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University of California Press
Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement / Edition 1

Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement / Edition 1

by Kathleen M. Blee
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Following up her highly praised study of the women in the 1920s Ku Klux Klan, Blee discovers that many of today's racist women combine dangerous racist and anti-Semitic agendas with otherwise mainstream lives. The only national sample of a broad spectrum of racist activists and the only major work on women racists, this important book also sheds light on how gender relationships shape participation in the movement as a whole.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520240551
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/09/2003
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

Kathleen M. Blee is Professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s (California, 1991), editor of No Middle Ground: Women and Radical Protest (1998), coauthor of The Road to Poverty: The Making of Wealth and Hardship in Appalachia (2000), and coeditor of Feminism and Antiracism:
International Struggles for Justice

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Chapter 1

The Racist Self

What are racist activists like? The news media typically depict them as semiarticulate, lower-class men (and sometimes women) who spew venomous sentiments about African Americans, Jews, and immigrants. Implicit is the message that people become racist activists because they hold intensely racist beliefs and want to keep racial minorities subordinated. For the same reason that poor people are expected to support welfare rights groups more readily than the wealthy do, racist groups are assumed to recruit most successfully among those who have an interest in keeping racial minorities oppressed, in particular poor whites who compete directly with minority groups for jobs, housing, and other resources.1

Surprisingly, recruitment by racist groups in the United States does not fit this pattern. White supremacist skinhead groups lure disaffected youth, including those from affluent suburbs. Some neo-Nazis come from politically progressive families. Even the Ku Klux Klan, traditionally the closest to the stereotype of lower-class racists, is attracting middle-class members. Interestingly, many racist groups find overwhelmingly white areas like the Pacific Northwest to be more receptive to their message than are more racially mixed regions.

Consider Jill, a young white supremacist skinhead active in neo-Nazi violence in a small western city. Jill's early life does not fit the media stereotype. Her parents were racially tolerant Democrats, she admitted to me with some embarrassment. Moreover, Jill described her family as emotionally stable and supportive. Although some interviewees distort their depictions of past family life to justify their current situations, I found Jill's account believable because she was estranged from her parents and had little reason to speak of them so warmly.

When I met her, Jill lived with a shifting group of young skinheads in a nearly empty warehouse near the center of a city. In every respect, Jill had severed her connections with mainstream society. She had no regular job, had dropped out long before completing high school, and hinted at a lengthy arrest record, mostly for minor offenses. Her life was consumed by parties with friends and the struggle to fend off what she regarded as legions of enemies—the police, landlords, African Americans, and disapproving family members. Despite her sullen and hostile demeanor, Jill talked to me at great length, perhaps passing the time until something more exciting happened.

Describing how she became a skingirl, Jill recalled, "I'd always had long beautiful hair. Everyone loved it. I went to a party and for some reason a man I'd had a crush on for a little over a year said to me, 'You would look great with a chopsie [haircut],' and I said okay, and I shaved my head." Note that at this point in her story, Jill does not connect ideas of race with her decision to shave her head. Rather disingenuously, Jill suggests that she adopted a skinhead hairstyle without considering its larger implications. "For some reason," she relates dreamily, a hoped-for boyfriend suggested that she shave her head (here, only the word chopsie hints at his racist affiliation). And, seeking his approval, she complied.

This minor action—cutting her hair in deference to another's tastes—is pivotal to the larger story that Jill tells. It is her shaved head, she says, that sparked a cycle of reaction that deepened her connection with members of a skinhead group:

That's when it all became very real. My parents had always known, "She's just rebelling but she's keeping up her grades and she's still working part-time and there's no problem. You know we can't control her life." Then I shaved my head. People that I worked with, you know, obviously gave me a hard time. They never said I could no longer work there, they were just teasing me, [but] I quit. My grades started to drop. My parents gave me the ultimate, "No more of this." . . . And I made the choice to leave [home] and join [the skinheads].

As she elaborates her account, Jill tells the story of her head-shaving differently, now positioning herself as the main character. The decision to cut her hair is recast: no longer simply reflecting acquiescence to an intended boyfriend, it takes its place as one in a series of rebellions from her parents. In this telling, the act of haircutting marks a boundary, signifying that Jill's parents have lost control over her life. Jill decides to quit her job, leave home, and become a white power skinhead. Neither version of the story suggests that Jill was propelled into white supremacist politics by her racial beliefs. Nor did her life circumstances (good grades, nonracist parents) appear to push her toward particularly racist ways of thinking. Indeed, Jill's entry into organized racism seems to have had the most trivial causes—teenage rebellion and a man's comment on her hairstyle.

Although Jill's story might be dismissed as an example of the political vicissitudes of youth, women commonly talk in these terms about joining racist groups. Janice, a middle-aged Aryan supremacist from the Midwest, described her move into organized racism with similar dispassion: "I met people that I knew who were white supremacists, but it didn't faze me. I guess it didn't really seem real at that point. And it was just a social thing at first and you met more people. Then I joined." Her story, like the younger Jill's, is split into two stages—an earlier period marked by her passivity, lack of agency, and unreality ("it didn't faze me") and a later period marked by her choice ("then I joined"). The dividing point is the experience of meeting racist activists. Like Jill, Janice did not characterize her entry into organized racism as a heartfelt search for a way to express her beliefs or safeguard her interests. Rather, she presented becoming a white supremacist as something that just happened, tied more closely to her social life than to her ideology.

Hardly any white supremacist women I met talked about joining organized racism as finding an outlet for long-held beliefs. Instead, their stated reasons for enlisting in racist groups appeared to have little to do with racist ideology. Nor did all these women come from backgrounds that might favor racist careers. Although some came from racist families or mixed neighborhoods filled with racial tension, others grew up in racially tolerant families or all-white suburbs. Indeed, more than one-third of the women I interviewed identified their parents as Democrats, progressives, or even leftists. Many of the other two-thirds described their parents as moderate or nonpolitical, and only a handful called them right-wing or racist.

Apparently, racist beliefs and a racist upbringing are not prerequisites for joining a racist group. As accounts by racist recruiters suggest, people can learn racist views after joining. Intense racism can be the result, not the cause, of involvement with organized racism. In his confessional autobiography, the German former neo-Nazi skinhead Ingo Hasselbach describes his efforts to recruit young boys: he sought not right-wing zealots but youngsters who would be attracted to the exclusive and forbidden nature of extremism. Once potential recruits were identified, Hasselbach set out to teach them racist ideas:

I liked to approach 14- to 16-year-olds after school. We looked for kids wearing bomber jackets and Dr. Martens. Usually they didn't really have a political position, but for whatever reason they'd decided it was cool to be right-wing. The first thing I did when I met one of these boys was to show that I wanted to be his friend, to hang out with him, which, coming from someone older, especially someone over 20, was a real compliment. I'd act a lot like an older brother; we'd go into the woods together and do things like Boy Scout exercises, building forts and making trails. I'd always slip in a bit of ideology against foreigners along the way. . . . But only casually at first.2

Similarly, the women I interviewed more often described their sense of racist urgency as a consequence of associating with members of racist groups than as its cause. Much like male and female participants in a wide variety of social movements and groups—from political parties to civic groups to bowling leagues—women in racist groups tend to be recruited by meeting someone who already belongs to the group, and they may have little prior connection to the group's ideas.3 Fewer than one-fourth of my interviewees said that they took any action to seek out a racist group. Most had some baseline of negative sentiments toward African Americans—but given the pervasiveness of racism in the white mainstream population, that hardly explains why these particular white women entered the racist movement. In general, they became committed racists only as they got to know racist activists and began to participate in racist actions.

The most common route into organized racism clearly is through contact with a racist group member. But how does that contact occur? And why do some women cross the boundary into organized racism while others do not? Though we may never know for certain what makes any person choose to follow a specific path while another, identically situated, does not, my interviews with racist women suggest that opportunities for contact with a racist group member depend in part on social location. Some people are in positions and places in society that make them more likely to meet those from racist groups.4 Those with racist activists in their families have a natural link. Those connected to groups that serve as recruiting grounds for racist organizations, such as clubs of gun owners, survivalist networks, or some hard-core music scenes, have a greater chance of meeting racist activists. The same is true for people in prisons or in those workplaces and schools where racist groups have a foothold. Even geography can play a part, as it did for Ken Loff, a convicted member of the terrorist group known as The Order: he was raised Catholic and had a Jewish best man at his wedding but drifted into the racist underground when he moved to the Pacific Northwest and met people from Aryan Nations.5

Of course, not all those who come into contact with racist group members join their groups. Indeed, only a small minority do so. While a few find the proffered images of community, identity, hope, and purpose very alluring, others reject such claims as fraudulent. That is, people vary in their receptivity to racist messages. The sociologist James Aho found that Christian Patriots in Idaho were what he termed "active seekers," poised to find a racist message persuasive.6 The stories that racist women told me can be interpreted in the same way. As I discuss later, many women paint their lives prior to joining a racist group as a search for meaning, suggesting they would be receptive to the simplistic "answers" provided by organized racism. But dissecting people's pasts to discover motives is a tricky undertaking. These women may have been receptive because they were seeking answers—or they may be presenting themselves as seekers only in retrospect. The events in most lives can be seen as fairly haphazard or can be arranged to look like a quest for answers to personal or social problems. We must be careful not to create explanations that become a template to which all evidence can be shaped.

Ultimately, location in society, like differences in receptivity, cannot fully account for the entrance of certain women into racist groups. Some of the women I interviewed drifted from one extreme cause to another, but others came into organized racism from a life seemingly in the mainstream. Some had friends who steadfastly refused to be involved in racist groups even when those closest to them joined, but other women gravitated to racist groups on the strength of a brief acquaintance with a group member. A nineteen-year-old skinhead described her first encounter with white supremacists:

Well, they used to have like Bible studies here, the white supremacists here. . . . I went to them even though I'm not necessarily all for the Bible but I went there and started getting involved with them, and they would have like demonstrations and marches and stuff around here. So I started going with them to offer support and then. . . . Well, a friend of mine went to one of their meetings one time and she told me about it and then I went to it the next week, and then I started getting involved in it.

This skingirl came in contact with racist activists through an interest in Bible studies, which might also indicate her receptivity to their dualistic visions of good and evil. But nothing in her story suggests that she was seeking an outlet for racist politics when she began going to white supremacist meetings. Rather, she presents organized racism as something that just happened to her, the result of a series of minor actions pursued without a particular political objective.7

She is not the only woman who drifted into a racist group because of an accidental encounter. Many recount connecting up with old friends who had taken up with racist groups or chancing to meet someone involved in the racist movement. One woman told me of becoming reacquainted with Bill, a former classmate active in organized racism, while she was on vacation: "I'm thinking, 'Oh, well. I haven't seen him for a while. I wondered what's going on with him.' Went up and talked to him. Now, he always used to be known as 'Nazi Bill.' I could take it or leave it, didn't matter. Now, Bill seemed like he was pretty good people. He was a cool guy." It is disturbing to think that becoming racist may be even partly a matter of chance. Yet accident clearly plays a role in leading many of these women into racist politics. The places they lived or worked, the kinds of friends they had, how they spent their time, where they partied, and their general susceptibility to racist appeals all were important in their becoming racist activists. But these factors alone do not predict who will come into contact with a racist group and who will not, who will find their life transformed by organized racism and who will not. Simple happenstance is often an element of racist affiliation.

It is hard to reconcile such casual motives with the dangers of joining organized racism. Though being on the fringe of society is appealing to some, most women find that the cost is high. Enlisting in the Klan or neo-Nazi groups can mean the loss of a job or career. Nearly everyone who joins loses friends and family members, and some risk their lives. Scholarship on right-wing extremist groups suggests three possible explanations for why women like Jill or Janice embark on a life of racist activism for reasons that, on their own account, appear so flimsy.

First, these women could be the victims of "brainwashing." This notion, commonly found in studies of prisoners or kidnapping victims who come to identify with their captors, is used to explain how groups can command allegiance, even loyalty, from originally recalcitrant or hostile individuals. Although the simplicity of this explanation is appealing, the women I interviewed showed no signs of having been coerced into racist activism; their statements gave no hint of intense pressure to join racist groups or adopt racist ideas. To the contrary, Jill and Janice describe being in white supremacism as an option in their lives, a path chosen rather than imposed.

Second, they (and all adherents to right-wing extremism) could be crazy or ill-adjusted.8 Certainly, some women I interviewed showed signs of personal pathologies or had troubled family histories. But I could not determine whether their psychological disorders were a cause or an outcome of their being in a racist group. And the racism of Jill and Janice, the educated and articulate products of stable middle-class families, cannot be explained by a deficient family life.

Third, Jill, Janice, and the others could be rational (if deplorable) political actors trying to gain advantages or stave off threats to their social, political, or economic status.9 Such an explanation, an interest-based account of racist activism, has several advantages. It acknowledges that racist groups vow to safeguard white and Christian dominance, a promise that appeals to the self-interest of many in the racist movement. It enables us to consider how some women might see organized racism as personally beneficial. It suggests that some aspects of racist groups, however odious to outsiders, might reasonably be found compelling. And it moves us beyond assuming, without evidence, that racists are brainwashed or crazy. Yet it cannot fully explain the motivations of racist women, since the advantages of organized racism for its members are less clear for women than for men. In addition to espousing racial and religious superiority, racist groups promote ideas of individualism, antiegalitarianism, nationalism, and traditional morality that are arguably harmful to, or at least problematic for, women. Individualism evokes the authority of self-reliant men over dependent women and children. Antiegalitarianism opposes efforts to curb the dominance of white men in workplaces and schools. Nationalism strengthens political identities of citizenship to which women are less securely attached. Traditional morality evokes a white patriarchal past.

Because women's interests and the agendas of racist movements do not clearly match, even an interest-based account must fall back on another, less satisfactory explanation—that men enlist in right-wing and racial politics to preserve or extend their obvious, identifiable interests and privileges, while women join because they are confused, are led astray by male intimates, or misidentify their interests. Thus, in a familiar pattern, women's actions are explained by appealing to psychology and men's to politics,10 even though there is no reason to assume that psychological factors are more salient for the women than the men in organized racism. In fact, the life stories of racist women suggest no difference in political commitment, knowledge, or gullibility: women, like their male counterparts, are drawn into racist groups through personal contacts with racist activists. Jill, Janice, and other women racists are better understood as rational social actors, a characterization long applied to men, than as idiosyncratic and peculiarly compliant racist followers.

But how can racist commitment be both rational and the product of casual acquaintance with a racist activist? How can women stumble into and yet embrace such a risky life? To understand this, we must modify the interest-based account of racist activism. We must consider how someone's understanding of what is in their self-interest—what is a rational political act—can be shaped in a social context. In other words, we must think of self-interest as socially constructed.11 The racist women I interviewed joined male-dominated racist groups not because they were unaware of what was in their interests as women but because, as part of becoming racist activists, they reassessed their self-interests to fit the agendas of these groups. As they became involved with organized racism, they remade themselves in a racist mold. Men in racist groups also undergo social construction of a racist self, but their initial sense of their self-interest is much closer than the women's to the goals of racist groups.

Originally, neither Jill nor Janice was very focused on racism. Both held only ill-defined ideas, if any, about their self-interest as whites.12 Once involved with racist group members, however, each began to consider herself and the world in more racialized terms. Jill changed from a stance of political apathy to what she described as "racial awareness," Janice from skirting the edges of white supremacism to speaking on its behalf. In the process, both Jill and Janice came to see their interests as diametrically opposed to those of non-Aryans.

The definition of self-interest is influenced by social interactions.13 Such influence can be seen in racist women's lengthy responses to my request that they describe themselves and their lives, that they provide their "life stories." As Jill became involved with racist skinheads, ideas about race became more important to her. She came to see her self-interest as opposed not so much to parents or school authorities as to racial minorities. Janice, too, responded to the shifting social contexts in which she found herself by reassessing her self-interest and identifying more strongly with organized white supremacism.

Because self-interest is not static, we cannot deduce the motives of racist activists from their backgrounds or current circumstances. Too often, commentaries on right-wing extremists are based on what the sociologists John Lofland and Norman Skonovd label "the fallacy of the uniformly profound"—the assumption that dramatic life outcomes must have dramatic causes.14 Thus analysts comb the past lives of racist activists, searching for the unusual events that can explain their subjects' present racial beliefs. Yet it is impossible to account for the racist activism of Jill, Janice, or most of the other women in this study by scrutinizing the events of their lives, which are mostly unremarkable. Even the circumstances that led them into encounters with racist activists are highly variable, fortuitous rather than predictable. The dramatic political outcomes of racist activism typically had quite mundane beginnings.

In their life stories, racist women reveal more than changing definitions of self-interest. They also relate the alterations in their very sense of who they are, their sense of self. Over time, Jill began to define herself through her racist activism. No longer "just another teenager," she was "someone who is proud to represent and protect my race." Janice, too, changed her sense of self; from someone with no particular political vision she became a person deeply committed to "make the world right."

The stories of racist women are important because it is through storytelling, or what scholars term "narrative," that people create a sense of themselves. Narratives integrate the various threads of life. They assemble incidents of the past to fashion a self in the present. Life stories thus are retrospectively "sense making," making the self coherent over time.15 At the same time, however, life stories can be unreliable. Accounts of the past are tinged by the commitments of the present. The sociologist C. Wright Mills's insight that motives often are furnished "after the act" should caution us against taking expressed motives at face value. As the sociologist David Snow and his colleagues find, in social movements "'motives' for joining or continued participation are generally emergent and interactional rather than pre-structured."16 Events and circumstances in the past are highlighted in memory when they seem to lead to the circumstances of the present and ignored when they do not: "some aspects of the past are jettisoned, others are redefined, and some are put together in ways that would have previously been inconceivable."17 Thus women for whom racist activism was an abrupt change from their past lives paint their backgrounds bleakly, as inadequate or confusing. Those few for whom racist activism was lifelong speak of their past more positively.

Life stories also create templates of action. The sociologist Margaret Somers notes that narratives "can be a precondition for knowing what to do." When people tell stories about themselves, points out the social psychologist Margaret Wetherell, they "are attempting to develop positions which might relate their current lives to what has gone before, rendering the past, the present and the future plausible and meaningful." Life stories thus justify and make sense of current political directions that might appear inconsistent with the values and directions of an earlier life. Moreover, the relationship between storytelling and other action is dynamic. Actions shape new stories, just as narratives create new directions for action.18

To align themselves with racial goals, racial activists transform their understandings of self. As one southern Klanswoman put it: "It is not so much that I am in the Klan, it is the fact that the Klan is in me. By the Klan being in me I have no choice other than to remain, I can't walk away from myself." Another woman, from a neo-Nazi group, commented: "[The movement] helps, especially at that awkward stage when no one exactly knows who they are. It gives you an identity, it says you're special, you know, because you're white."

By constructing a racial sense of self and self-interest, and by learning racist group ideologies (discussed in the following chapters), fairly ordinary women, most from typical families and places, become wedded to dangerous and bizarre racist agendas.

Stories of a Racist Self

The life stories of racist women vividly exemplify how notions of self and self-interest can be fashioned in a racist social context. Their accounts offer two different stories of the self. What I call stories of becoming a racist tell of transformations in the story of the past self; what I call stories about being a racist detail changes in the current and future self.


Stories of Becoming a Racist

Some women explain their involvement in organized racism by presenting it as the result of dramatic personal transformation. These are stories of becoming a racist. Although a few women I interviewed grew up in racist activist families, most did not, and their stories of coming to the racist movement reflect this change.

For racist women, accounts of personal transformation typically take the form of a conversion story, not unlike stories told by converts to religion, sobriety, or feminism.19 In his studies of the fascist British National Front, Michael Billig discusses this conversion as a process of adopting the official personality of the group, of redefining reality in accord with their new values and beliefs.20 Similarly, racist women recount a change in their total worldview, a shift in their "sense of ultimate grounding."21 As converts to racial activism, they describe moving from racial naïveté to racist enlightenment. In their life stories, the more mundane details of actual recruitment to racist groups are glossed over or omitted. What they stress—indeed, what they remember—is a sense of the changed self.

Conversion stories are a narrative genre. Typically, they involve three elements: autobiographical incidents, themes from the larger culture, and ideas from the group to which the teller is converting.22 Thus a religious conversion story generally details the sense of meaninglessness or family problems that dominated the nonspiritual life; the power of religious faith to help the convert achieve greater personal happiness, inner strength, or other goods valued in the culture generally; and the spiritual enlightenment made possible by the newly acquired religious beliefs. The racist conversion stories related by women in my interviews similarly draw on autobiography, mainstream culture, and racist ideologies.

Events of the Individual's Past

Autobiographical elements dominate racist conversion stories, as the women string together what they now see as the most significant incidents of their past. In selecting the events that give shape to their life stories, racist women are strongly influenced by their current racist commitments. The importance of events that illustrate racial conflict—even those that perhaps seemed insignificant at the time—is magnified. For example, clashes with children from other races on school buses or playgrounds that seem trivial to me frequently loom large in racist women's stories. Such incidents probably take on their personal significance, or perhaps are seen as racial at all, only in retrospect. The racist world in which these women now live shapes what they tell about their past.

Themes from Mainstream Culture

Four themes from mainstream culture appear frequently in these conversion stories: religion, body, boundaries, and quest. The first is the most common: even women in racist groups that virulently reject mainline religion for favoring racial equality construct their life stories as a spiritual conversion. They recount their turn to racism as moving from evil to ultimate good, prompted by the promise of personal and collective salvation. Such stories, like the accounts of religious transitions examined by Virginia Brereton, have at best a "complex relationship" to the real ordering of life events;23 but they do attest to the power of religion as a narrative genre.

Too, the body figures often in conversion stories. Some describe an assault on the body—an invasion, attack, or trauma—as moving them to active racism. Others express the absorption of racial commitment into the body—"I am in the Klan [and] the Klan is in me"—as marking conversion to the racial movement.

Boundaries also play a crucial role, because racist women present their commitment to racism as a move across the divide separating their earlier and subsequent life worlds. Sometimes they emphasize their informed decision to move away from one world and embrace another. One woman told me, "Being part of the movement, I have more of a commitment to want to separate [from minority groups] and do what I believe is right and stand together with people and not be so quick to be divided by other people." Others stress the boundaries imposed from the outside, seen as forcibly separating them from their earlier life. Laura, for example, remarked: "[After I became a Nazi], I was very surprised when one of my friends from church stopped calling. I said [to a mutual friend], 'How is she? She hasn't called me or returned a call that I had made to her,' and he said, 'She's afraid to come here.' I said, 'What? How can that be?'"

The idea of a quest is important in all conversion narratives. In her study of women's conversion to holiness and Pentecostal religions, Brereton identified two such stories. One is constructed as "a series of quests, with each quest becoming more intense, more extreme, the result more rewarding." The other features "a deep dark valley (conviction) followed by a high bright peak (conversion), followed in turn by a series of progressively less extreme valleys and peaks (periods of backsliding and renewal)."24

The story related by Nancy, a white supremacist skinhead and neo-Nazi organizer from the Southwest, mirrored Brereton's plot of successive enlightenment: "It was pretty gradual. I gradually started writing to other organizations and I started getting other publications and newsletters and started writing articles of my own and then I just gradually got into more and more until I opened the post office boxes [for a neo-Nazi group]. It was really gradual. It wasn't just like I woke up one day and decided, 'Oh I'm gonna go and do that.' I slowly got into it." In contrast, a long account by Lillie, a midwestern supporter of a national Nazi group, typifies a conversion story of valleys and peaks. Her entry into organized racism was a decade-long struggle to accept "the truth" of Nazism. Despite her initial "excitement" at finding "the truth that made sense" and her insistence that Nazi doctrine should be credited with "freeing" her from a life of drugs and confusion, Lillie joined and then quit a number of racist organizations because she feared the possible consequences of being an active Nazi; she had repeatedly reverted to her old life of apolitical partying before finding her current group.

Ideologies of Racist Groups

Just as religious organizations provide specific frameworks that teach people how to think about their spiritual conversion,25 so, too, racist groups shape the individual stories of their converts. Because racist ideologies starkly separate "us" from "them," racist conversion stories tend to split into two parts. They begin with a weak, ignorant, directionless, and naive self that is abandoned and replaced by a newly constructed all-knowing, committed, impassioned self.

The racist group message that racial "enemies" are everywhere and that Aryans are victims also permeates the life stories of racist women. For example, racist women talk of their fear that they will be victimized if they are identified as Nazis, sounding a theme of persecution that is common among racist groups. Their conversion stories are filled with episodes of social sanction, describing how "I lost a lot of friends at first because my friends were antiracist" or how "people pass judgment on [white power] skinheads. Just because their heads are shaven, they are looked down on," and insisting that "you get pulled over by the cops around here because they saw your face on TV and they know you're a racist. And they write you a ticket just for the heck of it." The more violent incidents that they recount eerily mirror the experiences of minority group members at the hands of avowed racists: "A friend of mine had a friend who was shot simply for being a skinhead. He had done nothing provoking others and a Negro came up to him and asked him, 'Are you a skinhead?'—I suppose because he had a shaved head. All he did was reply, 'Yes,' and he was shot and killed."

The interweaving of autobiographical episodes, themes from mainstream culture, and the ideologies of racist groups informs both the general shape of these conversion stories and the women's understanding of specific turning points in their lives. As they reflect on their earlier, nonpolitical life, many seize on a single sensational event or tightly linked series of events to explain how their personal goals and beliefs became fused with the agendas and ideas of the racial movement. This dramatic pivot might have had little significance in their life stories before they joined a racist group. After joining, however, it is seen as a moment of decisive awakening that reveals the essential difference between clarity and confusion and between likeness and otherness, making them acutely aware that Jews, African Americans, or agents of the federal government control the economy, politics, even the minutiae of daily life.

Heidi, a Christian Identity adherent, described to me her "awakening" after seeing the biased news coverage of a criminal trial of white separatists: "I realized that what you hear on the television and everything is not the true story. They don't tell you all the persecution that's happening to people who want to [racially] separate today. We just hear little snippets of it and then if you investigate you find out the true story."

Though they present abstract rationales for subsequent racial activism, conversion stories imply a personal experience that crystallizes understanding and prompts a voyage of discovery—even when that pivotal event bears no recognizable connection to the individual's life. An elderly Nazi woman recalled that her turning point came when a federal commission investigating her local schools, to which she had no personal link, concluded that "there was no racial animosity or hostility" in them: "They just whitewashed it. Even the school officials would not return the calls of upset parents. The school board members would not see parents in their office or anything during that time."

Strikingly, many stories of conversion to racist activism pivot around dramatic encounters with death—a personal near-death experience, the loss of a loved one, even the death of a pet. Individual stories of bodily trauma and pain are transformed into a story of racist conversion. They are recast as ordeals that clarified racial perception, sharpened values about race, and revealed the racial dynamics of history.26

Amanda, a twenty-three-year-old racist skinhead on death row for murder and robbery in a southern state, cited a car accident as her personal turning point; after she was injured, "it's like, my whole attitude changed . . . my mind focused more on white supremacy." In contrast to Jill, the skinhead who had nonracist parents, Amanda recalled being taught racism by her parents "since the day I was born." However, she never felt inclined to act on those beliefs until she awoke from a coma. Amanda's descriptions of the loss of control she felt as a hospital patient—"IVs in my arms, tubes in my nose"—blurred together with images of African American nurses surrounding her bedside, probing and invading her body. Her assertions of self against the dehumanization and bodily invasion of the hospital thus took on a racialized cast for which her earlier belief system had prepared her: "I said [to the African American nurses], 'Don't touch me. Don't get near me . . . leave me alone.'" It was this incident, she concluded, that brought her into a "racial awareness" that made her get involved with neo-Nazi gangs. And, indeed, what Amanda tells of her life after hospitalization reflects a new racial commitment. Speaking of a cousin who had married an African American man, she said that before the accident she had been cordial to her, seeing family loyalty as more important than race; but afterward, "that was it. . . . I walked out the door and I haven't spoken to her since."

Other conversion-by-near-death stories put the antecedents rather than the outcomes of personal catastrophe in racial terms. That of Judy, a prominent middle-aged Aryan leader on the East Coast, was typical. Her racial commitment was born when she was seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident while living in a impoverished area of Cleveland. The beginnings of her life story provided little hint that racism would become so important to her. The daughter of middle-class parents, Judy began her marriage to an upwardly mobile professional man optimistically. As she spoke of those years she focused on domestic events—marriage, pregnancy, child rearing. She said she was determined to stay away from social problems by staying close to home and following her parents' advice: "don't be prejudiced, try to get along, do your best you can do." Even as she described a series of personal calamities—a miscarriage, divorce, and her rapid downward economic slide, with her two small children—Judy continued to present herself as determined and self-possessed.

But when she spoke of taking her children to Cleveland in search of better employment, Judy's story shifted. The accident—and its racial ramifications—became the core around which her life story unfolded. Judy took nearly an hour to tell me about her accident, as she tried to convey how her racist ideas had resulted from her personal experiences.

As she began her story about Cleveland, Judy described at length her struggle to maintain a "decent" life in squalid surroundings, providing a bridge between her self-assurance before the accident and her racial awareness after it. She presented herself as confident but also, in retrospect, as innocent about "the neighborhood": "Now mind you the neighborhood is not good at all. But I'm thinking, okay, no problem, I just started this job . . . I'll stay here till the end of summer, by winter I'm straight, I got myself a good job. I can transfer my job. I reestablish myself and then I'll be back on towards [another neighborhood] which is a very good area." To this point, the neighborhood's problems appear to be economic, not racial. But as her story progresses, it becomes less abstract and more racialized: the hard work of whites (to get to work, to keep a job, to find babysitters) is set against the inactivity of her African American neighbors. Now, racial factors are clear: "they" are responsible for the "bad" neighborhood, and Judy sees "them" as black.

I want to make my money and get the hell out of this bad neighborhood. And it was bad, but I thought, "Oh I can do this, I'll just be real quiet and they won't mess with me and they won't have no problem with me anyway." (laugh) Well, then the blacks started to holler after me when they catch me coming in and out. . . . And it's like, "Hey," you know, "Hey, woman, we want you come on down here. What you got, don't talk to black people?" You know, I was just trying to mind my own business.

Judy's racist views, though increasingly pronounced, here differ little from those of many other whites. According to her, they shifted into racial activism because she changed. Her ability to coexist with her African American neighbors and ignore their now-obvious crime and indolence had depended on racial naïveté. Once she became more "aware," such unconscious acceptance was no longer possible. Being struck by a car was the event that destroyed Judy's innocence and began her transformation. Key to this process was her certainty that "they" were responsible for the accident. Although she acknowledged that she did not see the driver who hit her, Judy nonetheless maintained that it "must have been" an African American man from a neighboring house: "I ignored them but then I was hit by that car . . . I swear they hit me on purpose . . . because I would not have anything to do with them."

Like Amanda, Judy described her racist action as following, almost unbidden, from her racial awakening: "Of course after I got hit by a car, that was it . . . I started getting into politics." By assuming that the driver was African American, she made sense of this otherwise random tragedy, according it intent and purpose. Moreover, such a racial lens made sense of the financial and other hardships that she faced as a divorced mother with limited opportunities. But such racialized understanding did not come incrementally, or as the result of economic frustrations alone. Rather, for Judy becoming a racist was a sudden metamorphosis. She now saw the world as a racial battleground, and she had a sense of purpose. From that point on, Judy told me, her life was devoted to furthering Aryan supremacy.

The life story of Greta, a fifty-five-year-old Nazi from a small northern city, had a similar structure of racial awakening. The daughter of a wealthy doctor, Greta was herself a well-paid engineer; she admitted to me that for most of her life she did not hold racist or anti-Semitic views, an oversight she now sees as demonstrating her earlier "ignorance." Part of her life story involved a complicated medical history. For her, the pivotal moment came in an operating room when she was being prepared for surgery. Note Greta's increasingly conspiratorial tones, as she comes to see her situation as embodying the struggle between Aryan and Jew:

There was nobody in there. No instruments, nothing. Then a man appeared from behind me and said he's my anesthesiologist. We started talking, I sat on that operating table, that iron metal thing, and he said, "Where are you from?" I said, "I'm from Germany." I had long blond hair and my face was clear, wonderful complexion. At that time still I believed and trusted completely. . . . He said "Well, I'm gonna give you the anesthesia now." I inhaled and realized that I couldn't exhale . . . he was just sitting there watching me . . . I wanted to say, " I can't breathe," [but] I had no more voice.

In this account, German (Aryan) innocence is counterposed against a disembodied but menacing presence who can literally take away voice and breath. Much later in the story, Greta interprets the encounter in a way that simultaneously explains and structures her life story. As she attempted to build a medical malpractice case against the doctor and hospital, Greta met a woman who encouraged her to see her experience as one incident in a larger but vague conspiracy and who later introduced her to a local Nazi member from whom she learned the specifics of the conspiracy. These meetings led Greta to the "discovery" that her anesthesiologist was Jewish and that the hospital—along with the media, the government, nearly everything—was owned and controlled by Jews. Jews are both sinister and invisible, Greta concluded. That invisibility is the key to their awesome power to control the fate of unsuspecting Aryans.

The emphasis on pivotal personal events in the stories of Amanda, Judy, and Greta both reveals and conceals. It reveals how racist women reshape stories, even memories, of their past to fit their present racist activism. But it conceals how racist recruiting and conversion actually occur incrementally. Research on other extremist groups has demonstrated that slow changes are often buried in stories of dramatic transformation. In their study of terrorists, for example, Maxwell Taylor and Ethel Quayle find that personal events can establish "a boundary in many terrorist careers that marks a movement away from normal society," yet "the identification of a precipitating event can also be a convenient post hoc rationalisation for a much more mundane process of gradual involvement."27 Indeed, Greta's story illustrates how minor events can shape a racist career. A chance encounter with the conspiratorial woman precipitated a series of events that eventually culminated in her recruitment into a racist group. Greta's subsequent, and decisive, meeting with the local Nazi member depended on that prior, accidental meeting.28

The life stories of racist women are useful but complicated. While they show how activists mold themselves to the ideologies of racist groups, they are unreliable as accounts of actual political recruitment or ideological conversion. In fact, almost all the women interviewed, when pressed to construct detailed chronologies of their lives, reveal a pattern of recruitment to racial politics quite at odds with conversion-by-striking-event. Judy's accident, for example, brought her not simply a blinding moment of awareness, as she first recounted, but contact with a locally prominent neo-Nazi who, she later told me, took care of her during her convalescence. Similarly, pursuit of a medical malpractice claim—not a sudden realization in the hospital—brought Greta together with local white power activists.

James Aho documents a similar pattern of incremental, personal recruitment among Christian Patriots. Cindy Cutler, the wife of an Aryan Nations leader, discovered Christian Identity after meeting her future husband at a Baptist church service. Lisa Minor, also in Aryan Nations, found racist activism when she met her husband after she had renounced her drug-centered life and had become "born again." Men typically entered the movement in roughly the same way. As Aho notes, "with few exceptions, social bonding with the recruiter preceded the respondent's intellectual commitment to the cause." Aho's conclusion, consistent with my findings, was that Christian Patriots "joined with others and only later began articulating [the cause's] dogma."29

Thus, racial conversion stories are best understood not as literal accounts of the process of ideological transformation but as learned accounts, shaped retrospectively by mainstream cultural themes as well as by the political, ideological, and even stylistic conventions dominant in racist groups.


Sarah's Story

The story of Sarah, an older neo-Nazi activist, is worth exploring in some detail as an example of the construction of self along racist lines. Despite Sarah's reputation as a "hard-core" Nazi and her numerous arrests for violent acts over a lengthy career in organized racism—both factors that might have made her reticent in the interview—she needed little prompting to give an elaborate account of her life, which she organized as a series of passages.

Sarah's opening statement, "You know, my views have changed tremendously over the years," established the recurrent theme of ideological change. It was illustrated by groups of incidents bundled together. The sequence of events in each episode was the same: Sarah experienced unjust treatment, perceived its unfairness, initially did nothing, and ultimately was forced to defend herself. Over time, Sarah changed: her responses to this pattern altered. She saw herself as getting smarter through experience, as she became more adept at finding the racial causes of her problems.

Sarah began with her childhood: "I was raised in Chicago. In order to get an education you literally had to beat, no, let's not be nasty (laugh), you had to be adept to get an education because if you didn't then the blacks would just keep beating you and robbing you." She described the injustice of having to walk miles to school every day in snow and rain while African Americans were bused to school in a "nice warm bus" and of having to suffer assaults by African American girls who would "not allow" her to enter the school lavatory "without a black eye, a bloody nose, or [being] stabbed." Sarah wasn't sure what to do: "Finally one day I got sick of it. Finally one day I decided it was enough. This was bullshit. I'm going to the ladies' room. I have every right as much as they do. I continue to try to mind my own business. I decided I'm not gonna speak about it any more. I'm gonna do it. . . . I decided I was gonna put my makeup on."

Sarah's decision was sparked not by a sense of racial injustice but by her emerging adolescent sexuality, what she termed "new thinking about boys." She decided that she needed access to the ladies' room to remove her leggings and straighten her skirt ("put your skirt down right") and to fix her makeup ("a little mascara, not too much makeup, but enough") in order "to be somebody." When she entered, seven African American girls verbally harassed her: "And Jessie said, 'Well, you going to have to fight.' I said, 'Yeah, I figured that's all you are. I have to fight seven of you, one of me.' And I never wanted to start none of this crap to begin with." This incident settled a racial grid on Sarah's life. Jessie, one of the African American girls, had been her friend but now regarded her in a racial way that made them antagonists. "We're not friends anymore. Why not? Because I'm a honky now." A fight ensured and Sarah was stabbed—presumably by one of the African American girls, though her story did not make this point clear.

This theme, established in the elementary school drama, recurs in three more episodes in Sarah's story: as a high school student, as a young working woman, and as a new mother. Each time, Sarah contends, her efforts to maintain racial harmony were thwarted by African Americans who reacted to her solely on the basis of color. Although similarly structured, each episode conveyed Sarah's growing sense of racial, and racist, awareness, demonstrating a racial "learning" culled from prior episodes.

In high school, for example, Sarah portrays herself as trying to maintain her distance from the African American students in her school ("I was cool with a couple of them"). Again, circumstances—this time, the changing racial demographics of her high school—intervene to prevent her strategy from working: "Everything was fine until more moved in." Again, she portrays herself as unfairly cast in sharply racist terms ("Then I became a nobody. Then I was like I was a honky") and forced into racial action: "Enough is enough. I gotta do what I gotta do. . . . It got to a point I had to fight." In this way personal narratives absorbed the structure of a racist ideology that depicts the world as sharply divided between friend and foe and history as controlled by enemies.

Accounts like Sarah's share with other conversion stories a retrospective construction of self, a creation of autobiography. They impart an order to what otherwise might seem a disorderly, even chaotic, series of life events and decisions.30 Moreover, they accord intent, calculation, and meaning to radical changes in identity.

Racist conversion stories fashion autobiography by relying on clues from earlier experiences to explain the present racist self. They thereby accord an essential authenticity to the racist self, making current racist ideas seem to be an expression of lifelong inclinations:

I was like really angry when I was about fourteen, right before I started getting involved with white power. And then in the past couple of years, I mean, I study a lot and I kind of changed from, like, anger to, like, pride. And now I'm proud of race [rather than only] being angry about society.

[When I found] the pro-white movement from my cousins and then started thinking, you know, that they had a lot of good stuff to say, I knew [it was true] that race mixing hurts not only society, but it hurts the offspring of it.

The emergent self becomes defined as the normal and true:

I met with these Klan guys five or six times. . . . They started coming to the house. We went to some rallies. After I started meeting these people I was just amazed how normal they were. It drove me crazy, the things I was excluded from [earlier] since I wasn't a member.

Along with their parallels to other accounts of conversion, racist conversion stories also have unique aspects. These usually reflect the secretive and semi-illegal nature of many racist groups as well as their marginality. For example, none of the racist women mention an obligation to evangelize about the specifics of their conversion experiences, as other converts commonly do. Most racist women are interested in bringing other Aryans into the racist movement, but they do not describe their own experiences of transformation when trying to persuade others to join. Thus one woman commented that she recruited fifteen friends into Nazism "by simply telling them the facts about world affairs." A Christian Identity adherent took a similarly impersonal approach to recruiting friends into the movement: "I gave them literature and books to read and talked to them about white history, pride in your race, and related issues."

Furthermore, racist accounts rarely draw on the motifs of self-effacement common in other conversion stories. Racists, unlike former alcoholics who often talk of "hitting bottom," do not describe being forced by circumstance to admit that their life is on the wrong track. Nor does the idea of being forced to admit something about oneself to others, a common motif in the coming-out stories of lesbians and gay men, surface in the talk of racist women. Although they present their former (nonracist) lives as incomplete or bad, they rarely portray those earlier selves as unstable or off-balance, as those describing experiences of religious conversion often do.31 And they convey little sense of the self-abasement in awe of a greater power that structures accounts of conversion to religion or sobriety. Instead, many racist women tell stories of efforts at self-empowerment through activism, even though, as I discuss below, few conclude that those efforts have in fact succeeded.


Stories of Being a Racist

While stories of becoming a racist situate new racist commitments as rational outcomes of an unfolding self, stories of being a racist tell of the present and future racist self. In "becoming" stories, both the conclusion and the major themes are fixed by current identities, but "being" stories are more open. The future, an extrapolation from the present, can take more than one form.

For racist women, these two kinds of stories are quite different. Their accounts of becoming a racist are filled with action, agency, and self-empowerment. They cast life as movement, direction, and change. These tales focused on racial conversion acknowledge previous mistakes and racial blindness; but at their core, they are full of self-satisfaction and zeal. They proclaim that only through racial commitment can an authentic self—a coherent, true identity—be found. Joining a racist group is an accomplishment, a task of self-completion.

In contrast, stories of being a racist—stories of now and the future—are passive and guarded. Although some women, especially those who are very young or in white power skinhead groups, talk of organized racism as a means of empowering themselves, most speak with less assurance and even describe the personal toll of being in racist groups. Their stories of becoming a racist contain a sense of possibility, but their stories of being a racist are defeatist.

That negative tone is surprising, for in the genre of political testimonies—on the left or right—we typically find great excitement. Even contemporary racist activists, whose racist commitments stigmatize them and marginalize them politically, usually appear in published accounts as adventurous or spirited. There can be great personal fulfillment in racist political action; as the social psychologist Raphael Ezekiel comments, "Organizing is the leader's jones. He has to have it. Like every jones, it is his world, his lover, his identity. Without it he is nothing; when engaged, he is God."32

Such accounts, however, focus almost entirely on men. The sense of satisfaction widely observed among male racist leaders and evident in the self-aggrandizing autobiographies published in racist propaganda is rarely found among women. These women present racial "enlightenment" in terms of passive resignation at best, and more often with despair—as a burden, an onerous responsibility, an unwanted obligation.33 They discuss their racial mission with little bluster and almost no swagger. In contrast to the male members of the British National Front studied by Ezekiel, who were eager to impart the fascists' party line to others, the racist activist women I interviewed were reluctant to describe political knowledge as preferable to ignorance. As one Nazi group member told me, "It's painful, it hurts, it's all-consuming when you have the knowledge." Another said flatly, "If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't want to know anything." A member of an Aryan supremacist group commented, "It's hard feeling this duty to alert other people."34

Although almost one-half of the women said that they had tried to recruit others into the movement, nearly all were hesitant, even negative, about enlisting immediate family members, especially their own children (whether those children were real or only prospective). As one Nazi survivalist stated, "I won't teach my children to be political . . . I don't want them to have that burden." A Nazi skinhead declared that she did not want her children to be active racists, though her husband did: "It's too much responsibility. I want them to have the knowledge, but I don't want them to have to go through what I have gone through. What maybe I still will go through." An incarcerated white supremacist similarly cited the danger of being a racist, saying that she was trying to make sure that her son did not become involved because "the house would be burned down overnight." A Klanswoman said that she "wouldn't encourage anyone to join—it's just something I did."

Many seemed ambivalent about recruiting outside their own family as well. When I asked one Klanswoman whether she brought her friends to Klan meetings, she told me that she did not, because "they don't like to go out at night." Questioned about whether she recruited among the young people who hung out at her house, another woman said that she did not, because "young people today have no stick-to-it-iveness. If some little thing turns up that just doesn't suit them, they're quitters." Most efforts to recruit were portrayed as casual efforts, such as "sharing literature and pro-white books" or "introducing friends to some people involved with the movement."

Even women who brought their children to racist events could show surprisingly little determination that they should become ac tivist adults.

[I took] them to the dedication of the white race. . . . We dressed the kids up in fatigues and little hats because I didn't have time to make little robes, and we took them and we had them dedicated [to white supremacism. . . . It's my responsibility to train these two [but] they can make their own choice when they come of age.

I hope my children will be involved or at least understand why their father and I are involved but I will not force anything on my children.

I really can't say whether or not my children will join [our Nazi group]. They will be raised National Socialist with racial pride, family values, and morals.

Racist activist women attempt to reconcile this personal reluctance with their ideological commitment to recruit in one of two ways. Some simply hope that racial separation will increase sufficiently that by the time their children are adults, they will be able to live in an all-white world without incurring the costs and risks of racial activism.

I want them to have a strong opinion. If we can get into a community where they can just live their lives and not have to be political activists, I think that would be great.

I wouldn't want them to get political . . . I really believe that it would be better if people . . . had the right to live with other people who were just white people.

Others reason that once taught that nonwhites are different, their children will naturally segregate themselves by race as adults. A midwestern Nazi whose house is festooned with disgusting and violent images of African Americans and Jews spoke disingenuously but revealingly of her children, "I don't teach them hatred of other races, but I do teach them that we are definitely different." Similarly, a white supremacist whose racist husband is serving a prison term for assaulting an African American man described with remarkable vagueness how she educates her daughter about the races: "My daughter understands. She knows she's a special person. . . . It's the little things. When she didn't know what a black kid was, I explained that she's different because of her color, to let her know that she shouldn't be involved with nonwhites. I don't push her to believe any beliefs."

In addition, many women took pains to deny their own racial activism. Even some who were in minor leadership roles claimed that they were not activists, or that they tried not to be "too active," or that they were active only when it was "necessary for survival." As a prominent Aryan supremacist commented when discussing her own affiliation with a violent racist group, "I was in kind of an unaware state [when I joined]." Some described their work as "very limited" or "only helping out." Others denied that their work had an effect outside "its own little boundaries."

There was a sharp contrast between these women's descriptions of their groups and of themselves. Most claimed that their racist group was making great strides, "getting stronger," "attracting new members," or on the brink of "awakening the white race." Such exaggeration of strength is a tactic used by racist groups to intimidate opponents, and these women easily slipped into the propaganda they had been trained to spout. But when they spoke of their own roles in the racist movement, few sounded so heroic; instead, they used passive and even dreamlike language.35 One Klanswoman said of her time in an earlier group, "I knew what went on but it just seemed like something you'd see in a movie or read in a book."

There are two reasons for this difference in tone. These women, as individuals, feel that they are the victims of unjust public condemnation. A white separatist complained that fear of losing her job made her hide her real feelings about African Americans and Jews. Another said that "people think I'm full of hate." A Nazi protested that she didn't "like the way people view me as a hater." An Aryan supremacist told me, "People look at us as though we are sick, as though we are the problem of society." Seemingly oblivious to her group's efforts to "rid America of blacks and Jews," one woman complained that she "could no longer go to certain stores downtown without people [saying], 'Oh, Nazi-redneck get out of here. You're a Nazi. We don't want you in here.'" Another woman, after detailing her work on behalf of white supremacism, complained that she felt uncomfortable in her church when she heard "people talking, whispering behind our backs" about her Klan allegiance. Others felt that they were stigmatized unfairly because earlier racist groups had such bad reputations. A middle-aged woman, for example, insisted to a friend that "her Klan" was not violent. Her friend, she explained, "was comparing us [the Klan] with the Klan of the 1800s and it's totally different . . . 'cause we have never burnt a cross in anybody's yard, we have never hung anybody." Such comments are consistent with these women's general sense that participating in racism has been costly for them personally, even if it has bolstered a larger racist agenda. Several spoke of the racist movement absorbing too much of their time, leaving too little for their children and family. Others resented the compromises they had made—hiding their activist lives from co-workers and bosses, having to "conform to earn a living," being "blacklisted from any professional positions."

Many women feel that they have been unfairly hurt by others in the movement. They strive to distance themselves from those they see as more extreme, simultaneously claiming, as did one Klanswoman, that their actions are "no different than being in the Girl Scouts" and that "most of the [other] people in the movement have too much hate." In the same vein, a skinhead told me of a woman racist leader who "used to tell me [that] people that had brown hair and brown eyes [like me] were just filth and trash and wasn't worthy of being around. She really scared me." They thus see themselves as victimized by those within their own movement, particularly by certain men. Their descriptions of these men echo the stereotypes of racists held by those in mainstream society; they criticize them as "your Joe Six-pack," as "dumb enough to walk down the street with a swastika on their T-shirt yelling at black people," as "idiots that don't know what they are talking about," or even as "scumbags with fraudulent, unmotivated behavior."

The women's understanding of the politics of their movement also leads them to describe the movement and themselves in very different terms. Rather than burning with ideological passion or a desire to spread racist ideas, they feel hopeless about the "degenerate" society that surrounds them and the possibility of changing it. Male racial activists talk about their empowerment by racial knowledge and racial activism, boasting of their ability to change the world,36 but for these women, racism is a politics of despair. They see activism solely as a means to protect their children or themselves from a troubled society that they have come to understand in racialized terms, but they give it little chance of success. As a white supremacist said, "I would like my future to be a little-house-on-the-prairie picture . . . but it will not be like that. I think we'll be struggling my whole life . . . surrounded by immorality and corruption." These women's activism is defensive, giving them no self-satisfaction or sense of power. The racist movement promises to fend off what they see as threatening to engulf them and their families, but it promises and delivers little to them personally.

The emotional resignation found among these women activists is another indication of how they align their sense of self with the goals of the racist movement. To the extent that racist politics yields no obvious and tangible rewards to women activists, they construct their participation in the movement as involuntary, automatic, and unconscious. Making sense of racial politics by denying personal agency is a common response of those involved in political causes that are widely condemned; as the historian Gabriele Rosenthal found in a study of Germans who witnessed World War II but did not face persecution, such denial serves to normalize the consequences of involvement.37 The stories of women racist activists, however, are not merely self-justifications. They convey both a feeling of hopelessness in the face of outside social or political forces and a sense of powerlessness to reconcile the contradiction between what the tellers see as the movement's lofty goals of Aryan supremacy and their actual experiences in the racist movement. Though all the women racial activists praise those goals, many derive little gratification from the process of working toward racial purity. It is in this sense that their resignation—their expressions of self-denigration, emotional pain, victimization, and lack of awareness—represents a gendered response to experiences within male-defined racist politics.

Such feelings make it difficult for the women to create a positive vision of their personal future in organized racism, despite being optimistic about the future of the movement. Thus, being a racist makes these women tense and uneasy. Some women talk positively of their life in racist groups and easily express pride in the racist movement, but most have great difficulty expressing pride in themselves as racist activists. When asked about her group (Skrewdriver), one white supremacist skinhead commented, "To me Skrewdriver means pride in my race and pride in my womanhood."38 But asked about herself, another skingirl of about the same age answered: "I'm proud of my [racist group] family and what they've done and how I'm a part of them and what we're doing as a group. And any personal attributes that I'm particularly proud of, I mean, I'm not, I don't think I have very low self-esteem, but at the same time, I don't usually go about thinking of what I've done."

The life stories of racist women sketch how they became involved in racist groups. Most entered through a personal contact—sometimes a friend or family member, but as often a mere acquaintance. The ways in which they met a racist activist varied as well. Some meetings were predictable from the people the women knew and the places they frequented, others simply happenstance. Some women described backgrounds that arguably made them receptive to the message of organized racism, while for others, racist activism was an abrupt departure from their earlier lives. Whatever their mode of entry into racist groups, each had to make adjustments to become a racist activist. For most, who had not grown up in racist families, these entailed substantial changes in their self-identities and the definition of their self-interests. They had to come to see themselves as part of a racist movement defending the interests of whites and Aryans.

Is this process of self-adjustment unique to racist women, or does it happen to racist men as well? It is difficult to know because there are no comparable life histories of male racist activists. However, several autobiographical sketches and biographical accounts of male racists hint at the gendered nature of racist activism.39 Although men and women alike come into organized racism primarily through social networks, racist men, but not women, generally present themselves as agents of their own political enlightenment. Men talk of becoming a racist as the result of an internal process rather than the promptings by others. In "Why I Joined the Nazi Party," his declaration published in the Stormtrooper, Karl R. Allen describes his Nazism as an essential aspect of his inborn character: "Nazis are born not made. Nearly every man I've met here at [Nazi Party] National Headquarters has told me, 'I've been a Nazi all my life.' Some of them realized it right away; others waited a while. But all of them know, once they heard the call, that here is the Cause they were born to serve." He attributes his conversion to Nazism to an inner drive, a craving not satisfied in other ways: "Although I always stayed busy, I never felt a sense of 'accomplishment'—of doing something really worthwhile, other than earning money and making a living." But when he heard the words of a right-wing speaker, Allen recalls, it all "made sense"; he embarked on a program of study that led him to conclude that Hitler was right, and he applied for membership in the Nazi Party. Like the women recruits, Allen was converted to Nazism after contact with an individual, but his testimony focuses on the impact of the ideas he heard rather than of the speaker himself. The speaker is cast primarily as an instrument through which Allen's inner drive to embrace Nazi philosophy was fulfilled.40

Similarly, John Gerhard of the American White Nationalist Party (AWNP), in a piece titled "Leadership to Victory" and published in the party newsletter in the early 1970s, tells his conversion story: "The road which led to my joining the AWNP started with a desire to save my country and race from what seems like inevitable destruction by our Marxist-Jewish enemies." Like some of the racist women, Gerhard recounts a personal quest for racial and political truth. His testimony takes the form of a journey, starting with George Wallace's presidential campaign in 1968; after a series of unsatisfactory memberships in increasingly extreme right-wing groups, he finally reaches his leadership post in the AWNP. In his story, Gerhard is clearly the protagonist. It is his expressed "desire to save my country and race" that sets him on the road to racist activism, and his own determination brings him to his destination.41

More recently, the imprisoned white supremacist David Tate also presented himself as a self-motivated searcher for racial truth. He describes parents who were "middle class from upper-middle class families" but claims that as a youth he became "aware of 'racial' differences thanks to the hypocrisy of the system." Pointing with satisfaction to "the rise of the skinheads and increased participation of Aryan youth," Tate notes that in his youth, "there were few of my age who participated actively in the movement. I was a rare exception."42

The racist self that men construct differs sharply from the resigned, nearly passive self that racist women present in their stories. Women's talk of bodily harm underscores the sense of vulnerability that justifies their entrance into organized racism, while their desire to safeguard their children from a life in organized racism highlights their sense of dissatisfaction with the life they have found there. Few men reveal similar conflicts: indeed, male racists, or at least male leaders, experience the racist movement as a positive, self-aggrandizing opportunity. For women, becoming a racial activist requires adopting a racist self that is fraught with complications, a self that many ultimately find unsatisfactory. In the next chapter, I turn from discussing the individual racist identities that women come to adopt to examining how women acquire collective racist identities: that is, how they develop a sense of themselves as participants in a larger white racist movement.


Chapter 1: The Racist Self

1. The evidence on the relationship of self-interest to racial attitudes is mixed even in the mainstream population. See Steven A. Tuch and Michael Hughes, "Whites' Racial Policy Attitudes," Social Science Quarterly 77 (1996): 723-45; see also Mary R. Jackman, "Individualism, Self-Interest, and White Racism," Social Science Quarterly 77 (1996): 760-67.

2. Ingo Hasselbach, with Tom Reiss, Führer-Ex: Memoirs of a Former Neo-Nazi (New York: Random House, 1996), 242-43.

3. On recruitment through personal ties, see David A. Snow, Louis A. Zurcher Jr., and Sheldon Ekland-Olson, "Social Networks and Social Movements: A Microstructural Approach to Differential Recruitment," American Sociological Review 45 (1980): 787-801; Donatella della Porta, Social Movements, Political Violence, and the State: A Comparative Analysis of Italy and Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 202; and Leila J. Rupp and Verta Taylor, Survival in the Doldrums: The American Women's Rights Movement, 1945 to the 1960s (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1990), 133.

4. James Aho describes Christian Patriots as undergoing a "multi-step" process of mobilization as they are recruited through personal ties to significant members of local social groups; see The Politics of Righteousness: Idaho Christian Patriotism (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990), 186. For nonracist groups, see William A. Gamson, Talking Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

5. Kevin Flynn and Gary Gerhardt, The Silent Brotherhood: Inside America's Racist Underground (New York: Signet/Penguin, 1990), 107-8.

6. Aho, Politics of Righteousness, 190.

7. Converts often explain their turning points passively but later reveal that more active tactics were employed; see Roger Straus, "A Situation of Desired Self-Change and Strategies of Self-Transcendence," in Doing Social Life: The Qualitative Study of Human Interaction in Natural Settings, ed. John Lofland (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1976), 252-73.

8. Earlier, social science theories described commitment to racist, fascist, and right-wing extremist groups as the result of the psychological deficits or pathologies of their members. The simplistic and conspiratorial ideas of right-wing extremism were considered attractive to those with low tolerance for ambiguity and a high need for rigid, stereotyped views (i.e., "authoritarian personalities"), or those (in a later characterization) who exhibit a "paranoid style" in their politics. These theories are responsible for our familiar understandings of adherence to extremist right-wing movements as the outgrowth of authoritarian parenting, lack of education, ignorance, or irrational prejudices and of participants in rightist politics as unbalanced, frustrated, or deluded. See Theodor Adorno et al., The Authoritarian Personality (1950; reprint, New York: W.{ths}W. Norton, 1969); Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966); and Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab, The Politics of Unreason (New York: Harper and Row, 1970). An excellent critique of this literature is offered by Alan Brinkley, "The Problem of American Conservatism," paper presented at the Organization of American Historians annual meeting, Anaheim, Calif., May 1993. See also Dick Anthony and Thomas Robbins, "Religious Totalism, Violence and Exemplary Dualism: Beyond the Extrinsic Model," in Millennialism and Violence, ed. Michael Barkun (London: Frank Cass, 1996), 10-50. In Fascists: A Social Psychological View of the National Front (London: Academic Press, 1978), Michael Billig presents a more sophisticated analysis of the personality thesis, arguing that while fascist personality types are persistently attracted to fascism, others are attracted for a variety of reasons when the social conditions are favorable to fascism. Raphael S. Ezekiel, in The Racist Mind: Portraits of American Neo-Nazis and Klansmen (New York: Viking, 1995), makes use of psychological arguments (as does Billig); but nonpsychological explanations predominate in contemporary historiography of right-wing movements, in part because the assumption that racists are crazy cannot explain historical fluctuations in the number of people in racist movements. See David Bennett, The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), and David M. Chalmers, Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1981).

9. Interest-based accounts have shed valuable light on the considerations of social status that underlie right-wing social movements against legalized abortion, vice, or women's rights and on the hope for material benefits that has bolstered many fascist movements. Scholars have argued, from a variety of political and theoretical stances, that right-wing political actions result from status threats or the projection of status anxieties. Such arguments can be found in conventional studies of the right, exemplified by Daniel Bell, "The Dispossessed," and Seymour Martin Lipset, "The Sources of the Radical Right—1955," both in The Radical Right, ed. Daniel Bell (New York: Anchor, 1964), 1-45, 307-71, and, to a lesser extent, in Glen Jeansonne, Women of the Far Right: The Mother's Movement and World War II (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). A much more nuanced version, situated in a feminist framework, appears in Pamela Conover and Virginia Gray, Feminism and the New Right: Conflict over the American Family (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1984); Rosalind Pollack Petchesky, "Antiabortion, Antifeminism, and the Rise of the New Right," Feminist Studies 7 (1981): 206-46; Kristin Luker, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984); Faye Ginsburg, "Procreation Stories: Reproduction, Nurturance, and Procreation in Life Narratives of Abortion Activists," American Ethnologist 14 (1987): 623-36; Susan Marshall, "In Defense of Separate Spheres: Class and Status Politics in the Antisuffrage Movement," Social Forces 65 (1986): 327-51; Susan Marshall, "Rattle on the Right: Bridge Labor in Antifeminist Organizations," in No Middle Ground: Women and Radical Protest, ed. Kathleen M. Blee (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 155-79; Rebecca E. Klatch, Women of the New Right (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987); and Nicola Beisel, Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997). Studies of the far right that draw on the perspective of rational choice include William Brustein, "The 'Red Menace' and the Rise of Italian Fascism," American Sociological Review 56 (1991): 652-64, and William Brustein and Barry Markovsky, "The Rational Fascist: Interwar Fascist Party Membership in Italy and Germany," Journal of Political and Military Sociology 17 (1989): 177-202.

10. Such explanations continue to appear in studies of women's participation in marginal and extremist groups; see the analysis of women joining urban gangs in order to meet people in Martín Sánchez Jankowski, Islands in the Street: Gangs and American Urban Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

11. The scholarship on the dynamic relationships between political parties or political movements and their adherents, though extensive, generally assumes that parties and movements adjust their appeals to match the presumed interests of their recruits, not that members dynamically construct their sense of self-interest.

12. In his study of Northern Ireland, "Political Violence by the Nonaggrieved: Explaining the Political Participation of Those with No Apparent Grievances" (in International Social Movement Research, vol. 4, Social Movements and Violence: Participation in Underground Organizations, ed. Donatella della Porta [London: JAI Press, 1992], 79-103), Robert White asks why people who lack apparent, immediate grievances become involved in social movements. He concludes that participants generally had little specific knowledge about the situation but that they shared a general sense, based in family and social networks, that Ireland should have self-determination. See also Hans-Georg Betz, Radical Right-Wing Populism in Western Europe (New York: St. Martin's, 1994); Mark S. Hamm, American Skinheads: The Criminology and Control of Hate Crimes (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994); Nancy McLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); and Leonard Weinberg, "The American Radical Right: Exit, Voice and Violence," in Encounters with the Radical Right, ed. Peter H. Merkl and Leonard Weinberg (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1993), 185-203.

13. This notion that self-interest is influenced by social interaction builds on the idea of grievances as socially constructed, described in Bert Klandermans and Dirk Oegema, "Potential, Networks, Motivations, and Barriers: Steps toward Participation in Social Movements," American Sociological Review 52 (1987): 521-31. See also Margaret Wetherell and Jonathan Potter, Mapping the Language of Racism: Discourse and the Legitimation of Exploitation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), and R.{ths}W. Connell, Gender and Power: Society, the Person, and Sexual Politics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987).

14. John Lofland and Norman Skonovd, "Conversion Motifs," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 20 (1981): 378.

15. Fashioning an identity for the self is theorized very well in Arlene Stein, Sex and Sensibility: Stories of a Lesbian Generation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997). See also Arno L. Mayer, "Memory and History: On the Poverty of Remembering and Forgetting the Judeocide," Radical History Review, no. 56 (spring 1993): 5-20, and David A. Snow, E. Burke Rochford, Steven K. Worden, and Robert D. Benford, "Frame Alignment Processes, Micromobilization, and Movement Participation," American Sociological Review 51 (1986): 464-81.

16. C. Wright Mills, "Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive," American Sociological Review 5 (1940): 404-13, cited in Snow, Zurcher, and Ekland-Olson, "Social Networks," 795. See also David A. Snow and Richard Machalek, "The Sociology of Conversion," Annual Review of Sociology 10 (1984): 173.

17. Snow and Machalek, "Sociology of Conversion," 173.

18. Margaret Somers, "The Narrative Constitution of Identity: A Relational and Network Approach," Theory and Society 23 (1994): 606, 618; Margaret Wetherell, "Life Histories/Social Histories," in Identities, Groups and Social Issues, ed. Margaret Wetherell (London: Sage, 1996), 305. See also Nigel Fielding, The National Front (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), esp. 10; Janet Hart, "Cracking the Code: Narrative and Political Mobilization in the Greek Resistance," Social Science History 16 (1992): 634; Jerome Bruner, "The Narrative Construction of Reality," Critical Inquiry 18 (1991): 1-21; and Verta Taylor and Nancy Whittier, "Theoretical Approaches to Social Movement Culture," paper presented at the American Sociological Association's Workshop on Culture and Social Movements, San Diego, August 1992.

19. See William C. Tremmel, "The Converting Choice," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 10 (1971):17-25; Peter Bearman and Katherine Stovel, "Becoming a Nazi: Models of Identity Formation," paper presented at the American Sociological Association annual meeting, Miami, August 1993; Virginia Lieson Brereton, From Sin to Salvation: Stories of Women's Conversion, 1800 to the Present (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991); Carole Cain, "Personal Stories: Identity Acquisition and Self-Understanding in Alcoholics Anonymous," Ethos 19 (1991): 210-53; David Theo Goldberg, introduction to Anatomy of Racism, ed. David Theo Goldberg (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), xi-xxiii; and Hart, "Cracking the Code."

20. Billig, Fascists, 236.

21. Max Heirich, "Change of Heart: A Test of Some Widely Held Theories about Religious Conversion," American Journal of Sociology 83 (1977): 673-75, cited in Snow and Machalek, "Sociology of Conversion," 170. For a similar pattern in religious conversions, see Roger A. Straus, "Religious Conversion as a Personal and Collective Accomplishment," Sociological Analysis 40 (1979): 158-65.

22. Snow and Machalek's assessment of the "rhetorical indicators" of conversion as reconstruction of one's autobiography, adoption of a new causal scheme, and embrace of the convert role, together with their discussion of the "alignment process" in conversion, is particularly useful here ("Sociology of Conversion," 176).

23. Brereton, From Sin to Salvation, xiii.

24. Brereton, From Sin to Salvation, 72, 71.

25. See Lofland and Skonovd, "Conversion Motifs."

26. On a collective level, what Edward Walsh describes as "suddenly imposed grievances" may mobilize large numbers of persons into social movements by increasing public recognition of a social phenomenon ("Resource Mobilization and Citizen Protest in Communities around Three Mile Island," Social Problems 29 [1981]: 1-21). See Doug McAdam, "Culture and Social Movements," in New Social Movements: From Ideology to Identity, ed. Enrique Laraña, Hank Johnston, and Joseph R. Gusfield (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), 36-57. For a valuable discussion of the role of crisis in stimulating participation in social movements, see Caroline Kelly and Sara Breinlinger, The Social Psychology of Collective Action: Identity, Injustice, and Gender (London: Taylor and Francis, 1996), esp. 108.

27. Maxwell Taylor and Ethel Quayle, Terrorist Lives (London: Brassey's, 1994), 44.

28. See Albert Bandura, "The Psychology of Chance Encounters and Life Paths," American Psychologist 37 (1982): 747-55.

29. Aho, Politics of Righteousness, 183, 187; see also Ezekiel, Racist Mind, 62. The priority of social bonding is also observed in other violent groups, such as gangs. See Mary G. Harris, Cholas: Latino Girls and Gangs (New York: AMS Press, 1988).

30. See Gabriele Rosenthal, "German War Memories: Narrability and the Biographical and Social Functions of Remembering," Oral History 19.2 (1991): 36.

31. Straus, "Situation of Desired Self-Change."

32. Ezekiel, Racist Mind, 64.

33. Straus, in "Situation of Desired Self-Change," argues that individuals are more active in the process of self-transformation than their passive accounts would suggest.

34. This feeling expressed by the women I interviewed is similar, in a perverse way, to W.{ths}E.{ths}B. Du Bois's concept of blacks' "double consciousness": for those who are dominated, having to see things both as they are and through the eyes of the dominators creates pain. See also Billig, Fascists; Hasselbach, Führer-Ex; Elmer Luchterhand and Norbert Wieland, "The Focused Life History in Studying Involvement in a Genocidal Situation in Nazi Germany," in Biography and Society: The Life History Approach in the Social Sciences, ed. Daniel Bertaux (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1981), 267-87.

35. Harris's study of girls in gangs (Cholas) found a similar dreamlike quality to how the girls related events to the researcher, as did Luisa Passerini's study of women in Italy's underground; see "Lacerations in the Memory: Women in the Italian Underground Organizations," in della Porta, Social Movements and Violence, 161-212.

36. Billig, Fascists, 226-27.

37. Rosenthal, "German War Memories," 39.

38. Interviewed by Hamm in American Skinheads, 117.

39. Two of the men's statements that I cite predate my interviews of women, but all come from the modern (post-1960) racist movement. The men's autobiographies are written propaganda by racist leaders; their agenda and tone differ from those of the women's stories, drawn both from leaders and rank-and-file members of the movement.

40. Karl R. Allen, "Why I Joined the Nazi Party," Stormtrooper, March-April 1963, 12-13, 17, 21; in Special Collections, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University, New Orleans, "American Nazi Party-Phoenix" file.

41. John Gerhard, "Leadership to Victory," American White Nationalist Party 1.11 (1971-72): 3; in "American White Nationalist Party, Toledo" file, in Special Collections, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University.

42. "Order Member David Tate Speaks," WAR 12 (April 1993): 9.

Copyright © 2002 by the Regents of the University of California. Not to be reproduced without written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Crossing a Boundary1
Becoming a Racist
1.The Racist Self25
Living As a Racist
4.The Place of Women111
5.A Culture of Violence156
Conclusion: Lessons187
Appendix 1Racist Groups193
Appendix 2Methodology198
Appendix 3Antiracist Organizations205

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