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‘Sisters in Hate’ Offers a Window Into Women in the White Nationalist Movement

American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism
By Seyward Darby

As many white Americans struggle to better understand Black lives, it is crucial to understand the people who don’t think those lives matter — the white nationalists whose support Donald Trump is ever more openly seeking to win a continuation of his presidency. The term “neo-Nazi” is euphemistic: There’s nothing neo about people who brandish the swastikas that are banned in today’s Germany. We know that at least 47 percent of white women voted for Trump in 2016, and that it was more often the daughters than the sons of the Confederacy who organized to build those monuments to Confederate heroes. Still, it’s hard to wrap our heads around the idea that women, traditionally expected to be gentle and nurturing, could be driving engines of white supremacist hatred. The journalist Seyward Darby shows that this is one more sexist assumption we ought to discard. “Men like Josef Mengele and Madison Grant were the best-known purveyors of racist science and policy at the height of the eugenics movement’s popularity,” she writes. “Women, though, were on the real front lines, incorporating eugenics into the fabric of everyday life.”

After Trump’s election in 2016, Darby spent several years trying to fathom what moves women to support white supremacy, the belief that America should remain a predominantly white country governed by white people. The result is the superbly written “Sisters in Hate,” which undermines many common assumptions about the far right.

Darby is a white Southerner, several of whose “forebears fought on the wrong side of the Civil War,” but in examining her subjects, she never confuses empathy with understanding. While ruthless in her condemnation of racist ideology, she suggests how that ideology becomes inseparable from a person’s sense of herself, and presents a strong case that comprehending this is crucial if we are to battle white supremacy. Her focus on the lives of three very different women makes her book as readable as a good novel; skillfully combined with history and analysis, her subjects’ stories provide a better picture of the forces driving white backlash than several of the best sellers that attempted to do so in the wake of Trump’s election.

The three women at the center of “Sisters in Hate” were born in 1979, but that’s about all they have in common. Corinna Olsen, from Oregon, has worked as a porn star, a bodybuilder and a professional embalmer. Ayla Stewart grew up in Las Vegas, and before becoming known online as “Wife with a Purpose,” a Christian stay-at-home mother of six whose broadcasts spew hatred toward anyone whose life choices are different, she flirted with a feminist version of New Age culture that included pagan goddess worship and veganism. Lana Lokteff, once a self-described “grunge puppy” from the Pacific Northwest, now lives in Charleston, S.C., where she and her Swedish husband run Red Ice, a popular website and radio show that promotes apocalyptic racist propaganda. In emphasizing the specificity of their stories, Darby also underscores that all three women made choices. “It’s possible to acknowledge the rampant, persistent sexism of the far right while also giving women the credit they deserve. … We risk stripping them of responsibility when we suggest that the harm they do is merely a way of coping with their own oppression.”

As we learn more about them, we learn how their choices evolved. Corinna left the movement and even became an F.B.I. informer after realizing that a group she belonged to was planning to commit mass murder. Ayla and Lana cooperated briefly with Darby’s reporting before deciding she was a leftist, feminist journalist who couldn’t be trusted to adequately portray their continuing commitment to the white supremacist cause. In showing that white nationalism is not monolithic, Darby stresses its supporters’ agency — reminding us that those supporters could always choose to act differently, and sometimes do.

What makes such different women vulnerable to the movement’s hateful propaganda? Darby draws on familiar studies in behavioral science that show the importance of repetition: The more you hear something repeated with conviction, the harder it is to believe it isn’t true. Smartly, Darby also suggests that “life in contemporary America may be enough to incline a person toward conspiracism.” This was true before the current administration. Few Americans know that other wealthy nations — not just Scandinavia! — take for granted what Americans are lacking: universal health care, paid sick leave, parental leave, guaranteed vacations and other benefits regarded in this country as privileges to be granted, or denied, at employers’ whims. Even though few Americans know these benefits are elsewhere called rights, their absence creates anxiety, social instability and a floating resentment that can easily turn violent, especially in places where any 18-year-old can buy an assault weapon but not a bottle of beer.

But Darby doesn’t succumb to the idea that white nationalism is the product of economic insecurity; the statistics are too clear. She quotes the political scientist Ashley Jardina, who found that most white nationalists “own houses, have average incomes similar to most whites in the United States, are employed and identify as middle class.” (We’d prefer to believe that Nazism too was supported by poor and illiterate masses, but a high percentage of Nazi Party members in Germany had college degrees.)

While all three of Darby’s subjects were influenced by the lies they ingested on right-wing radio and websites, all three denied they hated the Black people, Jews or Latinos regularly vilified on such sites. Darby writes, “White nationalists are posing a challenge: If other groups can rally around their history, why not white people?” This is not a stupid question. Darby answers it by saying it promotes a false equivalence, “shorn of context, nuance and power disparities. In theory, though, it’s more effective from a P.R. standpoint than lynchings, cross burnings and slur-filled pamphlets.”

She is right, but why not turn to the universalism of fierce activists like Paul Robeson or Bob Moses, who risked their lives in the struggle against racism, but never succumbed to the essentialist idea that we are reducible to our ethnic origins? Universalism has been stigmatized by many progressives today, who confuse it with the false universalism that screams “All Lives Matter.” But “All Lives Matter” invokes a banal and abstract truth to obscure an empirical and historical one: that people of color are far more likely to become victims of white violence long enshrined in custom and law. This is completely different from a universalism that acknowledges racist histories and celebrates cultural difference while affirming our common humanity. In this critical moment of American history, that’s a model we must take seriously.

Darby writes that her years spent studying white nationalism have inclined her to pessimism, but her book ends on a hopeful note. Corinna, who once sported swastika armbands and Hitler tattoos, now worships in a mosque whose members are mostly people of color, having converted to Islam in 2018 and had her tattoos covered up. The last time we see her, she is using her bodybuilding skills to teach calisthenics to women at the mosque who said they would like to be healthier, but didn’t know where to start. It’s a scene that calls to mind a remark often repeated by the defense attorney Bryan Stevenson, who created the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala.: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.

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