Learned from the worst: how former white supremacists shake hate
His hood does not hang in his closet. His hood hangs in history. The last time “Jackson” disrobed was over a decade ago. His hood hangs not as a shrine, but as a shadow.
For “Bonnie,” each day she has to think a little harder when she gets ready. She still has tattoos and every time she walks outside her home, she covers them. The ink on her skin tells a story. But she writes the sequel with her new life.
Jackson and Bonnie are two of the 89 former white supremacists who sat down for interviews with a team of sociologists over multiple years. The study sought to understand the disengagement process for those steeped in the shroud of a salient identity.
The formers, as they are called, came from all the major hate groups in the United States. They ranged in age from 19 to 61. They were mostly male and a majority of them described themselves as working-class people.
Even with their hoods aside, although it is an unwelcomed guest, the hate still resides with all of them.
The hate has hovered and lingered even though, in some cases, it was disavowed many years ago. This is the case even for the one who is in an interracial marriage.
The formers describe their behaviors and feelings about white supremacy as an addiction. They report reactions and relapses that are unwanted and involuntary.
One of them is “Alicia” who said,
“Well, it makes one wonder and think more about hate as an addiction because there can be so many aspects of it.”
Others talk also about their lives after white supremacy as a “recovery process.”
From the 22-page report, published in 2017, three strategies emerge that help these former white supremacists.
These tools are effective for those who have already acknowledged white supremacy as an issue:
White supremacy is an emotionally charged, all-encompassing, and deep-seated identity. The internal ideology is reinforced by routines, rituals, religion, media, and attire. All aspects of life are seen through the peepholes of their hoods.
For those reasons, a former white supremacist must separate from all sympathizers, places, and things which trigger them to respond with their former identity.
The necessary changes for them are usually obvious. But many of them are also excited and incited by what may be innocuous for most people. From the study, “Carter” mentions an ongoing struggle with the Bible.
“For years, I didn’t even pick up a Bible anymore. I couldn’t read it without only reading it from a bad point of view…I didn’t want to read it,” says Carter.
For those who seek to reduce racism, it requires brutal honesty and self-awareness to uncover every remnant and reminder of white supremacy. Then, one must separate from what reinforces white supremacy.
A former supremacist must rediscover everything. They start all over with what to wear, what to listen to, and how to interact with people. The formers must create a new identity, new friendships, a new sense of self-worth, and a new life. They must have fresh eyes and be willing to do what used to make them uncomfortable.
A major aspect of starting over for the former white supremacist is how they relate to people. The formers must go back to square one with the people they’ve hated. Christian Picciolini, a former white supremacist, and co-founder of the nonprofit organization Life After Hate says most former supremacists have never met anyone in the groups they hate. As the formers establish new relationships they weaken the hold hate has on their lives.
A key goal for starting over is to create a new and stable life. Former supremacists have a better chance of a “life after hate” if their new lives are stable.
For those who seek to decrease white supremacy in their lives, starting from scratch with themselves and others is a strong strategy.
Many of the formers are triggered by everyday interactions with a person of color. Or, they may be triggered by what they perceive to be a negative interaction with a person of color.
In those cases, the formers engage in self-talk to intervene. Examples of the self-talk are: interrogating automatic responses, dismantling assumptions, and empathetic thoughts.
“Darren” who is a truck driver in New Mexico, shares how while driving his truck his mind will start to make assumptions about truck drivers who are “Mexican.” He says when he sees them, “the wheels start spinning.” His thoughts then try to run on about the truck driver’s immigration status or their license to drive a truck. Darren uses deliberate thoughts and prepared statements to catch himself and to “take on the role of others.”
The self-talk short-circuits and stays the hate hidden under the surface. Self-talk proves to be a form of auto-correction for the thoughts that turn up like typos from a hand of all thumbs.
Even with separation and starting over, recovery from white supremacy is best described as self-regulation. For many, the hate dissipates but it does not disappear once and for all. Instead, they suppress and control their responses.
So, it makes sense when people say, “do the work.” To reduce white supremacy, there must be action. This is why we don’t accept mere apologies for racist remarks. No one should think their apology extinguishes racism. People must be active and not passive to stop white supremacy.
Keeping It Going
While hate groups are on the rise, most people do not identify with hate groups. And yet, studies show how an implicit preference for whiteness is persistent and dominant.
Our implicit biases, like addictions, are often automatic, unconscious, and in conflict with our stated values.
Implicit biases must concern everyone because they have a strong influence on our decision-making and on the lives of others. From the cradle to the grave, we can see the fingerprints of implicit biases on all aspects of our society.
They influence how students are treated. They influence law enforcement and the criminal justice system. They influence jobs, pay, and promotions. And, implicit biases also influence life and death matters like medical care.
In an emotional TEDx Talk, mental health professional Melanie Funchess tells a story about how her husband nearly died from a terminal condition. The doctors could not figure out what was wrong with her husband. They were only testing him for what they expected to find in “a young African-American male.” And, all of those tests were coming back negative.
The doctors then pressured Melanie’s husband to “tell the truth about his IV drug use and unprotected sex with men.”
Melanie finally said, “I want you to check my husband for things that white people get.”
His diagnosis was stage 4b non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He had two weeks to live. And, he lives. Even when we are trying to do good implicit biases can unconsciously cloud us.
In our everyday personal lives, implicit biases influence whom we listen to, whom we trust, whom we befriend, what we buy, and likely our romantic partners.
Is there any doubt about how implicit biases can do more harm in society than overt racism?
White supremacy has no place in any society. And we must push those ideologies to the fringes of society until we can push no more. But, we need to take a hard look at those ideologies while we push.
With implicit bias, we have something in common with white supremacists which is a preference for whiteness. White preference is the most basic and readily available page from the book of white supremacy. Even people of color may have a preference for white people or they may have internalized oppression.
So, we all have a responsibility to examine ourselves and take steps to suppress our implicit biases.
Patricia Devine, a social psychologist and prejudice expert, likens implicit biases to habits. Devine makes an apt comparison because any habit can become an addiction or have addictive like qualities.
Similar to the experiences of the former white supremacists, people may not be able to end forever their implicit biases. The work goes on for life.
One former white supremacist says it this way,
“it took me less than two years to learn to hate, and nine years to unlearn it.”
For many addicts and people struggling with bad habits, the “cure” comes with consistency. It’s a one day at a time thing. Addicts in recovery recognize how susceptible they are to their addictions. They know how the battle is a lifetime effort.
Addicts in recovery have steps they take and standards they keep. Those who want to kick the habits of white supremacy, racism, and prejudice must also take the necessary steps and establish standards.
And the first steps are awareness and a desire to change. But from there, the most important standard is sobriety. Immunity is not a standard. Instead, that’s where we aim.