My colleagues and friends keep coming to me for recommendations for anti-racist reading, and I, of course, want to keep educating myself. So I was chuffed when Little, Brown offered me a review copy of Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism. Now, I’m trying to mostly read anti-racism books written by people of colour—white people writing such books is fairly problematic, but Seyward Darby has seized on the correct vantage point. Sisters in Hate isn’t about the racism that people of colour experience but rather it’s about the racism that white people (particularly white women) promulgate and perpetuate. It’s a white, female journalist’s look at how white women prop up, propel, and propagate the white nationalist movement in the United States. Through profiles of three white nationalists (1 former, 2 current), combined with historical context, Darby seeks to understand, and to help us understand in turn, why white nationalism is so attractive to white women, particularly white women in their late twenties and early thirties.
Darby is upfront that the profile structure of Sisters in Hate is meant to humanize these figures. This is, in and of itself, a controversial practice when applied to white nationalism and the alt-right. A few years back, Laurie Penny caught flak for ostensibly doing the same with a piece about Milo Yiannopoulos and his ilk. I didn’t agree with the pushback then and I don’t agree with it now: neither Penny nor Darby romanticize or otherwise portray their subjects in a way that would be described as flattering. Nor do I think it renders these subjects as objects of laughter and derision rather than objects of concern. I agree with Darby when she says in her conclusion that we need to understand the white nationalist movements as they are, not as we think they are. We don’t do the cause of anti-racism any favours by assuming we know, without actually asking, what makes people succumb to the siren call of these movements.
Like Darby does herself in her intro, let me provide some positionality for those not familiar with my reviews heretofore: I’m a white woman in my thirties. I’m not American; I’m Canadian. While Sisters in Hate is inextricably tied to American history, and particularly the fallout from the Civil War, of course, this book is still relevant to those of us north of the 49th. Canada has its own problems with racism and with white nationalism—from Rebel Media to Gavin Innes/the Proud Boys to farmers like Gerald Stanley who not only think they can kill Indigenous kids without reprisal but have literally demonstrated such impunity in practice … yeah, Canada has problems. So while the precise historical antecedents of white nationalism in Canada are far more connected to our British forebears, the modern versions of white nationalist movements here, and the ways in which they recruit members and spread their messages on the web, are very closely related to the American versions of these movements.
I’ve read or listened to interviews with former members of white nationalist groups before. So some of what Darby covers here is not new to me: the people drawn to these movements often feel isolated or vulnerable, much like the potential recruits of any cult or target of any abuser. White women in particular feel disillusioned by what they perceive as feminism’s failure to provide “it all” (career, kids, partner)—never mind the dismal failure of white feminism to look out for the interests of women of colour. White nationalism’s twin selling points are an appeal to a mythological better time coupled with the presentation of non-white people as the source of all America’s troubles. To outsiders, this rhetoric might seem patently flimsy, incredible. Yet as Darby shows us, to people with the right combination of vulnerabilities, it is powerful and persuasive. A great many people believe in conspiracy theories of one sort or another, so it makes sense that at least some of them believe in white nationalism.
Each of the three women chronicled in this book reveals interesting glimpses into white nationalism. All three women begin as feminists, support fairly progressive and liberal ideas including LGBTQ+ issues, but eventually all three reject feminism and progressive politics because the backbone of white nationalism is that progressivism is degenerate. Corinna (when she was a white nationalist), Ayla, and Lana champion “traditional” life wherein women are subservient to men, and this is natural and good because it is the way nature/God/the universe intended it to be.
This is the essential paradox Darby seeks to untangle within white women in white nationalism: why reject a philosophy (feminism) that is about liberating your own group? Why embrace a philosophy (white nationalism) that ultimately works against your own interests when it comes to autonomy, that positions you primarily as a breeder to preserve racial purity and a helpmeet for a husband who does the real tough business of rebuilding society? Assertive women like Lana Lokteff acknowledge this paradox; she admits that she is an outlier. Darby questions whether Lokteff, like Serena Joy from The Handmaid’s Tale, would actually enjoy living in the world she wants to see established.
Whatever the resolution to this paradox, we must accept that some women do internalize the tenets of white nationalism. The vectors are various, although Darby points out that it really all goes back to social networking. Most chapters end with some historical context: Darby draws parallels between present-day movements and movements from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I found these parts some of the most interesting, although I think if the whole book had such a focus I’d probably grow bored—the use of profiles is a great way to keep us interest and focused on the fact that these people who promulgate hate are, in fact, people. They Other people of colour, and we should not Other them in return—if we do, we miss the chance to dismantle and deplatform these movements.
Sisters of Hate would have benefited from digging deeper into the platforms on which these movements proliferate. Darby does mention, multiple times, the ways that YouTube’s recommendation algorithms aid the spread of hate. Somewhat tangentially she also mentions that YouTube has banned some white nationalists, including Ayla and Lana, while other platforms like Twitter might have not done. Yet I would have liked more analysis into how women participate in social media platforms in ways that spread conspiracy theories and other misinformation. From time to time, Darby touches on the fascinating cognitive pysch ideas behind the credulity we humans often have for these theories. Yet she never quite digs into what special circumstances might be created by our current climate of social media.
Where this book excels, however, is reminding us that humans and our beliefs are far more mutable than we like to think. Corinna has been a feminist, a sex worker (which is not mutually exclusive with feminism at all I want to stress), a white nationalist, and now a Muslim. Ayla was a radical Mormon feminist until she wasn’t; Lana was one half of a sibling musical duo and then she married a racist Swede and now she’s a virulent white supremacist. People change, and they change because they are exposed to certain ideas at certain times.
What do we do about white nationalism? Darby doesn’t have all the answers, and I guess it’s not fair to expect that she would. She makes a persuasive call to support groups that help people exit these movements. More education would help, of course. But I think her ultimate theme is that the only defense is a strong offense: we can only combat the intimidatingly tenacity of white nationalist movements by working together, all of us, white people and people of colour, men and women, cis and trans, straight and ace and gay—our diversity, the very thing white nationalists decry as the weakness of the nation, is our strength. Because the one thing they cannot match is the mosaic of experiences that we can call upon. That’s what will make our society, American or Canadian or whatever country you live in, better. (This is, of course, all empty unless we actually work to dismantle the white supremacist institutions that most of our countries are founded upon. Give back the land.)
Sisters in Hate fills a gap in the conversation around white nationalism and hate movements. It’s a good complement to more practical anti-racist reading. Moreover, I hope, as my last paragraph expresses, it inspires people to take action, because the last thing we need is a bunch of white people thinking they’re not racist anymore because they’ve read a lot of anti-racist books! Sisters in Hate reminds us that white nationalism and white supremacy does not comprise solely violent or overt racists and bigots. It might include some of your neighbours, some of the people you follow on social media, or some of your colleagues. The phone call is coming from inside the house, and once we pick it up, we need to know how to put it down.