Jamia Wilson is a writer and activist. The views expressed here are her own.
I’ll never forget the moment when I had a college classmate reveal that he was once a member of a white nationalist gang. “Brotherhood,” he explained. “A sense that I belonged during a time when I felt alienated… just for being me.”
I was stunned. We knew each other from our participation in several campus human rights rallies, and I had admired him for always speaking boldly and passionately about the ills of racism and misogyny. My throat closed shut as if I’d swallowed a tiny ball of knives. I felt the same allergic sensation I did when I was first stung by a bee at summer camp.
“So, you joined it because you struggled with loneliness during your teens like everyone else, and they made you feel superior for simply being a dude and for being white?” I stammered with a nervous laugh.
“It’s awful but…yeah, basically. It was about community. It sounds silly, but they also drew us in with the scene around the music.”
It was my first real-time foray into the mind of an ex-white supremacist, and I was surprised to learn about the heart of his motives. Although future exposure and education led him to leave his brutish crew behind, he admitted that his so-called “brothers” defined for each other what it meant to “be a man.” From rowdy mosh pits to the shadows of alleyways where he watched his friends beat innocent people up for sport, it seemed that having a forum to take out their aggression on those they deemed inferior was a destructive yet addictive salve for their insecurities.
Although I hadn’t thought of this interaction in 15 years, I had a flashback to our discussion while watching the tragic events unfold in Charlottesville this weekend. As images of choleric tiki-torch wielding mobs of a white men stormed a campus quad similar to where I learned about my classmate’s ugly history, my thoughts became fixated on the inextricable and parasitical link between white supremacy and toxic masculinity.
White nationalists feed off the sour fruits of a society where maleness and whiteness is prized as the dominant norm. While xenophobic and racist fear is at the center of this poison, its damage can’t be eviscerated without dismantling social structures that undermine the lives of the majority of us who don’t fit into this narrow category. This ranges from the most insidious forms of gendered attacks to the more covert discrimination that masks itself as a promise and form of faux protection for women are complicit accomplices to this brand of terror.
As I reflected on the murder of 32-year-old paralegal Heather Hayer, and the brutal injuries Natalie Romero, a University of Virginia sophomore suffered after 20-year-old white supremacist and domestic violence abuser James Alex Fields Jr. drove into a crowd of counter-protesters, I was haunted by the memory of my friend’s revelation of his sordid past. From him, I learned that the values that created the foundation for racism and sexual discrimination were supported by both the subjugation and complicity of white women. If that couldn’t be maintained or supported through rhetoric appealing to their sense of privilege or entitlement to ‘chivalrous’ protection, it was achieved by force through intimidation, coercion, exclusion, or direct acts of violence.
Heather’s murder, at the hands of a man who hurt his own mother, reminded me all too well of the tragic killing of Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year-old white Unitarian Universalist and mother of five who drove from Detroit to participate in the marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. After returning from driving other marchers to the airport, she was shot and murdered by Klansmen after they noticed a Black man sitting in her passenger seat. Although over 50 years passed between Heather and Viola’s deaths at the hands of white male terrorists, white supremacist ideologues still bank on the prevalence and widespread acceptance of racism’s link to rape culture and misogyny to realize their goals. In both cases, they also exploited the untimely deaths of white women anti-racists to incite fear and pressure others to fall in line with their narrow vision for white womanhood by spreading nefarious lies, slut-shaming, victim-blaming, and threatening their families. The sense of entitlement that accompanies this worldview depends on retrograde notions of masculinity and whiteness that affirm their delusions of grandeur, while medicating the ache of their own mediocrity.
Courage is contagious. By rejecting racism and pushing back against white nationalist’s narrow and dangerous vision for white womanhood, Heather Heyer and Viola Liuzzo defied the so-called alt-right’s expectation that they protect their privilege and prove their worth by emboldening toxic white supremacist masculinity. Although their refusal to compromise with terrorists cost them their lives, their brave legacies have inspired people nationwide to stand up and take action against racism.
Heather Heyer’s mother Susan Bro issued a spirited call to action at her daughter’s memorial yesterday. Invoking her daughter’s now widely-known Facebook post, “if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” she said that,“they tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well guess what? You magnified her...This is just the beginning of Heather’s legacy.” When I reflect on the lessons we can gain from their acts of radical solidarity, I’m reminded of the importance of people who believe in equality and justice staying vigilantly supportive of each other in the face of our common enemy.
We don’t have time for infighting. For every minute people of conscience waste fighting over what we should prioritize and tackle first, Trump-era emboldened white supremacists are developing their sickeningly sophisticated understanding of how to feed the monster they created to reinforce their deadly “identity politics” at our expense. In a political landscape where our president and his administration refuse to condemn racial hatred with the force it deserves, we must govern ourselves by our own moral compass. It’s time for us to show up for each other again and again, like Viola and Heather, until love indeed trumps hate.