Friday, March 2, 2018

Why I wrote a YA novel about a boy raised by white nationalists

I began my latest book, THE STRAW MAN FALLACY, immediately after the election of Donald Trump. The story is about a 17-year old boy, raised from birth by white nationalist parents, and tells what happens when his worldview, built on paranoia, fear, racism, and parental love, is exposed for the first time, to the disinfecting light of real America.

Days after the 2016 Presidential Election, at the National Policy Institute’s annual convention in Washington D.C., Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right,” stood onstage and shouted, “Heil Trump.” A roomful of attendees, most—if not all—white male, responded with the Nazi salute as they repeated his words back to him. 

I knew then that I wanted to write a YA book about the “alt-right.” 

In the past we would have called these people Neo-nazis, skin heads, or white supremacists—but their new identity of choice “alt-right”—was designed specifically to normalize them. While most Americans would have dismissed this collection of two hundred as a fringe element, Richard Spencer and his ilk viewed the election of Donald Trump as their opening into mainstream politics. In the new president, they saw, if not a supporter, at least someone who would elevate sympathizers of their cause to positions of power in the White House. By January, they had their foot in the door with the installment of white nationalists in the cabinet, and by summer, they were marching in Charlottesville, carrying lit torches and Confederate flags, chanting Nazi slogans in German, and shouting, “Jews will not replace us.”

White supremacy had just gone mainstream in America.

Before the rise of Trump, white supremacists existed on the very fringes of society. They were branded as terrorist organizations. They harkened images of swastikas, white capes, burning crosses, and flying Confederate flags. And we—the mainstream public—didn’t take them seriously.  We didn’t know they were standing among us, in our schools, our workplaces, in the check-out line at the grocery store. And there was something pathetic about them, too, to think of a group of people that were so backwards, they would willingly make themselves a target in order to hate other people. But that was before.

Now, white supremacists have rebranded themselves as white nationalists and the “alt-right.” Gone are the white capes and pointed hats, the “white power” tattoos and shaved heads. In their place are polo shirts, chinos, and Barbour jackets. Clean-cut, mostly male, young, and often well-educated—the new “alt-right” crawled out of their corners and into the mainstream. This newly empowered group viciously attacks feminism and social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, they mock even the idea of social justice by calling liberals “snowflakes” and “SJWs” (Social Justice Warriors).

They succeed because they pin their arguments to the claim that they are not racists. That slavery was “a catastrophe.” That the white race isn’t even the smartest race. They claim to disown Nazism. They tell boldfaced lies, like that the followers who made Nazi salutes were being “ironic,” that humankind’s greatest advancements were all made by white civilizations, and that ancient Egyptians were actually white. Perhaps their greatest lie of all is the repeated insistence that the most discriminated person in the United States is the white man. They are piggybacking on President Trump’s popularity to convert his followers to their cause, claiming that white nationalists and President Trump are the only ones who still respect and honor our country’s white men. Charlottesville proved their strategy is working. The president defended the marchers, and refused to condemn, or even utter the phrase “white nationalism.” Since the march, or since the president’s inaction, even making statements like “Resist White Supremacy” can get a person, or business, trolled. 

And many of us have been left wondering, what can we do next?

As a white author, I initially struggled with the best way to find my role in this fight. It isn’t enough for white people to stand on the sidelines and merely disagree with the “alt-right.” When I read about the founder of a fledgling “alt-right” organization who lived in a trailer with his wife and toddler, I got the idea to write from the perspective of a teenage boy raised from birth by white nationalist parents. From there, I realized I could be an ally to the movement by using my book to school white people about racism. Too often, black people are asked to expend too much time and energy answering well-intended, but problematic, questions from white people. (“What’s wrong with saying, ‘All lives matter?’”) More white people need to speak out in support of movements like Black Lives Matter, to challenge people who claim to support equality but refuse to condemn the staggeringly high numbers of police shootings of black men. I wanted my book to confront white readers and make them question their belief in the status quo. To examine their privilege and ask themselves what truly makes America great. 

For several months, I researched hate groups tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center, reading their forums, watching interviews, and following the Twitter feeds of the groups’ leaders. I read American Swastika, by Pete Simi and Robert Futrell (university professors who have spent years studying the white power movement), and Aryan Cowboys, by Evelyn A. Schlatter, who did exhaustive research on the white supremacist movement during the pivotal period from 1970-2000. I read dozens of articles in the New York TimesThe AtlanticThe New YorkerSlate, and others, and listened to many podcasts, notably On The Media (WNYC), which ran a series of shows about the “alt-right.”

The more I read, the more I was able to understand how a shift towards the “alt-right” became possible. Candidate Trump set the stage by telling white Americans they were discriminated against under President Obama. He told them they had been ignored, forgotten, and forced to accept the liberal agenda. In many white communities, this dovetailed with a loss of identity. What was the world coming to when gay people could get married and transgender people could use the bathroom of their choice? As Arlie Hochschild beautifully portrays in her book, they felt like strangers in their own land. For white nationalists, Trump’s base was ripe for conversion. The majority of Trump supporters would be disgusted by the KKK, but by claiming they aren’t racists, white nationalist leaders have been able to pit white, working- and middleclass men against minorities. White nationalists gave them permission to feel angry at other races with the full confidence that they are not racists.

Just as David Duke left the KKK in the 1970s to run for office, today’s white supremacists are disguising themselves to make their message more palatable. In fact, this homegrown terrorist group puts young, white, American men at risk in much the same way that ISIS puts young Muslim men at risk.

White supremacy is intact in the “alt-right,” but not overt. Instead of blatant use of the N-word, for example, racial slurs are encoded. For those in the know, memes like Pepe the Frog are symbols that have been embraced by the “alt-right” to symbolize white supremacy, as are photos of white men drinking milk (because many people of color are lactose intolerant). Double parentheses around a word or name is shorthand for Jewish slurs. But they deny being racist because they believe they are defending white culture, not attacking other races. They deny the existence of white privilege. They believe they’ve earned everything they’ve attained. They believe we are a post-racial society.

Unfortunately, we are not a post-racial society. When every white American benefits from institutional racism, it is difficult to come to a place where racism doesn’t exist, even in the most open and forward-thinking of minds. Institutional racism built this country from the start—from the moment the colonists felt entitled to land owned by Native people—and then, decided they could own the people, as well. There was a time in our history when any wealthy person, in the South or the North, could own people freely, even when slavery was illegal in other countries, like England. Our Founding Fathers owned human beings. Enslaved people built the White House. Southern wealth was built on unpaid labor. The promise of forty acres and a mule for freed slaves was overturned a year after it was made. Yet the small number of freed slaves who were white actually did get reparations, as well as citizenship.

Long after slavery was abolished, racist laws continued to hold back anyone who wasn’t white. Public education was designed for white children only. The Homestead Act of 1862 excluded black people. Redlining restructured our cities and decimated black family wealth for generations. The majority of black Americans didn’t qualify for social security in the early years. The GI Bill was administered at the local level, which meant black veterans in areas with Jim Crow laws didn’t get to go to college. The narrative continues in our movies, our books, in the abysmally low number of non-white CEOs in our companies and elected officials in our government offices. Imagining our country free from the legacy of slavery is like imagining a fictional African country that has never been colonized. It’s a beautiful idea, but our reality is an ugly scar that lasts and compounds through the centuries. 

With our shared history in mind, and our current state of affairs, I wanted to start a conversation about the so-called “alt-right” that would enable young white people to question, and eventually dismantle, their own prejudice. A book that would apply, not just to children of the “alt-right,” but to children of the many white Americans who don’t see themselves as racist.

I wrote this book for the children of parents who say they aren’t racist, but make offhand racist comments. Who fly a Confederate flag in the name of “southern pride.” Who object to the removal of Confederate statues out of respect for the white version of southern history. There are parents who aren’t overtly racist, but who say, “I don’t see race,” or who sit on the sidelines when someone makes a racist joke. Who refuse to acknowledge the existence of white privilege. The majority of white Americans probably can’t see the breadth of their own white privilege (myself included) and don’t understand the difference between racism and prejudice, and therefore equate their own struggles—growing up poor, for example—with the struggle of growing up black in America.

Like my main character, Asher, most children’s worldviews are so woven into their parents’ that they can’t separate them. How does a child separate their own beliefs from their parents’ narrative that racism doesn’t exist anymore because we had a black president? Or the argument that they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, so why can’t others? My goal in writing this book was to give children, and adults, a toolbox for recognizing and dismantling prejudice. White nationalism is no longer an extremist group. It’s infiltrated our mainstream, and if we don’t actively call it out, we won’t be able to take it down. We could lose a generation of young white people if we aren’t able to shift the narrative. As our country turns demographically more diverse, so the shrinking number of young white people who grew up expecting a good life because they have white skin, and are now angry because others are achieving more, put us all at risk for sliding us back into the days of Jim Crow. Of racial violence. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported over 900 acts of racial intolerance in the ten days after Donald Trump was elected president.

The reason a character like Asher is relevant isn’t because he’s a white nationalist boy. It’s because a lot of non-extremist white boys (and girls) will see their own beliefs mirrored in his. As they see Asher’s capacity for change, so can they open up to their own change, to seeing the truth and fallacies in their own beliefs, and those around them. Only then will they be able to work with others to help change society.

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