‘”Why are you in England, you filthy shitskin?”
When the first hateful tweets started appearing in my feed, I wasn’t scared, despite how abusive they were. I have lived with death threats for as long as I can remember, so I’ve developed a certain capacity with which to deal with them. These threats and accompanying abuse—one was weirdly polite, proclaiming that “this lady” should be raped and murdered—were a response to a statement that I had made on BBC TV, endorsing diversity and British multiculturalism. Violent racist websites had leapt on the comments and ramped up the hatred.
Ever since Donald Trump’s rebirth as a politician, he has tapped into racist attitudes which are deeply engrained into American culture and history—some call slavery “America’s original sin.” He’s used this fuel to justify some of the most inhumane and authoritarian policies in American history. Across Europe, far-right identarian parties are also gaining influence. I live in the UK, where resentment toward minorities and immigrants from some white people—chiefly, though not exclusively, disenfranchised white people—was leveraged towards the Brexit vote.
These political changes are far more scary to me than the abuse and threats I had personally received, but the harassment was the last straw. The fury in my feed was so visceral that I felt I had to find out what lay beneath it. I was determined to discover the roots of this rage.
As a filmmaker, my first reaction to anything I want to understand is to make a film about it. I decided that my next project would be to explore the attitudes of the far-right. I had interviewed Muslim extremists previously, after years of threats and harassment. For White Right: Meeting The Enemy, I walked into the belly of the beast.
I filmed in the homes and training camps of militant neo-Nazis. I even marched alongside fascists at Charlottesville with just one cameraman at my side. I wanted to see if they could look me in the eye and call me their enemy. Jared Taylor, one of the self-styled intellectuals of the alt-right, could; but surprisingly, many of the blue-collar neo-Nazis I met could not. I was too human for the stereotype of the Muslim woman they’d imagined: I wasn’t wearing a burqa or a suicide belt; I wasn’t shouting Allahu Akbar.
If I complicated their idea of the Muslim woman, they also complicated my idea of a racist. They were hateful and dangerous, yes, but they were also profoundly damaged men, and often dealing with pain—ingrained, enduring pain. Racist ideologies, as promulgated by the suit-and-tie brigade of “race realists” like Taylor, transform and manipulate this male pain into resentment, resentment into hate, and hate into violence.
The United States is deeply scarred by legacies of prejudice from its very inception, from slavery to the genocide against native Americans. This legacy affects us all. It affects me, as a brown-skinned Muslim woman, from the moment I step off the plane when I arrive in the states. For some white men, this legacy leads to a sense of entitlement—which leads to almost inevitable and devastating feelings of humiliation and powerlessness and shame, especially among those lower down the socio-economic hierarchy.
If white men cannot be winners, they often see themselves as victims instead. And when white men feel like victims, America’s legacy of hatred readily provides them with people to blame: Black people, Jews, immigrants, Muslims, feminists.
People like me.
Yet, during filming, I found that even the most hardened racist can come to accept the humanity of a person who they had previously considered an enemy. Human connections can destroy stereotypes.
Pardeep Singh’s father was killed by a white supremacist: brutally gunned down while worshipping in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012. Despite this horrendous crime, it was Pardeep who explained the power of empathy to me. He told me that if we can’t connect with other people, even with racists and Nazis, then we are powerless to change them.
He is right. Former neo-Nazis themselves told me that it was invariably human connections with people they’d previously considered their enemy that had forced them to re-evaluate their racist belief system.
Ultimately, we can’t tackle racist ideologies and practices without engaging with America’s legacy.
If we are going to defeat the far-right, we need to look at what makes people vulnerable to radicalization. We have to look beyond the blatant racism of Hitler salutes and swastika tattoos towards the polite prejudices of the respectable, wealthy, suburban voters who turned out for Trump and who maintain the relentless, everyday racism of White America.
We have to understand the social and psychological needs that channel them into hate movements. Despite its enormous wealth, the U.S. has continuously failed to support the wellbeing of its poor and its working class—leading to poor physical and mental health, lack of welfare provisions, inadequate education and environmental degradation.
This lack of a social and emotional support system leaves some vulnerable to indoctrination into the nation’s violent history of race and racism. And as long as racism is acceptable and as long as racism remains systemic, it will remain a means for damaged and violent men to express their pain.
We need to confront America’s legacy in order for America to have a future. To do so well, we may have to weaponize empathy.