Everybody’s writing about white nationalists. But nobody’s asking them the things I really want to know, as a woman of color and a mom of two kids. I reached out to Arno Michaelis, a former activist in the white power movement, to better understand how their world might affect mine. He is the author of “My Life After Hate” and details his journey in this CNN Opinion piece. Our phone conversation, lightly edited for flow, is below.
S. Mitra Kalita: Why are they so mad?
Arno Michaelis: That is a great place to start. The reason why they are so mad is because things are not going right in their personal lives. Rather than do the work it takes to get your personal life sorted out, it’s easier to blame other people.
A lot of white people are having a rough time. When they see Black Lives Matter, they interpret that as black lives matter more than their life.
That’s an age-old recruiting technique for white power politics. Richard Spencer says this, too: It’s a backlash against the identity politics of the left.
Kalita: They chant “Jews will not replace us” or say things like “Go back where you came from.” Where precisely should nonwhites in America go?
Michaelis: All of this stuff requires a huge effort of historic myopia to make any kind of sense. The idea of telling African-American people dragged here against their will to get out is ludicrous. But they would mean go back to wherever your ancestry of origin is. If you are Indian, go back to India. Never mind that you were born here.
Kalita: Are these sorts of logistics discussed in meetings?
Michaelis: During my time in the movement, very little time was spent asking, “Wait, how would this actually happen?”
I was involved in a hate group … and the founder was a rich white guy, a prolific writer, who wrote “The White Man’s Bible.” In those books, he had a broad approach of how we would achieve our whiter and brighter world. The idea of sending people back wasn’t really discussed. What it was is the idea that the white race carries everyone else on our backs instead of vice versa. The white man shelters all these hordes; if we stop doing that, the movement believes – and these are exact words – “They would wither on the vine.” Everyone would die off the minute you stop supporting them all. That was the response to if we would have to actively exterminate everybody. “They won’t survive. They’re too dumb to feed themselves.”
Kalita: Back when you were a white nationalist, if you sat next to me on a plane, would you make small talk?
Michaelis: When I fly, I put headphones on. (laughs) It has nothing to do with skin color.
In general, it’s hard to say. There are people in the movement who might. I think most of them, though, their beliefs are kept front and center by social media and white-power music. If they are actively practicing, the odds they would make any kind of small talk with a minority are slim.
If you talked to them, though – like, “Coming home or leaving home?” – that could change somebody’s life.
I understand a lot of the social justice-speak now is that people of color have no obligation, I don’t blame anybody for having those feelings. But that kind of kindness and outreach are wins. That’s really what changes people’s lives.
Kalita: How do they avoid Jews and people of color in the US?
Michaelis: I’ve been to the UK a number of times. You go to the pub and it’s diverse; there’s bangers and mash and chicken tikka masala. The UK has a much higher population density.
We are much more spread out in the US. If you are out in the sticks, it is easy to isolate yourself. You can make friends with one of the black guys at work and think, “He’s not Black Lives Matter; he’s one of the good ones.” You hear stuff like that a lot.
Kalita: How are children raised in this movement? And how will they interact with my children?
Michaelis: This is an important moment for people in the white power movement. You can send your kid off to war for the rest of his life or you can teach him that the world is a beautiful place.
The birth of my daughter factored heavily in my decision to leave. She became the excuse. I didn’t want her to be involved in the kind of violence I was. The idea of her hurting someone was as bad as her being hurt.
Some people say, “We are white. We gotta have white kids.” Typically by osmosis rather than anything formal, children imitate racial slurs and white power salutes, along with the pain and hostility behind them.
As all of us start having kids, the reality of parenthood was that we needed to be responsible. Passing on this ideology to our children was not responsible.
Kalita: Do white Americans lack an identity? If they have one, how is it manifested?
Michaelis: It is a problem to define who is white and who is not. If you look white and you’re not Jewish, you’re white. It’s a superiority that speaks to an ill self esteem from whatever source. Wade Page (the white nationalist who opened fire on a Sikh temple) was in his 40s. He worked a shit minimum-wage factory job. His girlfriend had just dumped him. His entire life was crumbling around him. He took on this identity and it made his life crumble faster. It starts this vicious cycle and can drive people to that kind of violence.
In pop culture, there were things we would spin to fit our narrative. Like there’s a scene from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” and it’s an anti-Nazi thing. But we saw the marching hammers and Hitler-esque scenes and everybody’s hailing and we’d say, “Oh that’s awesome.”
Kalita: Does it remind you of statues?
Michaelis: That kind of symbolism is very powerful. You figure out ways it’s important to many cultures. The way Hitler took that symbol (the swastika) and changed it for all of human history. The revulsion a Jewish person might feel while seeing a swastika … He took that and that’s the symbol of my people, of our struggle, of this war. Symbolism is a really powerful thing.
Kalita: What’s the best way to break through to white nationalists? It sounds like it happened for you.
Michaelis: Do positive work. Service is a pillar of happiness. When you are involved in efforts to solve problems, it immunizes you against the internal fear and loathing.
Rather than attacking them physically or holding signs up, organize something fun and amazing that is a block away, a demonstration of how awesome diversity is. Get together a mass of people to dwarf the numbers of the white power rallies. We have to transform the media attention away from the rallies and not acknowledge anything they have to say.
Anti-racism is defined by racism. Focus instead on being pro-diversity and pro-humanity. That is honestly not accomplished by telling white people to sit down or shut up or by the way, it’s all your fault. That recruits further for the alt-right.