Kelly J. Baker
I first knew something was up when I Googled Richard B. Spencer for an article I was writing on the “alt-right,” the white nationalist/supremacist movement that appeared in the media spotlight during the later stages of the contentious presidential election. As I typed in his name into the familiar search box in early October, “haircut” appeared as a possible accompanying term. That’s a weird suggestion, I thought, as I continued to research Spencer, the creator of the term the “alt-right” and often public face of the movement. Why were folks searching for Spencer’s haircut?, I wondered, Were other alt-right members looking up images of the haircut to take to their stylists?
Spencer’s haircut seemed trivial and unimportant as I moved on to considering how the alt-right’s version of white nationalism compared to previous forms of white nationalism championed by the white supremacists I study. But, I couldn’t quite forget that Spencer’s hairstyle was searched for enough to become an autofill suggestion.
When a slew of profiles of the alt-right leader appeared in major newspapers and magazines in October and November of last year, I thought again of Spencer’s haircut and what we imagine white supremacy, and white supremacists, to look like.
For Mother Jones, Josh Harkinson profiled Spencer with excruciating attention to Spencer’s look and wealthy upbringing. Harkinson describes the alt-right leader as “[a]n articulate and well-dressed former football player with prom-king good looks and a ‘fashy’ (as in fascism) haircut–long on top, buzzed on the sides.” Harkinson takes the time to describe Spencer’s use of chopsticks and the mansion where he lives when he spends time in Whitefish, Montana. Spencer, we learn, is attempting to “professonalize” a movement once associated with Klansmen and neo-Nazis, who I guess are assumed to not be “professional.” He’s an “academic racist” in expensive suits rather than a hood-wearing bigot that the journalist seemed to expect.
When Mother Jones originally tweeted the link to Harkinson’s profile with a photo of Spencer in a brown suit and tie, the accompanying headline read: “Meet the dapper white nationalist riding the Trump wave.” Unsurprisingly, folks responded vehemently to the headline, particularly the use of “dapper” to describe a white supremacist as well as the tone of the profile, which reports less on Spencer’s racism and more on his manners, tastes, and his educational background at elite institutions: University of Chicago, University of Virginia, and Duke University.
Not to be outdone, the Los Angeles Times also profiled Spencer and the alt-right as a “new think tank” in town rather than as a white supremacist organization known for memes and Internet trolling. The alt-right emerges as a group of “buttoned-down millennials, in their dark suits and ties” drinking coffee while attempting to reclaim America as a nation for only white people. Lisa Mascaro writes:
Sitting around conference tables, the formally dressed men more resembled Washington lobbyists than the robed Ku Klux Klansmen or skinhead toughs that often represent white supremacists, though they share many familiar views.
These white supremacists in suits appear more akin to lobbyists than what the public supposedly expects racists to look like. She interviews Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who notes, “The guys in the suits are the ones we have to worry about.” Indeed, they often are, even if we haven’t learned to worry about them.
When the LA Times shared the profile on Twitter, they tweeted a picture of Spencer wearing black Wayfarers, a hipstery navy sweater, and his trademark fashy. There was backlash against this tweet too, alongside claims that the mainstream media was “normalizing” the alt-right by hyping their look rather than their hateful ideologies. Who cares if they look different if they espouse white supremacy like the Klan and neo-Nazis?
Who cares about the look of white supremacy?
Yet, the media seemed to care an awful lot about the look of white supremacy and the looks of white supremacists. Wearing suits and ties made the alt-right appear new and different from previous generations of white supremacists to many news outlets. (Somehow we’ve already forgotten David Duke’s legacy, even as he reappeared in the news to support Trump’s candidacy.)
Articles proclaimed the alt-right’s newness with surprise and detailed descriptions of white supremacist fashion. White supremacists were wearing suits! Where were their robes?! They were approaching racism “intellectually” or “academically!” They went to college! They earned graduate degrees! Spencer could even use chopsticks while proclaiming the importance of an ethno-state for whites only! This movement must be new and glam and terrible (maybe terrible)!
And yet, as I and other historians have pointed out, the alt-right is not new, neither is suit-wearing white supremacy. Reporters seemed convinced that they were, so profile after profile dwelled on the suits, ties, and clean-cult look of alt-members. The seeming newness white nationalism presented more in their sartorial choices than a close examination of their ideologies.
To be fair to these journalists, the alt-right does appear drastically different from the popular stereotypes of white supremacists on television and film. In popular culture, white supremacists appear not as urbane or suit-wearing, but as rural, Southern, uneducated, working class or poor, evangelical, and anti-modern white men. They rarely appear in suits (unless they happen to end up in court); they most often appear covered in hateful tattoos.
When popular culture imagines white supremacists, they wear t-shirts with racist slogans and burn crosses on lawns, shout “Heil Hitler” with shaved heads and visible swastika tattoos on their arms, or shout their hateful words about various groups of people with thick Southern accents. When pop culture portrays white supremacists, they are stock characters, visibly terrible people who are oh-so-easy to identify in a crowd. White supremacists in television and film are so damn obvious in their racism. Their look dramatizes their white supremacist ideology. Their clothes and affect signal a style of belligerent racism that Americans are supposed to be over (though we so clearly aren’t).
Let’s stop and think about how white supremacists appear on screens, both small and large.
There’s Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) in the first episode of the first season of FX’s Justified (2010-2015). He wears a sleeveless white t-shirt; his swastika tattoo on his shoulder is prominent and large. With a Southern accent (or maybe an attempt at an Appalachian accent), he preaches a television version of Christian Identity, an explicitly racist rendering of Christianity that claims separate creations in Genesis for white people and people of color. When he tries to preach his white supremacist religion to U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), Raylan wonders if Boyd actually believes this racist rendering of Christianity or whether he’s making it up to justify his tendency to “blow shit up.” Raylan may be right because Boyd’s attachment to Christian Identity only lasts for the episode, and Boyd’s look changes to reflect the shift from Aryan chic to prison orange and to jeans and long-sleeve button-down shirts. No longer a white supremacist, Boyd now appears clean-cut.
Or perhaps, Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker) from The Walking Dead (2010-present), a loud, sadistic white supremacist. Merle also tended toward wearing sleeveless, and stained, white t-shirts while shouting racial slurs at the few people of color who survived the zombie apocalypse. Of course, he has a Southern accent. His brother, Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), ends up riding Merle’s motorcycle with its Nazi symbols. But, Daryl’s bigotry is not as obvious as his brother’s, and so, it seems to disappear as he follows the lead of the former sheriff, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), and drifts away from his brother’s racism as the show continues season after season. Intriguingly, Daryl emerged as fan favorite in spite of his brother’s white supremacy. He continued to drive Merle’s Nazified bike, a reminder of Merle and his bigotry even when he was absent. And yet, still a favorite,
There’s also American History X (1998), which offers up Neo-Nazis, or maybe “skinhead toughs,” as young white men with shaved heads, jeans, combat boots, and swastika tattoos. They read Mein Kampf and hate Jews and African Americans. As I’ve written before, American History X’s portrayal of white supremacists proves to be both stereotypical and novel. Neo-Nazis appear as mostly uneducated (save for a few characters), violent, and yet again, Southern. In many ways, this film shows the standard for how white supremacists must appear in pop culture as “burly, uneducated [white] dudes.” On TV and film, the bad guys must appear obvious through dress, haircuts, and affect. Like Justified and The Walking Dead, American History X assures viewers that we can “easily identify” racists because white guys who look like this are “always the bad guys.”
What’s novel about this film is a flashback scene of the time before Derek’s (Edward Norton) family fell apart after his father was murdered, before he became a skinhead, before he violently murdered a black man, before he went to prison for this crime, and before he left hate behind. The whole family is sitting at the dinner table: Dad, Mom, sister, younger brother, and Derek. And they look middle class, or even middle-inching-toward-upper class, and wholesome. As they chat about Derek’s classes, things take a turn when Derek describes the unit on African-American literature in one of his classes. We learn that Derek’s African-American teacher has two PhDs. As the conversation continues, his dad becomes visibly angry. He complains about “affirmative blaction” and calls it “n*gger bullshit.”
What’s striking about this scene is that Derek’s father spouts racial slurs while wearing a polo shirt. American History X attempts to show that white supremacy isn’t limited to those people who look like stereotypical racists. Racism isn’t limited to particular types of bodies; it never was. White supremacy is just as easily espoused by middle class white people wearing polo shirts and dresses seated around the dinner table as Klansmen or neo-Nazis. This is the more complicated portrayal of white supremacy that pop culture often misses.
What pop culture usually gives us are caricatures of white supremacists, and journalists, and the public more largely, expects living and breathing white supremacists to match this narrow portrayal of white supremacy. All white supremacists must be like their television and film counterparts, right?
If pop culture shows that white supremacists can only be uneducated, poor, tattooed, and brazen in their hate, then that’s what we imagine white supremacy to look like. It’s a limited vision of white supremacy that only focuses on extremism and extremists. While white supremacists have long worn suits, we still don’t imagine that they will.
So, journalists can be shocked by the alt-right’s suits, manners, and clean-cut appearance because this is not the look of white supremacy. White supremacy looks like it does on TV: extreme racists who make their hate visible in the clothes they wear, the ink on their skin, and the bigoted words that erupt from their mouths. White supremacists must be obvious, so white supremacy must be too.
The assumption that white supremacy is so obvious to see is troubling. The pop portrayals of white supremacists render white supremacy as an individual’s extreme belief, not as a system that appears in institutions and structures our lives. These portrayals are always about bad white people and hardly ever about the systems we inhabit that privilege white people over everyone else. White supremacy structures our lives.
Writing at Racism Review, sociologist Jessie Daniels writes about how white supremacy is not new to the U.S. nor is it a recent “fad,” but rather it is foundational to the American nation (Hello, Thomas Jefferson!). As she shows in example after example, white supremacy is a system that defines the lives of all people in the U.S. and guarantees that “some people, who are white, always end up with the lion’s share of resources.”
White supremacy, then, looks like the advantages and opportunities that white people have every day rather than particular caricatures of white supremacists that appear in pop culture or on the news.
White supremacy looks not only like extreme racism but also like white privilege. Hollywood and the news outlets do us a grave disservice in every portrayal that doesn’t recognize that truth. Yes, white supremacy looks like white supremacists, but also looks like white people’s historical and continued advantages and opportunities. Where are those portrayals?