Perhaps the Most Effective Way to Fight Racism

The filmmaker Deeyah Khan is the latest anti-racist to enjoy success by engaging, rather than shunning, people with deplorable beliefs.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

In White Right: Meeting the Enemy, the filmmaker Deeyah Khan, a Muslim woman of color, recounts a television interview she gave during the summer of 2016. “The fact of the matter is that the U.K. is never going to be white again,” she told the BBC. “Similarly, our parents who have left Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and other Muslim countries, for them to think that they can reestablish those countries and the lives that they had there over here—it’s not gonna happen. We’re together going to have to find out: What does it mean to build a society that includes all of us?” A deluge of hate mail quickly followed.

Rather than silence her, the threats provoked her to go out and meet “the kind of people who sent me this abuse … to get behind the hatred and the extremist ideology to find out what they are really like as human beings.”

What follows is a tense hour of film. The filmmaker managed to secure exclusive access to white-supremacist groups at pivotal moments before and during their infamous march on Charlottesville, Virginia, and she elicited remarkable statements during her interviews with racists.

In one scene in the film, she takes out a photograph of herself, age 6, grimacing during an anti-racism march. “People that represent what you represent made a 6-year-old child feel hated and unwanted and unwelcome and ugly,” she tells one white-supremacist leader as they sit across from each other in a hotel room. “The movement that you are a part of has this type of real-life effect on people like me. How does that make you feel?”

He squirms and swallows. “Uncomfortable,” he finally answers. In the discussion that follows, she presses him to confront the full reality of where his actions invariably lead. A similarly intense interview unfolds in the mountains of Tennessee at a neo-Nazi training camp.

What interested me as much as the film was an interview with Khan just released on Sam Harris’s podcast in which she looks back at her interactions with white supremacists—an interview that sounded the same themes as the Washington Post article “The White Flight of Derek Black” and the fascinating story of the black jazz musician Daryl Davis, who decided that he was going to interview and engage various members of the Ku Klux Klan.

In both of those stories, anti-racists departed from the conventional wisdom that bigots are best excoriated and shunned (if not punched and kicked); engaged prominent, hard-core racists; and managed through civil interactions to persuade some of them to renounce their beliefs.

Khan described similar results from her efforts to combat both jihadism and white-supremacist extremism—an outcome that she didn’t expect.

“I’ve had experiences of racism most of my life,” she said. “As a result, I’ve been an anti-racist, anti-fascist campaigner for most of my life. I’ve done everything that you would imagine. I’ve gone to anti-fascist protests. I’ve shouted at these guys. I have flipped them off. I have thrown stuff at them. I’ve done all of that. And none of that really did anything.”

Judging and condemning jihadists and white supremacists “feels great,” she declared, but yields little. “I made the film to try to understand why people do the things that they do,” she said, “so the fact that some of them started using words like friends for me, the fact that we were able to build a real relationship, was absolutely shocking to me and confusing and something I never would’ve expected. If you would’ve told me a year ago that I was going to be friends with people like this, my God, I would have laughed at you at first. And then, second, I think I would’ve been offended that you think I would do that.”

As it turns out, a few fraught friendships that grew out of her conversations caused some people in deplorable organizations to leave them. About a man who ultimately told her, “I’ve left the group. I’ve left the ideology. And I’m so sorry. The hate was eating me from the inside,” she said:

It tells me that we can’t really afford to give up on people––people like him. You know, he has a massive swastika tattoo, a Klan tattoo, he’s utterly committed to his cause, and today he’s left. In the film he says, “But I’m never going to break bread with a Jew,” and two or three weeks ago I heard that’s exactly what he’s done. And he’s having his tattoo removed.

So there is hope. I’m not saying let’s hug a Nazi and everything is going to be fine. But what I’ve learned is that … no-platforming these people and just completely rejecting them, I think, feeds into their story of victimhood, as if they are speaking some sort of forbidden truth. And I think if anything, we need to expose racism. We need to challenge it.

We need to confront it rather than just allowing it to marinade in its own kind of madness … The judgment and self-righteousness for holding the right opinions and having the correct politics, I think, is just counterproductive … It actually adds to the problem and adds to people’s radicalization rather than not. In speaking to the jihadis that left and to former violent neo-Nazis in this film, what struck me after the fact is that what interrupted people’s hatred and ideology is for someone who represents the other in their eyes to treat them with dignity.

While powerful, Khan’s conclusions aren’t necessarily correct. Perhaps she undervalues the effectiveness of stigma against the far right. Or perhaps the successes of Daryl Davis, Derek Black’s friends, and Deeyah Khan are anomalies. Even if their approach to anti-racism is effective, perhaps it cannot scale, as very few people possess the inclination, let alone the courage and patience, to engage extremists as they do.

Then again, perhaps theirs is the most effective way to combat bigotry. That possibility, bolstered by evidence they can marshal for specific conversions, makes me lament that there are those who want to wield stigma not only against virulent white supremacists—as I still do, too—but also against fellow anti-racists who take a different approach to the problem.

Fighting bigotry by engaging the most odious bigots is more demanding and less comfortable than doing so by denunciation—so much so that it isn’t something one can justly ask of anyone. It may also be the single most significant way that some anti-racists can bring about positive change in this realm, a comparative advantage that would be better celebrated for its fruits than stigmatized as soft on extremism.