Hate speech can’t be answered with silence

In 1997, four New Trier students were charged with hate crimes after spray-painting swastikas on a Northfield synagogue. A 21-year-old man had attempted to create a neo-Nazi group on the North Shore, recruiting many students, many of whom were sophomores. The students charged agreed to go into counseling through the school.

Scarcely two years later, the Chicago Tribune reported that a 15-year-old boy was suspended after he called his classmate a racial slur, and that he and his friends had been wearing badges to school that bore symbols supporting white supremacy.

More than twenty years later, as a community we are still grappling with white-nationalism and neo-Nazi sentiments. Specifically, we are seeing these slurs and symbols in the form of bathroom stall graffiti.

Throughout my time at the Winnetka campus, there have been four separate instances of racist or anti-Semitic graffiti found on school property.

The first was the week of November 27, 2017 when a freshman wrote the n-word in a bathroom at the Northfield campus. The second incident occurred only weeks later at the Winnetka campus. The third report of graffiti containing a racial slur was in April of 2018.

There was another announcement of anti-Semitic graffiti in a bathroom on Thursday, October 25, 2018. A swastika had been carved into a roll of toilet paper.

The regularity of these hateful acts desensitizes us to the history and hate of these symbols. However, this past week I found myself shocked at the report of another instance of alt-right vandalism. This time, it was at Wilmette Junior High School, where I attended.

Last week the Wilmette Beacon reported that a racist Instagram post with implications of violent threats had been reported to the Highcrest Middle School. The next day, a swastika was found behind a toilet paper roll in a bathroom at Wilmette Junior High.

Two things struck me about this incident. I was obviously horrified that this behavior was happening in a school full of 11, 12, and 13-year-olds. The second thing I thought (perhaps inappropriately) was that it was a really weird location for a swastika.

Behind a toilet roll? Really? You have to work to find that. An entire roll of toilet paper would need to be used up for anyone to even see it.

Certain subsets of our community have embraced hate and bigotry for decades. However, unlike the outward displays of neo-Nazism in the late 90’s, when people feel compelled to draw swastikas or write the n-word today, they tend to do it where they think they won’t get caught.

I have always wondered if people go into the bathroom with the intention of creating some subtle neo-Nazi vandalism, or if they are simply struck by inexplicable and irresistible alt-right inspiration while sitting on the toilet. Regardless, it is always done when the door is closed, and it always disgusts me that people feel emboldened to do so.

Every single graffiti incident throughout my time at NT has been in bathrooms. Clearly, these vandalizers do not want to be seen while they commit an act of hate. They also do not want to sign their names on their work.

These symbols and slurs are put in subtle places because they are meant to serve as subtle reminders – hatred and bigotry are alive and well, whether or not you can see it or feel it.

I can’t speak for every Jewish person who lives on the North Shore, but I have never experienced anti-Semitism in all of high school. In fact, I can only recall a single time I have experienced any form of anti-Semitism firsthand.

When I was nine or ten years old, I went on a play-date at a friends house. Her older brother was playing a video game, where he was busy building a mansion or house of some sort. As he created the basement he said, “This is where I’ll keep all the Jews.”

I didn’t properly understand the sentiment behind his words, and I am not sure that he did either. I told him that I was Jewish, and then he was suddenly rather apologetic.

People are fine with being racist, anti-Semitic or prejudiced until they’re called out for it.

Similarly, if people who create messages like these need to be hidden away in a bathroom in order to do it, they know it is wrong.

Racism and intolerance need to be exposed. The people who hold these reprehensible beliefs understand that their bigotry is unacceptable. This is a persistent but relatively quiet component of our community, and has been for decades. The hope is that the more we denounce this behavior, the less likely it will be to occur.

There needs to be a more active conversation about what these symbols and slurs represent so that we can encourage tolerance, progress, and empathy rather than blind hatred. Thoughtful dialogue is never going to happen in the stall of a bathroom.