Author Kathleen Blee Discusses the Role of Women in White Supremacist Groups

IR: So they have no basis in their experience for racism?

BLEE: When I talked to people about their racism, I would say, "Tell me what you have against African Americans."

And every person would come up with a story from their personal life — but often an extremely trivial story, along the lines of, "When I was in third grade, I sat on the bus next to this overweight African-American girl and she always took up more than her seat. That's how I knew that African Americans were bad."

They would build their racist beliefs on something like that, something that was only seen in retrospect as racial.

But when you ask them what they have against Jews, there's nothing.

In fact, few of them could even name a single person, including any public or historical figure, who was Jewish. Often, the closest they came was a poor approximation of the name of [Federal Reserve Board Chairman] Alan Greenspan.

There wasn't any personal reference in their lives for anti-Semitism. It's more a conspiracy theory learned in the groups. And like all conspiracy theories, it's completely circular — having no evidence only confirms the theory.

Overall, I think it's almost always a pull from the group that brings people into these racist groups, rather than a push from their own experience.

IR: Are there any issues at all that help convince women to join these groups?

BLEE: There are many different kinds of groups and the reasons people join Klan groups are different than why someone joins a white power Skinhead or a neo-Nazi group. But a number of groups do use education as a lure that many women find very attractive.

So many women in so many places find that their children's education is problematic. And so when they meet someone who starts talking to them about schools — how schools are bad because there are too many Puerto Rican kids or for some other racial reason — it can be very effective.

Younger racist groups, like white power Skinhead groups, use different kinds of lures that are attractive to women — the parties they have, the music, the alcohol, the nature of friendship they appear to offer.

Overall, recruiting women into white power Skinhead groups isn't usually issue-based. Women become associated with these groups for reasons that are cultural and social — friends, music, clothing styles — rather than because a particular racial issue is troubling them.

IR: How ideological do the women become once they have joined up?

BLEE: I would say the women that have children are different from the women who do not. The women who are young and single, in white power Skinhead groups, embrace Nazism one day and not the next.

But women who have children often feel that they are protecting them by being in a racist group, and they are more committed. But committed doesn't always mean knowledgeable.

One thing that always surprised me was that my knowledge of their groups was typically much deeper than theirs — I had a much better sense of what the groups stood for than these people did. People who had given their whole lives to these groups couldn't even tell me a paragraph about what their groups stood for.

Oftentimes, what they said didn't fit into their group's propaganda or even flatly contradicted it.

One woman who was a member of an explicitly Nazi group, for instance, said she liked the group because "it doesn't really place the blame for a lot of things, you know, squarely on one particular people — like, say, the Jews or something."

IR: How many women are in these groups?

BLEE: That depends greatly on the group you're talking about. There are groups where the new people coming in are about half women, but there are also groups that still have very few women. Overall, I think, the trend in most groups is clearly toward an increasing percentage of women.

IR: And are the women ever given comparable status to the men?

BLEE: That ranges from groups in which women really are barefoot and pregnant, often homesteading and home-schooling their children into white supremacy, all the way over to groups in which women see themselves as racial warriors almost, but not quite, equal to the men.

Many of the men in these groups joined up partly to defend the privileges of white men, and so while many leaders have wanted to recruit women, many others are very hostile to the idea.

You don't see women in official leadership positions, and very few in any kind of spokesman role. But I do think it's interesting that women in some smaller groups are functioning as leaders, if you think of leadership as keeping the group together.

Women are oftentimes the glue in racist groups, especially small Nazi-type groups, although they don't have the titles.

IR: You mentioned violence earlier. Can you elaborate on that?

BLEE: One of the things that struck me doing this book was that violence is really everywhere in these groups. Not only is it in their minds, as strategy, as part of their plans for the future, but in some groups violence just permeates the atmosphere.

People have clashes with other people, even their friends, they inflict violence on themselves, they inflict violence on their girlfriends and wives.

Women tend to be disproportionately affected by the violence. Domestic violence is quite widespread in the groups, although it's impossible to say statistically how widespread.

In any case, the consequences are more severe on women in racist groups. Unlike other women, they have almost no recourse. They can't go to the police. They fear going to other outsiders. They even fear revealing being abused to others in the group.

They're not supposed to be criticizing other, quote, racial warriors. They're supposed to take the violence without complaint.

In other words, the violence in some of these women's lives is so pervasive that it comes to feel to them inevitable.

If violence is everywhere around you, or the potential for or fear of violence, it may not seem quite as outlandish to commit yourself to a violent strategy for the future, to violence against the rest of us.

IR: You write in your new book that you chose not to interview leaders of groups. What was your thinking?

BLEE: I was interested in looking at members rather than leaders of groups or the propaganda that's put out to represent the group as a whole, because it turns out that members are relatively diverse.

If you just talk to the leaders or look at the propaganda, it appears there is a great deal of uniformity in the groups. But if you look at members, there's a wider range of ideas and actions.

The people in these groups are more complicated than they appear on the surface.