I Was a White Nationalist. Here's Why I Changed My Mind

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I grew up in one of the leading families of the American white nationalist movement. My dad, Don Black, founded the first white power website and online community, and his closest friend since they were teens, David Duke, had run for and won office as an open white nationalist despite national condemnation. I joined my dad in giving national interviews advocating for the racist and antisemitic cause when I was 10, and I continued to believe in it and advocate for it on a national level throughout my teens.

By the time I went to college, I had become an international spokesperson for the movement and a presumed leader in waiting. In college, however, after initially flying under the radar, I was outed and spent several years engaging with a new community of people who were personally harmed and shocked at what I believed. It wasn’t the first time people told me racism was wrong and stupid. But it was the first time that I had been told I was not only wrong, but hurting people I knew and cared about. At the end of that experience, I condemned the beliefs I grown up in and have spent the decade since advocating against the movement I once expected to lead.

Derek traveling with their dad in the Smokey mountains.<span class="copyright">Courtesy R. Derek Black</span>
Derek traveling with their dad in the Smokey mountains.Courtesy R. Derek Black

Looking back, it’s surprising that I no longer saw myself as a white nationalist when I publicly declared that I wasn’t one anymore. I’d dismissed the last pieces of that worldview months earlier, but it was in the moment of saying it out loud that I saw what it meant to “change my mind.” And that process had only been possible once I felt connected to a new community that challenged me.

Read More: The Power of Changing Your Mind

Students publicly debated what to do about me being there, and activists had organized a school shut down to address campus racism and discrimination. Others had invited me into their dorms. It had been in those private conversations where I tried to answer how I could see myself as someone who didn’t want to harm others and yet, advocated a worldview that hurt hundreds of people I knew and respected.

I was only able to have those conversations in dorm rooms, on walks, and in long car rides because I was talking to someone who had already become a significant person in my life. In those conversations, I had slowly accepted that the arguments about IQ, race, and crime I had learned at white nationalist conferences growing up were false. I had arrived at college believing I was someone who followed evidence—someone who did not reject anyone simply because of who they were. That led me to develop deep relationships with students of color and Jewish students. Although I didn’t immediately abandon my exclusionary worldview, it was the process of navigating that contradiction—of loving this new community and also being someone who caused them pain—that opened me to finally hearing, and truly considering, the plentiful and rigorous counter evidence to racist beliefs.

Accepting that my arguments and beliefs were wrong, both factually and morally, was incredibly hard. Even harder was the overwhelming pain of realizing that I had to walk away from the community that had raised me and formed nearly every significant relationship of my life up until that time.

What kept so many people in this ideological community, even though it brought them so much social stigma and criticism, was the feeling of being supported by the loyal community that reaffirmed their identity. New followers often showed up with common, and therefore less extreme, racist views that had often dominated the white communities they grew up in. What reaffirmed them was the bonds they formed. It was a movement that defined membership through demonstrations of ideological commitment and familiarity with the movement’s history and symbolism.

Read More: White American Christianity Needs to Be Honest About Its History of White Supremacy

Learning the arguments that white nationalists used to describe their all-encompassing view of the world became the measure of inclusion in the community. Their identities were defined by collective resentment and a shared understanding of who their enemies were. No evidence could reach them, not because they were uneducated or ignorant, but because their identity and community relied on the fact that they continued to believe in the cause.

Changing our minds about anything we hold dear often feels like accepting contradictory facts. But we only become open to doing that when there is a conflict between what we believe and our ability to connect with a community we love. That doesn’t mean we can convince ourselves of anything, or that facts don’t matter. But it does mean that trying to change someone’s mind about anything fundamental to who they are shouldn’t be seen as an academic debate. If we can recognize that changing someone’s beliefs is as sacred as changing their community, we can also see why it’s so rare and difficult.

It was only once I had condemned the movement I was raised in that I could finally see what seems obvious in retrospect. I was afraid to change my mind because I knew it would mean losing the sense of safety and security that this community had provided all my life. But it was also about seeing my sense of value change. Because it is our values that drive how we interact with others: whether we see ourselves as loyal friends, seekers of knowledge, reliable partners, or any other list of things at the core of our sense of self. We adopt our worldviews, decide what’s true or good evidence—and sometimes fundamentally change our minds about both of those things—based on who we feel responsible for and connected to. We love or reject others by following our values.

The white nationalist movement demands ideological conformity from people who generally see themselves as independent thinkers, loyal friends, and moral absolutists. What often unites them, even if they might not put it this way, is that they have seen the unequal society they were born in and try to justify it. Unlike antiracists, who choose to act to dismantle that unfairness, white nationalists seek to justify the hierarchy. And this community offers them supposed evidence to support that belief.

R. Derek Black<span class="copyright">Torstein Olav Eriksen</span>
R. Derek BlackTorstein Olav Eriksen

My dad often repeated the mantra that the members he was looking for weren’t necessarily extremists or militants. He wanted people who started sentences with the phrase, “I’m not a racist, but…” Whatever it was they said next was the seed of a more extreme belief that would make them feel at home in this community. The most effective pitch for white nationalist beliefs was always one that told people they did not need to feel guilty for being the beneficiaries of an unequal society. More than anything else, white nationalists told white people that calls of racism were nothing more than jealousy or hatred being expressed towards them as white people.

Antiracism, on the other hand, is a belief system that is much more expansive. Instead of justifying or advocating for separation, it is a worldview that seeks constantly to widen the circle of people that anyone can find connection, value, and loyalty to. And yet, it has oftentimes been harder to advocate for an antiracist worldview. Antiracism asks people to constantly change, to spend their lives trying to find new forms of connection with an ever-expanding group of people. It can be overwhelming. It is not less natural than the fear peddled by racism, but it can feel more risky to ask people to imagine something that does not yet exist—that is a work in progress.

When I first entered college, I had already heard the argument that racism was a horrible construct. But, for the first time, I felt like I could no longer fall back on the belief that the people—one specific person, in fact—on the other end of that message didn’t understand me or my beliefs. Instead, that specific person, after hearing me out over months, could recite back to me what I believed as well as I could. She was clear that she believed it was wrong on every level. It is rare to be able to sit with that level of dissonance and love someone when you fundamentally abhor their beliefs. Yet that is what is necessary to be able to engage with others and affect change.

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