Oct 3, 2017

‘Darkness Cannot Drive Out Darkness’: An Interview With a Former Racist on Reforming Neo-Nazis With Empathy

Ian Graber-Stiehl
The Root
October 2, 2017

There’s a reason that I love Inglourious Basterds and Wolfenstein,and that we’ve joked about a neo-Nazi getting rocked. Nazis are the universal assholes. Few spectacles are more cathartic than seeing them get knocked the hell out. Nevertheless, when Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that,” he trusted us with Herculean tasks: Steady your hand by seeing the humanity in those who attack you. Meet them with love. Force them to acknowledge you as an intellectual.

Since 2011, Life After Hate, started by reformed white supremacists, has worked to do exactly that. And in 2016, under the Obama-era Homeland Security Department, LAH, co-founded by Angela King, was awarded $400,000 as a preventer of domestic terrorism.

In June, however, Donald Trump’s DHS announced that the grant had been yanked because “we don’t work with law enforcement,” said King, whose group is nowcrowdfunding to raise the missing cash.

In an interview with The Root, King talked about her story and how experience informs LAH’s approach to wresting people, through empathy, from the mire of hate.

Young Angela King’s South Floridian neighborhood was thick with preaching an “us or them” subtext, and, she explained, though “my parents weren’t very religious, they were racist. They were homophobic. I learned racial slurs, stereotypes and homophobia from as early as I can remember.”

King said that her parents’ racism was one of paranoia: “I constantly heard things like, ‘I’m protecting you from people who want to murder you, kidnap you, and rape you.’”

Later, when she started attending public schools, her world expanded. Being sexually harassed by a bully taught her that reactive violence won respect.

“Knowing that I was attracted to other girls,” said King—who explained that it was something she had no name for, but something that she instinctively knew to hide—seeded guilt and resentment. Realizing that she wasn’t hip by anyone’s definition made her want to belong.

Then, King said, when her parents divorced, “I started experimenting with smoking, drinking, drugs and sex. I was shifting from group to group trying to find a place to belong. I tried to fit in with the kids who skipped school and smoked pot, but I was very violent. That didn’t work out.”

She found a home with a local gang, “until,” she said, “I was raped. Then the rage that I felt grew into a completely different monster.”

Eventually she began hanging with people who started out as punk rockers, but then “replaced the anarchy symbols with swastikas and Confederate flags. I wasn’t attracted to them for their beliefs; they accepted me. I never had to explain my anger.”

Her story was typical until she was convicted of assisting in a racially motivated robbery. In prison, she was confronted with women of all colors who countered her prejudices with humanity and patience. Behind bars, kindness illuminated freedom from hate.

Since Trump’s campaign, King and LAH have tried to stem a tide of hatred rising on the backs of seemingly normal, albeit disenfranchised, undercover racists, a phenomenon she describes as “scary because, when I was on my way out of the violent far right, that’s what we were being told to do: ‘Quit getting in trouble. Quit getting racist tattoos. Assimilate into any aspect of the government you can. We’re gonna bide our time.’”

Broadly speaking, she said that she encounters two types of racists. One type involves those whose ignorance of institutional racism, implicit biases and defensiveness perpetuates white supremacy—and are those who are being fed a narrative by those further right.

With them, King said, “We don’t automatically attack the belief system.” Once their guard is lowered, the beliefs “organically start to fall away” and they become open to information, she said, explaining, “We try to de-escalate that automatic defensiveness by sharing our own stories transparently and vulnerably.”

Then there are those who preach and define themselves by racism. With these types, King said, “I’m gonna be straight with you, it’s not easy, to chase that approach of nonaggressive communication, and not just say, ‘What the hell is wrong with you!’”

Nevertheless, King said, “we know that it’s possible to change because we have changed. We know it’s possible to grow because we have grown. We also know that none of us did that because someone hit us or told us we were stupid.”

Instead, LAH reaches out to, and is contacted by, people who’ve become disenchanted with a hate group, something that many apparently do—especially those who gravitated to such groups, as King did, in search of acceptance.

King has also gone to counterprotests against white supremacists, not wielding “chants or insults,” but a sign displaying the words, “There is life after hate,” along with LAH’s web address.

As a person, King said she understands the necessity of violence in the name of self-defense, such as when protests become riots. As a spokesperson, King believes that meeting hate with humanity reaps greater change. If you agree, check out LAH’s crowdfunding campaign.

I know I agree. I recently wrote that it’s increasingly crucial “to remember why civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, who stand tallest as history’s beacons of hope, are those who chose the high road—who chose to be empathetic ... ”

I’ve written enough about scientificilliteracy, race and psychology to see that facts and insults aren’t convincing enough. Characters that evoke empathy are. That’s why Hitler’s death toll and Keith Olbermann-esque comments-section rants can be forgotten or dismissed, but Elie Wiesel’s story and MLK’s words are immortal.

So, next person to call me nigger, I’m buying you a coffee and asking you your story: “How’d you come to hate me? If hating gets tiring, will you let me help?”


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