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“But What About Antifa?”

Never let the fear of a follow-up question silence a discussion—even if that’s its intended purpose.

In the wake of the so-called “Unite the Right” rally—defined in the media by a tragic death and a naked display of hateful ideologies—educators faced an increasingly familiar Monday morning dilemma: Do I talk about this? And, if so, how?

This question becomes even more difficult when you know you might encounter defensiveness that gives rise to “whataboutism.”

In this case, you may have students who attempt to diminish the necessary condemnation of the so-called “alt-right” and white nationalist actions by asking for a simultaneous denunciation of far-left factions who counter-protested the rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“But what about antifa?” has been a common refrain this week.

This is a false equivalence, and it requires nuance and discussion in response—not silence. Condemning neo-Nazis, white supremacists and white nationalists does not equate with endorsing or not endorsing antifa’s actions. They are separate issues.

But discussing both can offer students an important history lesson and a chance to evaluate the effectiveness and moral legacy of collective action—nonviolent and otherwise.

So, how do you talk about this?

First, educators should understand the histories and purposes behind each loosely defined and loosely affiliated group.

What is the “alt-right”? We offer an extensive primer here, giving teachers the tools to recognize the rhetoric and recruitment that may be happening with their own students. In short, the “alt-right” represents a rebranding and new media approach to old, white-nationalist ideals. While the umbrella term “alt-right” encompasses several factions of the far right, their unifying ideas surround a concern over white identity and a belief that multiculturalism has led to the degradation of a white-dominated Western civilization.  

Other hate groups who assembled in Charlottesville (e.g., neo-Nazis and KKK members) need no introduction.

What is antifa? Short for antifascists and described as a group and a movement, it encompasses people of varying far-left belief systems and varying protest tactics. And they’re not as new as recent media attention would have you believe. The Atlantic recently released a comprehensive rundown of antifa, its predecessors and its present-day methods. 

In summary, antifa has its roots in the resistance of fascist Europe during the early 20th century and resurged when neo-Nazism began making waves. Today, antifa groups—often including anarchists in the fold—purport to fight against white supremacy through action rather than judicial or governmental means. Their tactics include disrupting rallies or speeches led by white supremacists, sometimes through force or intimidation.

These methods have come under criticism from the right and the left, but as Peter Beinart outlines here, conflating these far-left and far-right factions makes little sense. 

One key difference: White supremacy and white nationalism seek to eradicate and divide diverse societies, victimizing marginalized populations and calling for state-sanctioned discrimination. Antifa claims to protect those marginalized populations and was borne from a desire to stop state-sanctioned discrimination.

So rather than presenting a false equivalence for the sake of appearing neutral—a tactic which flies in the face of critical thinking and historical nuance—teachers can instead allow their students to evaluate both groups’ historic ideas and use of collective action. And critique them.

Trust your students. Whether your tool of choice is a Venn diagram or a class discussion, allow students to explore these two groups by comparing and contrasting them. They’ll enhance their skills with critical thinking and nuance.

The fear of the follow-up question doesn’t have to mean silence or stillness.

It’s an open door and a crucial lesson in educating for a diverse democracy. To teach history and literacy is to teach your students that no two things—no two histories—are the same. They arrived in that same space from separate paths. Education is a quest to understand those paths. Do not fear the expedition. Lead it.

Collins is a staff writer for Teaching Tolerance.