someone says that she's hearing that white males at her school are feeling targeted every time social justice is talked about at school. Parents are worried that their boys are so resentful of social justice education efforts that they're more open to white nationalists. There are lots of outreach and opportunities for our boys but they're still heading in this direction. So this idea of essentially alienated white men and boys in particular because some say yeah they're sort of marginalized within social justice conversation. What's your thinking?
Christian Picciolini: That we shouldn't equate bad white men with white men. You know, I don't think that a young white male, he's 12 years old, should feel alienated because of who he is or how he was born. And that just like when we talk you know, when we raise our voices against law enforcement for doing something bad, we're not speaking out against all cops. We're not speaking out against all white males. We're just speaking out against the ones who are the rapists, who are the murderers, the ones who are hurting other people and we shouldn't equivocate that. And I think it's a slippery slope if we do. If we do go over the top, that we will alienate you know well-intentioned people who may find the only support that they can get is from the very people that we're trying to keep them from.
Because you know, I'll tell you as a recruiter, that's something that we paid attention to. Who was getting marginalized? We would surround them with brotherhood. We would surround them and that's how we would recruit them. And whether they believed us or not, they would eventually because we gave them more than anybody else did. So you know, we have to be careful as a society not to generalize anything. Nothing is black and white.
EmbraceRace: Yeah, I mean I think that's right and that just we have to make kids sort of more comfortable with complexity. With just sort of like you know countering these stereotypes so they're never feeling like, "Oh this is what white men are like or what black men are like," or whatever group. Yeah.
Christian Picciolini: It's also about letting them have those conversations as well too so that they're not feeling surrounded.
EmbraceRace: Right. And having a more sophisticated conversation around race. Like if I talk about sort of whiteness or white supremacy in this way, in terms of like social structures, right, does that mean I'm creating a, "White people do this...". So it's a nuanced discussion that if people don't begin to have it, we can never get there. So appreciate that.
Christian Picciolini Absolutely. 100 percent. Thank you for adding that. It's important.
EmbraceRace: Yeah. So we have a question from Washington. "Here in Washington, white nationalism is very insidious, especially since we vote so blue. The order was martyred here. We have significant segregation and few people are aware of it. How do I quantify that this is a problem to others? And when I'm speaking to radicalized people, how can I start a dialogue with them so we can talk?" That's a big question but a good one.
Nora Flanagan: I can offer up a starter and that's that the organization that published the toolkit, The Western State Center is based in Portland. They do work throughout Oregon, Washington state, Idaho, on inland and down until the Bay Area. They work nationally but that's their core. And they do excellent work and they have people in every part of Washington. I was just at their annual conference in Spokane a couple of weeks ago.
I would really encourage that attendee to contact The Western State Center and find out what's going on close to them because they can support them in starting these conversations and they can give them a lot of information and also advice on how to have those conversations with all sorts of folks. I mean I wouldn't suggest walking right up to a ??? and Starting to talk. Because it's getting really heated in the Pacific Northwest.
Christian Picciolini: Somebody mentioned The Order. I mean since the late 1970's, early 1980's, they've had their eye on the Pacific Northwest as kind of carving out their white homeland so to speak. One, because it's already very white. And two, because they can stay isolated which feeds their paranoia in a lot of ways. Find allies. Even though it seems like sometimes we're alone, there are a lot of good people out there. Like Nora suggested, Western State Center and organizations like the Anti-Defamation League do a lot of curriculum development for schools and train law enforcement. There are people out there.
So find allies and and see what they're doing that you like and maybe take it to your community as well. But not everybody is an activist. Sometimes it means just teaching important and tough subjects and allowing conversation in classrooms. And if it's just being a parent, maybe it just means listening to your kid and not hearing the words but kind of hearing the motivations behind the words. Because the ideology is secondary. Nobody wakes up one morning and say like, "I'm going to learn about being a Nazi today and I'm going to be one." There's always a kind of a path to that that I think is an important intervention point.
EmbraceRace: Christian, here's a question that I'm sure you get variations on this quite a bit. As someone who practiced hate and white supremacy, do you profit from your anti-racist work? And if so, how do you validate this choice?
I actually want to piggy, a sort of flip side of the coin question which is very often the folks who did one thing and now fight against those things, are the big betrayers, right. And you're obviously fighting and pushing back against some very dangerous people, many of whom are prone to a lot of violence. How do you deal with that threat? You mentioned you have a family of kids.
Christian Picciolini: I wouldn't wish my life on anybody. I can say that, you know. I say to my wife all the time and she agrees I may be the only person on earth who cannot wait to be out of work and I'm putting up air quotes. Do I profit off what I do? I make money. I charge for speaking engagements but probably about three hundred percent has gone into funding intervention work that I do through the nonprofit and that's been the case for 20 years. I've never drawn a paycheck for this work. I've broken even and I have an amazing life. And we have an amazing arrangement and she supports the work that I do. But yeah unfortunately this isn't a lucrative business nor would that be the reason why I do it.
I get threats every day. Still. Some days more than others. And you know, part of this is because it is my way of trying to repair the harm that I caused. And that's important. It's not just about saying I don't do that anymore. It's about saying I don't do that anymore. And now I really want to make sure you know that I'm helping the situation so it doesn't exist anymore. And my contribution to that, in some ways, is really just trying to make sure people know the truth and that people who want to disengage, I can try and help them. Because there's a lot of confusion.
I can tell you everybody who's in those movements questions being there because it doesn't make sense. It can't. It's an illogical ideology which is to answer somebodies’ question how do you talk to somebody who's in this, don't debate them because you cannot win an illogical argument no matter how many facts you use. It has to be emotional. It has to be about building trust and listening and filtering out the ideology to hear about the potholes and maybe trying to fill them in is really the best advice I can give. See the child not the monster. Doesn't matter if you're 16 or 60 [years old]. It's always about that internal brokenness.
EmbraceRace: I just want to follow up on this one thing, Christian. So first, can you share how old your kids are?
Christian Picciolini: Oh they're 26 and 24 years old. They're not kids anymore *laughs*
EmbraceRace: I think I remember reading that part of the reason you came out of it was because you became a father, right, at a young age. And this isn't what you wanted for your family. But what I'm thinking is your kids presumably grew up knowing what you had done, knowing your history and being there when you were starting ??? This flip side of the coin work. I'm wondering, what did that look like? Talking to them about that and what does it look like?
Christian Picciolini: You know it was difficult because I had to be vulnerable with my children, like I mentioned earlier. I had to tell them that I was not perfect and that I was broken. Fortunately, they were very young. They were 3 and 1 [year(s) old] when I left. They were just almost 4 and 2 [years old] when I left that movement. So they were young enough to not have witnessed it, I guess. And I also was very good about never bringing it home. My wife at the time was actually very much against it. But I didn't bring it home because I think inherently I knew it was baggage I didn't want to heavy them with, that I didn't want them to carry.
But I'll tell you what it was is my children were the first things to challenge the sense of identity, community, and purpose that I had adopted at 14 years old and carried for 8 years. Because I had to ask myself, "Am I a father or am I a hate monger?" Is my community the one that I surrounded myself with to boost my own ego and make me feel strong when I really felt very weak. It wasn't the community I had physically given life to and purpose. It was, you know, am I going to go down this road or am I going to create a future for my children that I'm proud of, that they can be proud of? So it was the first thing that challenged me and while I didn't make the decision, the right decision, right off the bat because at 23 [years old] you know, my wife left took the kids. I closed a record store where I was selling racist music and I left the movement. They saved my life because I had that. That was my that was the only thing I knew after I left the movement was my children, how to be a dad. And until I figured out my identity, community, and purpose again they really saved me.
EmbraceRace: Well that's such a gift to be, you know in a way, to have to be that vulnerable and show kids that so early cause it's so hard for parents to do that so often.
Christian Picciolini: I didn't know how else to be. I had hit my bottom. I had done the worst things imaginable and I didn't know what else to do but to tell the truth. I was already kind of ripped open. I kind of had to get it out. But I didn't know how to harness that. I didn't know how to use it to repair the harm until I met somebody you know years later around 2000 that really told me that it wasn't just about saying you're sorry. Because that made me feel good but it didn't make anybody else feel good. It was really about going out there and trying to repair that damage that I had caused. I've been trying to do that for 20 years.
EmbraceRace: I wanted to ask about, there is a question about how to stay on top of trends. You had mentioned, Nora, earlier a particular video game aimed at young kids. And I'm just wondering, what are the big places right now online that parents, teachers, caregivers should be aware of?
Nora Flanagan: I think you do need to poke around YouTube. There's been a lot of talk finally about the YouTube algorithm for suggested videos and just how fast it gets a 9-year-old who want to learn how to do something on Minecraft to some really dicey stuff. I mean, a policy in our house is that you know our younger son is not looking at anything online unless one of us is in the room to just keep an eye on it or we're passing through constantly.
The games. Somebody mentioned Roblox. Yep. Roblox is a cool game. So is Minecraft. I like Fortnite. I'm a Fortnite fan. It's been great for my older son you know to connect with other people. But that's why, like Christian said, that's why they're going there. So if we're looking for a list of where to check, wherever your kids are. Because they know that and so this brings us back to my first point which is just always be talking to your kids and always be listening to what they're into. I mean like Minecraft babble gets old really fast. Keep listening anyway. Keep asking what games they're playing. What games are your friends playing? You just keep listening no matter how boring and nonsensical it seems sometimes. Keep listening.
Christian Picciolini: We also shouldn't be afraid of those things too because they're really great tools for young people. What we should be doing is making sure that we instill really amazing values in our young people as far as diversity and inclusion and being able to share their feelings and critical thinking skills so that when they see something that may not make sense, they're not afraid to talk about it with you.
And so then maybe you're learning about it together because honestly they're there first. So what should you be looking for? Nora is exactly correct. You should be looking at your kids because they're there before we are. I don't wanna make it sound like the new stranger danger but the internet is a vast wilderness and just like you wouldn't allow your 10-year-old to go off for 24 hours into the real wilderness. You know maybe we should just be paying more attention about that.
EmbraceRace: One more question. We have lots more questions. Time for one more. And someone says, "You know, I agree that debating logic is never going to work. I hope the answer is to build emotional connection and relationships. The question is how do you both help youth move past the illogic of logic?" Right. So if it's not about logic, how do we instead deal with emotions? That's the question for adults too.
Nora Flanagan: So I'll say a quick thing but then I think Christian's the better ones to respond to this. I had a student a couple of years ago come to me and say that he was becoming really fascinated by this Richard Spencer character. And it would have been so easy for me to clap back on this kid and be like, "Well that guy's an idiot and he's terrible and here's why. And why would you be doing that and oh my gosh." And and then refer him to the counselor and so on, which I did because that's important too. But what I did is just kept listening. Why? What did you like? What sounded good?
Just like I said earlier with your own kids, just listen, ask questions, stay calm because sometimes kids are testing like how bad you're gonna freak out. And that's true of so many potentially traumatic things. Your kid will kind of float something past you. And if you freak out, they are not going to talk to you anymore. So just keep taking breaths and taking notes and asking questions and then pause like, "I need to look into this some more and let's come back to this."
That would be the number one trust building thing as a teacher and as a parent that I've learned is just to keep listening.
Christian Picciolini: We talk a lot about young people but I would take exactly what Nora said and apply it to 60-year-old children as well. When I work with people to help them disengage, I treat them like children, like my own children. I don't beat them. I don't swear at them. I try to set a good example. I don't berate them or throw them out of my house or disown them. I listen to them and I try to understand what the motivation is for why they're crying. And it's usually not, you know, whatever you think that they're crying about. You know, it's probably a dirty diaper or something like that. And I'm talking about adults here now. But it's really the same approach.
You know they're winning hearts and minds with disinformation. We need to win those same hearts and minds back emotionally because the way I challenge people is not like directly telling them they're wrong. It's by letting them come to the conclusion themselves that they're wrong. That's how I know it works because they'll just come to this magic conclusion. They won't know how to put it into words and they'll say, "I kind of like that person now that I've met this Jewish person," or this or that. It's cognitive dissonance, right. They don't know that. They just know that, "Oh this person that I've demonized is suddenly starting to feel human to me."
One bit of advice I would say is, and this isn't ideologically speaking, but start in the middle. Start with the things that are shared values like health, you know job security, you know the fact that people love their kids, they want them to have an education and you know health care and access to resources. We start there, eventually we'll get off track you know depending on the ideology, but we always have kind of a jump back point. If we always start out on the ends of the the playing field screaming at each other, we'll never find the middle. We might as well just start lining up from each other like in the American Revolution and take turns firing. What's the other solution? We have to find a way on those shared values. I think the fact that we're all broken, every single one of us. That's actually the glue that will keep us together.
Nora Flanagan: And I know we're running short on time but I want to add on to that really quick because someone else put it in the question box, like how does this relate to actually modeling diversity rather than just paying lip service and then having our kids be completely disoriented anyway? Showing them. Not letting them be constantly in spaces dominated by white people and/or males. Straight people, Christians etc. Like show them a genuine appreciation for other spaces instead of just saying diversity is awesome.
Like you have to get out there into the world and I'm saying that again as someone who's grown up in one of the most segregated cities ever. It takes effort to get out of our comfort zones and get out of what we know and really model that for our children so that when they do find themselves in a diverse environment, they're less vulnerable and they're less unsteady.
EmbraceRace: This has been an amazing conversation. We really appreciate what you've done, what you're doing ... Christian Picciolini, Nora Flanagan. Thank you for the work you do. Thanks for spending this time. Thank you for the reading list.
Everyone else who's on- remember, if it's the first Tuesday of the month, it's Talking Race & Kids. So you can sign up for our newsletter to know what the next conversation is gonna be.
Christian Picciolini: And I just wanted to end by saying this shouldn't be the end of the conversation. This should just be the beginning of it. So I hope everybody can take maybe something that they've learned here and just take it forward and continue this because this is really something we have to change over the general scape of everything.
EmbraceRace: Lots of respect and appreciation. Good night.
Nora Flanagan is a veteran high school English teacher in Chicago and has researched and organized against racism for decades. Her efforts have included speaking to law enforcement and other government agencies, school administrations, community groups, and media outlets about the intersection of bigotry and youth culture. She recently co-authored Confronting White Nationalism in Schools, a toolkit designed to help schools thoughtfully and effectively respond to incidents of racial hostility and proactively strengthen school communities.
Christian Picciolini is an award-winning television producer, a public speaker, author, peace advocate, and a former violent extremist. After leaving the hate movement he helped create during his youth in the 1980s and 90s, he began the painstaking process of making amends and rebuilding his life. Christian went on to earn a degree in international relations from DePaul University and launched Goldmill Group, a counter extremism consulting and digital media firm. In 2016, he won an Emmy Award for producing an anti hate advertising campaign aimed at helping people disengage from extremism. He now leads the Free Radicals Project, a global extremism prevention and disengagement network. Christian’s involvement in, and exit from, the early American white-supremacist skinhead movement is chronicled in his memoir, WHITE AMERICAN YOUTH. His disengagement work is spotlighted in his MSNBC documentary series Breaking Hate.