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.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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.
One thing I appreciate about “Sisters in Hate” is that it treats Whiteness not merely as a skin color but as a racial category with social meaning and political weight. I’d argue that, until very recently, Whiteness was viewed largely as a standard or neutral category from which everyone and everything else deviates. In a recent article for The Washington Post, the historian Nell Irvin Painter writes: “White Americans have had the choice of being something vague, something unraced and separate from race.”
Did your thinking on Whiteness change as you worked on your book?
I’m really glad that you feel that way about the book. One of the things I feel was most illuminating to me in working on this project was how I hadn’t necessarily considered my own Whiteness. As you said, in America, culturally, we tend to treat it as the default against which everything else is compared, and that itself is a measure of power.
A book that was incredibly useful in my research was Painter’s “The History of White People” – who’s defined as White in the American context. She talks about this history well beyond the origins of America, but in the American context, especially, the definition of Whiteness has shifted a lot over time. And it’s all a matter of politics and convenience and, again, power – who’s allowed to have power, who’s allowed to be considered a baseline. And it’s not just how you look. Historically, it’s also been your religion, and in some cases your nationality.
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It’s interesting to me that we, as a country, haven’t really had a meaningful reckoning with what Whiteness is, what it means, and how the far right, especially, is positioned to capitalize on Whiteness as an identity in a way that’s incredibly toxic.
I obviously dig into the extreme end of White identity in my book. But everything exists on a spectrum. White nationalists are essentially saying that there’s no problem with Whiteness being at the top of the hierarchy, that there’s no problem with preserving White supremacy, if we think of White supremacy not just as a belief but also as a system of institutions and structures and even as a way of talking about history.
Conversations about Whiteness that are measured and fact-based are important. But you can’t divorce them from an understanding of what the extreme end of the spectrum is.
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.
That reminds me of how your book unpacks how even people who are progressive can gradually make their way to White nationalism.
The book is structured around three women. The first woman is by most people’s standards the most extreme, in terms of the things she’s done in her life and what she believed (before she disavowed White nationalism). But then I try to move through women who might be more familiar to people, because, again, there’s a spectrum of people – from the most unusual people you’ve ever heard of to people you could’ve gone to college with.
There are lots of people who go to this space because they’re seekers. America is full of people who are seeking. I think that it’s frightening to realize that some people can find their way to a surprising end.
What’s also important here is that White nationalism isn’t some totally alien environment. It’s just making explicit things that are already coded and veiled – maybe not even code and veiled, frankly – in mainstream cultural and political conversations. People in the hate movement are explicit. They’re very overt about what they believe. But they’re drawing from a communal well, essentially. So it’s not as though people who were more progressive or apolitical or whatever go to a totally new thing. White nationalism is building on something that’s already very present in American life. Which goes back to your earlier point about why it’s so important to have these conversations about race: We shouldn’t disassociate White nationalism from the greater American experience.
And the way you locate gender within this experience is compelling. You write: “It’s possible to acknowledge the rampant, persistent sexism of the far right while also giving women the credit they deserve.” This line made me think of the archconservative Phyllis Schlafly, the subject of a recent miniseries on Hulu and a figure you reference in your book. In the 1970s, she knowingly worked with racists and weaponized White womanhood as she sought to thwart the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Right. Schlafly was the object of sexism and misogyny. But everybody has a choice. To make the choice to run what was ultimately an exclusionary movement isn’t a choice that had to be made.
It’s possible to acknowledge that somebody can be the object of a negative cultural force and also be at the forefront of a negative cultural force. A lot of the time, we’re not very good at recognizing that reality.
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.
I think, too, that if I were to apply my research and my understanding of White nationalism to this situation, I’d say that it’s important to be attentive to backlash. When you look back at certain periods – the civil rights movement is a good example, as is the year following the 2008 election of Barack Obama, when something like 100,000 people joined Stormfront, the oldest hate forum on the internet – you see that backlash is very possible, even if it’s not the massive resistance that was on display in the South during the civil rights movement.
I spend time on parts of the internet that I don’t recommend other people spend time on, but that’s very much been the rhetoric: See, we told you that they’d come for White people. See, we told you that they actually hate White people. See, we told you that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization. All these things that are – to me and I assume to you – untrue, but they exist in echo chambers. I think that it’s very important not to lose sight of the fact that there will be people who find something in these spaces to believe in.
Dylann Roof, who in 2015 shot up the church in Charleston and murdered nine Black Americans, said in his manifesto that the killing of Trayvon Martin inspired his racial awakening. But it wasn’t just the killing. It was the way people reacted to the killing. Basically, he said that he was influenced by what we consider the origins of the Black Lives Matter movement. I think that there’s an urgency to be attentive to backlash that’s both more mundane and possibly more violent.