Aryan to Anti-Racist: Political Sympathies and Elizabeth Thompson's Blink
Issue #36, February 1998
Gregory Withrow was born poor and white in California. His father was a member of the American Nazi Party. When Withrow made it to college in the 1970s, he discovered that his small college campus boasted a Black Student Union (among many other minority student unions), but no White Student Union. So he started one up. His White Student Union caught on, and he became the leader of a multi-campus Aryan Youth Movement which helped students set up their own White Student Unions across California and in thirty other states. Eloquent, forceful, and charismatic, Withrow caught the attention of Tom Metzger, leader of the White Aryan Resistance (WAR). He became Metzger's right-hand man in WAR, as well as a leader in the California branch of the KKK. But several years later, having achieved considerable political power, Withrow changed. He began to doubt his own politics. He fell in love with a Latina, and left the movement. After publicly announcing his disaffiliation with racist organizations, Withrow was found nearly dead, cut up, and nailed to a board crucifixion-style. For a few brief weeks, his story became a media spectacle.
Ten years later, his story continues--far less spectacularly, and yet, according to documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Thompson, it is precisely the un-spectacular, day-to-day existence of Withrow which people ought to care about. Thompson, whose previous documentary work has appeared on PBS, recently co-produced the academy-award nominated For Better or For Worse, a series of interviews with couples who have been together for over fifty years. Much of Thompson's filmmaking career has centered on environmental and women's issues, and her fascination with personal politics and anti-racism made Withrow's story particularly appealing to her. The politics of victimization and personal transformation, issues central to the women's movement, are also crucial to understanding Withrow's experiences. Thompson's documentary-in-progress about Withrow, Blink, seeks to dramatize the way radical political transformations never occur in the blink of an eye. They are an endless, often deeply personal process, and they are never easy or neat.
"When people watch the clips I have of Greg, their first question is always, 'Is he still a racist?'" Thompson says. "TV coverage of people like Greg tends to take the form of 'evil racist to model citizen' stories. But I want to draw audiences into a thorny middle ground where Greg is still battling ghosts ten years later and wonders whether he's still the same person who got into the movement." Withrow, to Thompson, is not merely some psychological study in "white racism" or "the violent personality." Like most people, he inhabits a bewildering mental landscape of cultural mythologies, difficult memories, and conflicting impulses. But his highly public moral transformation--involving white power, one of the most lurid yet foundational elements of US political thought--has made him into an icon. Since he came out of hiding in 1993, Withrow has gone on the talk show circuit to promote anti-racism and talk about why people join white power groups. Working with the Anti-Defamation League, he has addressed these topics at a number of synagogues and Jewish Community Centers; and perhaps most memorably, he testified about hate crimes before a special hearing of the state Senate Judiciary Committee convened in Oakland, California. Withrow's life has become a symbol for all that is disturbing and possibly redemptive about the social contexts that shape our political beliefs.
The trick, for Thompson, is making a documentary about Withrow which is subtle yet didactic, ambiguous yet hard-hitting. In one segment of the footage Thompson has shot for Blink, Withrow describes how he learned to be a racist. Looking something like a hippie and something like a bodyguard, Withrow emphasizes that he did not learn to hate people of color by fearing them. First, he learned to fear his own people. As a boy, Withrow recalls, he brought home a black boy from his class at school. They played on his front lawn with two other white boys. When Withrow's father saw them, he called Withrow inside, beat him, and said he would pour boiling water on his head if he didn't hit the boy and send him away.
Describing what came next, Withrow paints a scene that might match many American children's first experiences of racial consciousness. Using physical force and violently racist language, he and his friends learned to recognize a person as something less than human. Sobbing, Withrow left his father's house, confronted the black boy, and hit him in the face. The boy asked, "Why? Why are you doing that?" "Because you're a nigger," Withrow remembers saying. One of his white friends said, "Yeah, that's right, you are !" It was, Withrow notes, as if it had just dawned on him that this was so. The other white boy, however, was helping the black boy up, saying, "This isn't right." Previously unaware of racial identity--or at least unconscious of its power--the boys in Withrow's story all came to understand their racial identities through a violent expression of racism; and in the case of the dissenting black and white boys, through anti-racism. They were introduced to US identity politics at ground zero, through prejudice and counter-prejudice.
The extremity of Withrow's background and his later life as a leader of the white power movement set him apart from the US mainstream, and yet there are also undeniable parallels between his experiences and more "average" ones. While very few Americans become racist activists, most of us learn about our racial identities through racism. Even "positive" images of minority groups are taught to children explicitly as an antidote to more poisonous ideas they are gleaning from families, peers, and the media. Racist thought and action form the basis, and the history, of racial identity in the United States. And yet it's clear that this history is being changed, not just from generation to generation, but even within many people's lifetimes.
This is the point which makes Thompson's film about Withrow truly challenging: she wants her audience to sympathize with Withrow in order to make a point about the possibility of political ambiguity. Thompson isn't interested in proving that all whites are potentially aggressive racists, nor does she imply that all racists are secretly victims who have been traumatized into their beliefs. Like Withrow himself, she wants to explore how political identity is never a constant or a given--not for radical conservatives, racist whites, or anyone else. While Withrow's story is about one individual's fight to give up racist ideas, his struggle might apply to people involved with any number of politically conservative movements. The point is that political ideologies can change, and be changed, over time. Even the most extreme form of "hate" activism can be undone. Of course, there is a distressing flip side to this insight as well: Norma McCorvey ("Jane Roe" of Roe vs. Wade) recently converted to Christianity and became an anti-abortion activist. Political ambiguity cuts both ways.
In her efforts to raise money to finish filming and editing Blink, Thompson has encountered a great deal of resistance, which at first glance seems puzzling. Why wouldn't an award-winning filmmaker be able to raise money for a project about anti-racism at a time when even the president is calling for a national dialogue on race? "One fairly liberal funding organization watched the clips I had and responded by asking why I would want to promote fascism and compare the United States to Nazi Germany," Thompson says ruefully. "That certainly wasn't my intent, obviously." Another person in a group that watched the clips declared that Withrow ought to be "locked up." Such responses are common, in part because Withrow looks and behaves exactly like middle-class white America's worst nightmare: a member of the lower-class with a highly politicized sense of himself. With his working-class accent and imposing physical presence, Withrow is the perfect portrait of what professional philanthropists--the kind of people who give filmmakers grants--consider "redneck." To make matters worse, Withrow is articulate and passionate in his belief that he has something to teach about the way fear creates racist hatred, and how people can recover from both. Neither humbly penitent or ashamed of himself, Withrow's self-presentation is bound to ruffle the feathers of middle-class whites who don't wish to confront the possibility that they might have something to learn from a hillbilly-looking guy who was once a member of the White Aryan Resistance.
Along with an often unconscious class prejudice, one of the problems for progressives in the United States is their tendency to assume all conservatives and reactionaries are a monolithic lump of ignorance, brutality, ill-conceived moralism, and intolerance. As a result, extreme conservatism is presented to us as a mystical thing, a kind of congenital disease or mind-sapping trauma which cannot be understood or undone. A person like Withrow is considered an aberration rather than a potential political ally. And his story is greeted less with a sense of hope than with a kind of cynical defensiveness.
Of course this kind of thinking is a problem because it pushes us to believe that progressive political change is never possible. More importantly, however, it also denies the way that our politics--on both a personal and national scale--are constantly undergoing revision in light of changing circumstances. As a result, someone like Withrow gets branded a racist reactionary, in spite of a life lived to the contrary. Yet radical right-wingers--and conservatives--have achieved political consciousness in a variety of contexts, for a variety of reasons. For progressives who want to popularize their ideas, this is a crucial point. One cannot hope to change people's minds without respecting those minds in the first place. By rejecting Withrow's story, we risk ignoring a valuable lesson about the material and ideological circumstances that caused him to become a reactionary and then change. Seeing him as someone who should be "locked up," as one viewer did, is to portray him as somehow tainted by his own history, a history which is as much a class history as it is a racist one. It's partly the fear of a lower class "taint" that I believe encourages progressive thinkers to dismiss conservatives as, at best, deluded victims, and at worst as monsters.
Thompson speculates that another reason why arts organizations and audiences who have seen her clip are spooked by it is because Withrow can still recall quite vividly what it meant and felt like to be a reactionary political activist. When he tells stories about screaming "Fuck you!" to anti-racist protesters, his eyes blaze and he jabs his finger at the camera angrily. Like anyone who has undergone a radical transformation, his personality is a blend of "old" and "new" selves who sometimes contradict one another. He can still feel the old rage; and yet he also loves his Latina wife. He rejects violence; and yet one of his favorite hobbies is mock-sword fighting in the Society for Creative Anachronism. People who watch him speak, Thompson notes, seem to wish that his personal struggle would be simpler, that he could leave behind his rejected political beliefs without retaining some of the desires that fueled them. Withrow himself comments on this when he describes agonizing over feeling intensely angry sometimes and being frustrated by his inability to channel that anger into something simple like racism. Perhaps Withrow's struggle hits so close to home that audiences are disturbed by it. We've all experienced personal conflicts in which we cannot let go of old feelings and assumptions in spite of changed circumstances or a new set of beliefs. But if we refuse to believe Withrow, and refuse to acknowledge that he is in fact undergoing a transformation, we are essentially declaring that we have no faith that our future as human beings might be any more fair or just than it is now.
At a time when progressives in the United States are growing more factionalized, and when the right seems stronger than ever, it's crucial that we keep Withrow's story in mind as an example of what it would mean for political sympathies and desires to cross ideological lines. Perhaps the best question for progressives to be asking themselves now comes from this former reactionary: how did we learn to hate people whose politics and backgrounds are different from our own? I'd venture to say that we might come up with Withrow's answer, too. We learn it from fearing "our own people"--other progressives. Fights and purges among left organizations and intellectuals are so common that it's more likely that one's ideas will be censored or deplored by another leftist than it is that they will be by reactionaries. Historically, such purges have been as violent as those Withrow experienced when he left WAR. At present, middle-class leftists generally battle it out in the realm of the cultural economy, refusing to publish or take seriously the works of dissenters and refusing to hire certain kinds of radical thinkers at universities.
Not surprisingly, one of the biggest causes of antagonism between progressive groups is whether we can or should be forging alliances with "lower class" people like Withrow. I don't mean to imply that Withrow is an average member of the working class, for clearly only a tiny portion of people in all classes become political activists of any kind. What I mean to point out is that part of what makes him "scary" and "disturbing" for leftists is his refusal to speak in the mannered, university-educated language of professional middle-class organizers and thinkers. Progressives who attempt to write and organize in ways that are accessible to working-class and under-educated people are themselves often vilified by other progressives who feel that true subversion can only be expressed when "the masses" are brought into a more complex and ambiguous philosophical understanding of their social world. As this debate grows more vicious, the fear of being labeled "not really a leftist," or even "a leftist conservative" teaches us to hate and fear the group to which we are being compared: the masses of Americans who would consider themselves "conservatives." Rather than attempting to teach and organize among the people who need it most, progressives bash and intimidate each other into following a party line that no longer makes sense to anyone but the already-converted. Doing this, we risk alienating people like Withrow once was, members of the right wing who may be uncertain about their politics, but who are too afraid or too intimidated to voice their dissent.
Perhaps, when Blink and other productions like it begin to get made and seen, progressives will start thinking critically about their own forms of self-policing and realize that they could go beyond the confines of their factions and out into the greater political landscape. Indeed, we could begin by reaching outside the "left" itself, grappling with what it means to open a dialogue with the disenfranchised who call themselves "right wing." We should not reject a group of people--any people--just because they are "not us." Put another way, who are we to judge what shape political sympathy might choose?
To donate money, or find out more about Blink write to Elizabeth Thompson at 300 Brannon, Studio 606, San Francisco, CA 94107 or e-mail her at email@example.com.
Annalee Newitz is a freelance writer who lives in Berkeley. She writes regularly for the New York Press and Punk Planet, and is co-director of Bad Subjects. She is also co-editor of the book White Trash: Race and Class in America.