What are the signs I should be looking for?
There are many reasons why individuals are attracted to white supremacist ideology. If they do get involved with white extremist groups, each person’s involvement with these groups is a unique journey and process. It is vital to have a good understanding of the beliefs and experiences motivating a person’s involvement in white supremacy, and the ways in which belonging to a white supremacy group meets their needs. Without this understanding it is possible to further alienate a person and strengthen their involvement in white supremacy.
Although everyone’s journey is unique, there is a correlation between certain negative life experiences and being susceptible to finding white supremacist ideology appealing. Below are some of the most common negative life experiences that many white supremacy group members share.
Why people get involved in white supremacy
A sense of alienation
Many of the people who are attracted to white supremacy groups have a sense of alienation; a belief that they do not fit in anywhere and perhaps even that they are on their own in the world. They may feel rejected and betrayed by classmates, family and/or society in general. White supremacy groups offer people a sense of belonging and an opportunity to feel valued. They promote themselves as places where a person can belong, where he/she can find camaraderie with like-minded people and be part of the white supremacy ‘family’.
“Old friends suddenly shied away from me (…) in the group it is a collective experience that almost everybody turns their backs on us. One of the things that keeps us together is this shared feeling of isolation.” — A 17yr old Neo-Nazi, talking about his experiences. See: Bjørgo, T. (2009) ‘Processes of disengagement from violent groups of the extreme right’ in Bjørgo, T. and Horgan, J. Leaving Terrorism Behind: Disengagement from Political Violence, New York: Routledge, p 35.
An experience of being wronged
Many of the people who are attracted to white supremacy groups feel like they’ve been treated unfairly and that society has let them down. For instance, they may be being bullied at school; may have been assaulted by someone from a different cultural background; may be being abused or neglected by a family member or other figure of authority; or perceive that some cultural groups are getting treated better and have more rights than they do. Maybe they are having difficulty finding a job and see others from a different cultural background gainfully employed. This experience of feeling wronged can lead to anger and hatred.
White supremacy groups offer people support and acknowledgement of perceived unfairness. Their explanation is that it is the people they identify as ‘non-whites’ who are to blame for all these problems. They provide vulnerable people with someone to direct their anger and hatred toward in order to feel powerful. It’s important to note that whereas some vulnerable people may have pre-existing racist views, this is not the case for everyone, and this is not a necessary condition for recruitment.
Quotes from Australian members of a white supremacy website Stormfront:
An experience of searching for an identity and life meaning
Many of the people who are attracted to white supremacy groups are searching for a sense of identity and trying to find meaning in their life. Often people get involved in white supremacy when they are teenagers or young adults. This search for identity and life meaning is an important stage of development in young adulthood for everyone and is completely natural.
“Looking at my life at that time, I was a searcher. I was looking for something larger in life, and one of the things that really attracted [me to white supremacy] was the feeling of being part of a group that wasn’t just any kind of group, but a group with a unique and special cause, a very important cause and I was a part of that very important struggle.” — Former neo–nazi RobertÖrell speaking to All Together Now about what attracted him to white supremacy
Low esteem and feelings of self worth
Often individuals who get involved in white supremacy have low self-esteem and a lack of hope for the future. White supremacy messages about white people being superior and “God’s chosen people” can be attractive, providing them with a sense of self-worth and validation.
A need for protection, affiliation, revenge and retaliation
Many of the people who become involved in white supremacy groups have experienced feelings of being unprotected, powerless and unable to fight back. As just explained, this could be due to experiences such as neglect or abuse by family members or other figures of authority; social, economic or political hardship; or being in the minority in a social setting where there is conflict.
White supremacist groups present themselves as a place where a person will be part of a strong family that protects its members. Their rhetoric that culturally and linguistically diverse people are to blame for all of society’s problems (and therefore the individual’s negative experiences) provides an easily identifiable enemy to blame and seek revenge against. White supremacist messages promoting the use of illegal means, such as violence, to fight against their ‘enemies’, provide individuals with an opportunity for retaliation and feeling powerful.
“So, all these skinheads start walking in, and they go in and they start fighting. And this big skinhead said “don’t worry about standing against the wall, I got you”, and puts me on his shoulders. He goes into the mosh pit, he grabs the first man ‘POW’ spins around and says “Kick him Frank”… now here comes that guy with the mullet, the one we were trying to kick… and that look, that look of fear in his eyes, he was so scared, and I know he wasn’t really scared of me, I was like this little 14 year old kid with this big F***ing farm boy, he was scared of him. But to me at the time he was scared of us. And I LOVED that. I Loved that. For the last four years of my life I feared everything. I feared going to school. I feared coming home from school. I feared going to my house. I feared if my dad was going to have food at the house… I feared everything as a fourteen year old kid and now someone feared me.” — Frank Meeink, former neo-nazi, speaking about his experiences.
How people get involved in white supremacy
Research shows that most people tend to get involved in white supremacy when they are teenagers or young adults. Individuals are often introduced to the white supremacy movement through friends, more senior family members, or their partners. White supremacy groups also use a variety of recruitment strategies that target young adults.
Overall, people tend to initially join for personal or social reasons, rather than ideological reasons, and white supremacy groups use recruitment strategies that will appeal to people’s social and emotional needs.
Social occasions as a recruitment tool
White supremacy groups often have social gatherings, such as barbecues and “meet and greets”, to promote themselves as a place where individuals can make like-minded friends and become part of the white supremacy “brotherhood”. These social occasions are designed to foster camaraderie amongst members and are a pathway into the extremist worldview of white supremacy groups. They also appear harmless and are particularly attractive to individuals who are seeking a group to spend time with.
Music as a recruitment tool
White supremacy groups use music and music festivals. For example the “Hammered” Music Festival, held on the Gold Coast in 2012, was sponsored by the Gold Coast chapters of the Neo-Nazi groups Crew 38 and Blood and Honour.
White supremacy groups use music to expose people to their hate messages and keep them in people’s minds. The music has violent and hateful lyrics that attack Jewish people, gay people and people from other culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
Sometimes white power music is passed out for free on the streets or at events where white supremacist groups know a lot of teenagers and young adults will be.
Music is rousing, emotional and provides a natural way for a person to feel connected and bonded with those alongside them without having to know anything else about them. Any rock concert is multi-sensory and a White Power concert activates all these senses as well as sending a message about how it is okay and righteous to be angry; at whom they should be angry; and what they should do about it – wrapped up in the full package of music videos, lyrics and heightened shared emotions. If alcohol or substances are taken at these events, this can serve to intensify the experience even further. Some people come away saying it almost felt like a religious epiphany and that they now feel very connected to the movement and its beliefs, values and actions.
Music concerts and free music are particularly attractive to young people who are angry but have trouble articulating the reasons behind their anger. The music provides an outlet that is linked to the hateful narrative of the White Supremacist movement.
The internet as a recruitment tool
Like many youth‑based social movements, White Power and other anti-social groups are particularly active online. The internet enables people to connect with each other in a space that is not limited by geographic considerations and, more importantly, is not tempered by a wide range of views.
Several white supremacist groups have their own websites, which they use to disseminate white supremacist messages. These websites feature carefully selected or even ‘fake news’ stories and articles that are used to add credence to claims that white culture is under threat. It is important to know that these sites do not provide a balanced view. They also have a strong interactive component, allowing group members to connect with each other online and participate in online discussion forums. The interactive component assists in reinforcing white supremacy messages and group conformity.
Far-right online groups can use fake social media accounts to inflate their online presence, to fuel the debate and bombard the net with divisive speech. Certain platforms such as Facebook pages are utilised in such a way so as to give the impression that they are run by a large well-organised group with many supporters. In actual fact it is sometimes one individual, or a few individuals behind a page. Often they create many fake accounts to help boost likes and popularise the page. This gives visitors the impression that it is a large active group that is part of a thriving movement that they can also become a part of.
Another recruitment technique is the fabrication of ‘fake news’. Fake news stories often try and capitalise on real news events, which allows for people to be easily confused and deceived. It often involves the exaggeration or manipulation of actual events or data, and the dissemination of sensationalist news stories. A good example is the so-called ‘discovery’ in Los Angeles of 19 dead bodies in a freezer with ‘Black Lives Matter’ carved into their skin. This was a story that became a popular headline and is a blatant example of fake news. The false story aimed to discredit the Black Lives Matter movement. The story appeared originally on the questionable news site Now8news and was then picked up and reproduced by Empire Herald.
More recently, the so-called “alt-right” is a largely internet-based movement that uses memes (including their mascot, Pepe the frog) and fake-news as tools to spread their far-right and white supremacist ideologies.
Video games as a recruitment tool
White supremacist groups also make and distribute their own video games. As with white power music, these games provide a platform for sharing messages of white supremacy and hate. The games are violent and involve attacking people from culturally diverse backgrounds. These ‘enemies’ are negatively stereotyped and the way a person succeeds in the game is by fighting these enemies off. As people are playing these types of games they are exposed to dehumanising messages about people from culturally diverse backgrounds, and being rewarded for being violent towards them. Games have titles such as “Ethnic Cleansing” and “Shoot the Blacks”, and glorify hatred and violence.
“Ethnic Cleansing is advertised as “the most politically incorrect video game ever made”. Players kill Black and Hispanic characters before descending into a subway station “where the Jews have hidden“. Black characters make monkey and ape noises when shot. The advertisement [for a white supremacist video game] continues: “Then if your (sic) lucky you can blow away Jews as they scream ‘Oy Vey!’ on your way to their command centre.” — From: The Guardian
In simple terms, video games that hunt, torture and kill ‘enemy’ groups based on ethnic, religious or other identity markers provide desensitisation to the idea and the practice of real life violence against these same targets. This is an indicator that parents might notice more than schools or other front-line workers.
Stirring up trouble to recruit
White supremacist groups deliberately stir up trouble between different cultural and social groups in order to exploit people’s experiences of being bullied or excluded and play on people’s fears, anger and mistrust. In the following example, former white supremacist T.J. Leyden describes how white supremacist groups exploit existing tensions between different cultural groups as a strategy for stirring up trouble and recruiting new members.
“They cause controversy on the campus. A lot of times they’ll go on campus and put leaflets in the lockers. Knowing that when the black and Hispanic kids come the next day they’ll blame a certain group of white kids on the campus for being racist, whether they are or they’re not. They start attacking white kids, the skinheads come and look like the good guys. And they start recruiting kids.” — T.J. Leyden, ex-white supremacist, talking about recruitment
In the following example, former white supremacist Frank Meeink describes how he used to seek out the individuals who were being excluded or bullied, because they were vulnerable and could be manipulated to join white supremacy.
“We’d start hanging out with the alternative kids, not that alternative kids like skaters and punk rockers are racist… but these groups of kids… were kind of picked on a little bit. I remember these main kids threw a battery at them, like the jock kids one day… So I went over to the jock kids, pretty big kids, big football players, I went over to them and I said ‘Hey who threw it?’ and they wouldn’t tell me… Yeah. And then I went back over to the skater kids and said ‘Hey, these kids are never gonna throw anything at you again’. So then you start recruiting them.” — Former Neo-Nazi Frank Meeink speaking on how he recruited new members for his group
Actively responding to bullying and cultural tensions at a school or university campus can help reduce the risk of individuals being manipulated and becoming involved in white supremacy.
What signs should I be looking for
Radicalisation is a process by which an individual or group comes to adopt increasingly extreme political, social, or religious ideals and aspirations that reject or undermine the status quo.
It’s important to note that radicalisation is not necessarily negative. Many positive changes in Australia are the result of social activism that at the time was considered radical. For example, those who challenged the White Australia Policy and campaigned for Indigenous civil rights in the 1960s were in direct conflict with social norms and cultural values of the day.
Radicalisation becomes concerning when individuals begin advocating, threatening or using violence in order to promote a cause. This may include serious hate speech, as a form of violence, or the outright denial and rejection of the basic human rights of others. When radical ideas are paired with the use of violence or support for violence, we talk about ‘violent extremism’.
Radicalisation into white supremacy is a cumulative process that occurs over time. It doesn’t happen after a single incident and generally it is a social process, i.e. it doesn’t happen alone. Each person’s involvement with far-right or white supremacist ideas and groups is a unique journey and process. When thinking about whether an individual is getting involved with white supremacist ideas and groups or not it is important to consider the person’s usual behaviour to determine if change is occurring.
Below are some of the sign you could look out for:
Changes in worldview and beliefs
As an individual radicalises, their thinking and beliefs can change to match the ideology of the white supremacy movement. They may increasingly preach about white supremacist ideology or increasingly conflict with those who don’t support those views. Mainstream values, political and cultural norms are increasingly rejected and replaced with white supremacist values and norms. At its most extreme, a person will have a political goal of disruption, destruction or overturn of cultural norms and structures, and advocating for replacement of the existing system by non-democratic and/or violent means.
Changes in identity
As an individual’s involvement in white supremacy increases they may start defining themselves less as an individual and increasingly as a member of their group. Simultaneously, they are likely to reduce their identification with other identity groups like family or sporting groups, so that the social identity of being a white supremacist becomes their dominant and singular social identity.
In a tightly structured, controlling, rule driven group, as is the case for many white supremacist groups, a person’s unique personal identity becomes less prominent. Social psychology research demonstrates that an individual’s commitment and loyalty to a group is directly proportional to their level of social identification with the group. This means a person who identifies with a white supremacist group, even at a social level because they feel they have been rejected by others, is likely to adopt and conform to the beliefs, values and behavioural norms of the group.
Changes in behaviour
There are several behavioural changes that may be observed as an individual undergoes the radicalisation process:
- Physical/social withdrawal from mainstream society – this can include doing things like dropping out of school, not going to work and moving to an isolated area.
- Disconnection from friends and family – individuals may start to devote more of their time and energy to their white supremacy group and withdraw from social activities with other friends and family.
- Increased interest in white supremacist music and/or video games e.g. ‘Ethnic Cleansing’.
Changes in internet usage
Given that white supremacist groups are particularly active online, there are a number of changes in behaviour that may be observed. An individual may become increasingly secretive about the webpages they are visiting and what they are downloading.
Increased orientation to criminal behaviour
As a person adopts the narratives and norms of a white supremacy group they can start to normalise engaging in criminal behaviour. Threatening, advocating for or engaging in illegal activity can be regarded as justified, and necessary to further the white supremacist cause. For example, a radicalised person may think it is okay to physically attack someone who is perceived to be an enemy of white supremacy or a person of colour.
Changes in appearance
An individual may change their appearance to indicate their allegiance with a white supremacist group. Changes may include shaving their head; wearing symbols such as the swastika; wearing 12-hole boots; or wearing merchandise from white supremacist bands. For examples of white supremacy symbols, refer to the glossary at the end of this resource. However, it is important to note that an individual may not change their appearance in any way, choosing instead to ‘fly under the radar’ as a white supremacist. In Australia, there is some indication that white supremacist groups are attempting to distance themselves from the images of the stereotypical neo-Nazi skinhead, due to the social stigma that surrounds white supremacy.