CANONSBURG – Meg Pankiewicz was “sick to my stomach” when she watched the viral video of a woman hurling racist slurs at Pennsylvania’s Second Lady Gisele Fetterman at a Pittsburgh area grocery store over the weekend.
Pankiewicz, an English teacher at Canon-McMillan High School who started a Holocaust literature course this semester, noticed how the woman in the video made sure to lower her mask so Fetterman’s cellphone camera could capture her face as she called her the N-word and told her she doesn’t belong in the country.
“They’re so emboldened in their hate, and they want their faces to be shown,” Pankiewicz said.
“Lately, I’ve had this constant sick feeling in my stomach because I see it everywhere,” Pankiewicz added. “I see the viciousness everywhere. I’m fearful because the people I’m close to are Holocaust survivors, and they say, ‘This is how it begins. This is how it starts.’ (Fetterman) was just going about her day, buying food. For someone to be that emboldened makes me sick to my stomach.”
Pankiewicz’s students noticed it as well.
Shortly after Fetterman tweeted the brief video Sunday night and explained her encounter with the woman at the store, Pankiewicz received messages from former students who helped her to launch the “No Place For Hate” group at Canon-Mac earlier this year. Her current students in her new Holocaust literature course also asked about the incident when class began Tuesday morning.
“It’s interesting because I’m constantly trying to get kids to make parallels from the past and present,” she said. “I tell them over and over again that hate speech never ends with hate speech. I showed them how hate speech turns into legislation, hate speech turns into action, and some leaders make citizens emboldened for hate speech. It induces violence. It incites violence.”
She pointed to Nazi propaganda during the Holocaust, where 6 million Jews and millions of other minorities were murdered under Hitler’s fascist regime during World War II, that taught children to hate. Her students learned about an anti-Semitic children’s tale called the “Poisonous Mushroom” in which a mother instills hatred of the Jewish people in her young son.
Pankiewicz said a lesson like that shows how hatred is learned and not natural.
“I do think it is an ingrained ideology that you are taught as a child. It’s a lack of education for knowing history, lack of education for how damaging hate speech can be,” Pankiewicz said.
Fetterman said in various interviews this week that she hoped the woman who verbally assaulted her would be met with compassion, but also be able to “unlearn” that behavior and change. Pankiewicz said she’s unsure if that’s possible with everyone who holds racist beliefs.
“Sometimes, I think there are people who truly exude that hate forever, and they can’t be changed,” she said. “It’s sad, because they’re very proud of that.”
But it’s a message she thinks is resonating with her students. She’s asked her students to analyze their own behavior while looking at contemporary problems, such as how Facebook just this week began removing Holocaust denial groups and information from its social media platform.
“It’s opening their eyes to how they’re living. It’s challenging their beliefs. They’re much more aware of it,” Pankiewicz said. “It’s more than a history lesson. It’s a self-analysis of how they’re living. They’re being more vigilant, with speech, actions and current events. They’re seeing it’s a problem that’s escalating.”
Pankiewicz thinks the problem is getting worse, which is why it’s important to educate young people about racism and hatred that still exists in the world today.
“There needs to be more empathy in our society,” she said. “If we were more empathetic and lived that way, then we would treat each other better, overall.”
This article was written and released by Mike Jones of the Observer Reporter.