Brandon Tensley, CNN, July 28, 2020
Where are the women?
It’s a question that the writer Seyward Darby asked in the months following the 2016 election of Donald Trump. During that period, men took center stage in discussions about the noticeable return of White nationalism to American public life. But Darby suspected that that wasn’t the full story. After all, a plurality of White women had decided to vote for a man who’s spent decades abetting racism (to say nothing of the accusations of sexual harassment and assault that have been leveled against him).
In her new book, “Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism,” Darby charts the lives of three women who were or are active in the White nationalist movement. In doing so, she adds dimension to readers’ understanding of the complex role that gender plays in bolstering the country’s racial regime.
I recently spoke with Darby about what White nationalism looks like in the Trump era, how America’s perception of Whiteness is undergoing a slow but necessary change, and why it’s crucial to pay attention to backlash dynamics amid a season of racial reckoning.
There are so many ways to grapple with White nationalism. What motivated you to approach the issue from the angle of women’s involvement in the movement?
Right after the 2016 presidential election, I, like many people, was sorting out how I felt, and trying to come to terms with where we were as a country. I was struck reading coverage of the so-called alt-right. Especially after Richard Spencer inspired a Nazi salute at a National Policy Institute gathering in Washington, there was a lot of conversation about the resurgence of White nationalism — how it was a lot of angry White men, how it was a bastion of toxic masculinity.
It struck me that that was probably an overstatement. Those things are true: The far right is a bastion of toxic masculinity. But I noticed that nobody was talking about women in that space, that nobody was quoting women. So I was motivated by that, as well as by the fact that exit polls showed that, while the number ended up being a little lower, 53% of White women had voted for Donald Trump.
I was very curious to dig into where White women fit into the far right. I started from the point of: Where are the women? Once I started looking for them, they weren’t terribly hard to find. They were right there on the internet.
Had you thought about White nationalism in a focused way before the 2016 election?
I think that I was aware of it maybe more than the average person, just because I grew up in the South. My family’s been in the South for a really long time. There was a Ku Klux Klan rally pretty regularly in the town next door to where I grew up. So White nationalism was something I was aware of.
But it wasn’t something I’d spent a lot of time thinking too hard about — other than worrying about it, I guess. 2016 really was the catalyst for me.
Especially around the time of the inauguration, in 2017, women were depicted as being on the right side of things. They were leading the march in Washington, and they were signing up to run for office. It was a very woman-forward moment. And I was curious about who was on the other side of the divide. I felt like I probably knew some of these women, just because of where I grew up and the types of people I grew up around.
What was the most surprising thing you learned from your reporting?
Whenever I talk with friends and family about the book, I keep coming back to the fact that you don’t have to feel deep hatred to be a part of the hate movement. Often, hatred is secondary, even tertiary. It’s something that can be learned over time by being a part of the space.
Think of hate more as a social bond, as a currency between people. I think that there’s this misapprehension that if people get involved in the hate movement, they must have a particularly deep-seated disdain for people who aren’t like them. But actually, they can get involved in the space — whether we’re talking about an organized group or, especially in the digital age, online networks — for reasons that are actually really mundane and really familiar to pretty much anybody. They’re looking for a way to understand the world that helps them have a narrative for their own lives. They might be looking for camaraderie. They might be looking for power. They might be looking for a way to have a voice, a way to have a platform.
The rhetoric of hate — and then certainly the violence of hate in some cases, for some people — that comes later. And it’s a way of reinforcing a place in a community. It was very instructive for me to see hate like that, because if you think of hate as a kind of poison or as something that’s just curdling in someone, that’s not a terribly constructive way to think about hate as a social phenomenon.
Something else that was surprising to me was how little the rhetoric of the far right has changed over time, specifically in the post-Civil War era, because before the Civil War, it was pretty clear where the country stood in terms of hierarchy. Whether you’re talking about the Ku Klux Klan or various neo-Confederate groups or Aryan Nations or the alt-right, the consistency in messaging over time is really striking. The rhetoric has been about how the White race is under threat, how the real racism is against White people, how White people are the true and rightful Americans and their way of life must be protected.
That stood out to me because there are people today who run White nationalist social media platforms and try to say: Well, I’m not in the Klan. Or: I’m not a neo-Nazi. And, OK, fine, but you’re a part of the same ecosystem, and your rhetoric is remarkably similar.
Since the police killing of George Floyd in May, has your thinking on what you want your book to accomplish — how you want it to fit into conversations about race — changed at all?
I’ve been very excited and heartened by what’s been happening, with this very public resurgence of protests and demands. I think that it’s incredible.