S. Mitra Kalita, vice president for programming at CNN Digital, interviewed a former white supremacist in order to understand that perspective better from her own perspective – as “a woman of color and a mom of two kids.” Her phone conversation with Arno Michaelis, author of My Life After Hate, was published on CNN. Excerpts:
Michaelis: …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 asks Michaelis about the “go back where you came from” refrains of white nationalist voices, the warning not to “replace us.” What do white nationalists have in mind when they express these ideas? Michaelis says the conversations he witnessed never went that far:
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.”
So much of it, he says, is relationship, though that can cut both ways. Americans are spread out, and many whites and white nationalists don’t see the same sort of diversity that people in the U.K., for instance. Some whites might have one or two black acquaintances or friends, and see them as “one of the good ones.” But reaching out can make a world of difference:
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.
Being a father was an important factor in what led Michaelis away from white nationalism:
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.
Read the interview, and follow a link to a piece written by Michaelis about his journey out of hate, here.
Photo of Kalita from Poynter.
Photo of Michaelis from YouTube.