Derek Black and Matthew Stevenson
How Friendship and Quiet Conversations Transformed a White Nationalist
Derek Black was raised in one of the most prominent white nationalist families in America. His father founded the web’s first and largest white power website and David Duke was his godfather. Black spent the first two decades of his life as an enthusiastic aid to his family’s activism, running a political campaign, a radio network, and organizing conferences. In college, he faced condemnation but also met a new circle of friends, who challenged him to defend his belief in white nationalism. Over years, Black conceded that the ideology he had fought so hard to promote was harmful, and he renounced the white supremacist movement in 2013. He is a graduate student in history at the University of Chicago.
Matthew Stevenson was born and raised in South Florida. He graduated from the New College of Florida, the state’s honors college, with degrees in mathematics and economics. After graduating, Stevenson worked as an equity research associate at an investment bank in Atlanta, Georgia, and is currently pursuing his MBA at Columbia Business School.
Krista Tippett, host: I’d heard Derek Black, the former white power heir apparent, interviewed before about his past. But never about the friendships that unfolded over two years with other people in their twenties that changed him. David Duke was Derek’s godfather. Derek designed the kids’ page, when he was 11, for what is known as the first major internet hate site, which his father created and still leads. But after Derek’s ideology was outed in his first year at New College in Florida, one of the only Orthodox Jews on campus, Matthew Stevenson, invited him to Shabbat dinner. What happened next is a roadmap for navigating some of the hardest and most important territory of our time.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Derek Black: It wasn’t just “I’m angry, and you’re angry.” Once we were quiet enough to talk about it, there were points to be made, that white nationalism was incompatible with a free society. And it wasn’t the first time I had heard that; it wasn’t the first time that somebody had told me that racism is bad. It was just the first time that I’d been willing to listen to it.
Matthew Stevenson: I think it’s also worth pointing out that over those two years, I was legitimately friends with Derek, even when I frankly didn’t know exactly where he stood.
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being.
I interviewed Derek and Matthew together at the invitation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in a room that included many Holocaust survivors. The world in which Derek Black was raised holds multiculturalism responsible for “oppressing white people in their own country” and sees a conspiracy of Jewish power behind this, which makes it all the more remarkable that Matthew Stevenson’s response to learning about Derek’s ideology was to text him and ask “What are you doing this Friday night?”
Ms. Tippett: You two knew each other, right? Were you in the same dormitory?
Mr. Stevenson: He lived downstairs from me, and I would sing along when he played country-and-western songs on his guitar — poorly, I might add. But nevertheless, when the news broke, many people — not everyone, but many people — I saw treating Derek very poorly, trying to make his life as miserable as possible, in what I think was maybe a misguided attempt to change the situation. And at that time, I had been hosting these Shabbat dinners in my dorm room every Friday night, along with my close friend, Moshe Ash, and we spoke about it and decided that there was an opportunity. We knew that Derek had grown up in a white nationalist family amongst white nationalist royalty, so to speak, and probably didn’t know any people from the backgrounds that his ideology despised. So, for that reason, I decided, along with Moshe, to invite Derek to come.
Ms. Tippett: Derek, was there a religious background in your childhood? I haven’t read anything about that.
Mr. Black: No, both of my parents were raised by Protestant Christians, and both of them became atheists when they were teenagers and in college. So I was raised by atheists with a strong enough conviction that I was sent to Sunday school when I was a kid. And I remember asking my dad, a few years later, what was the incentive for that, because I had enjoyed it a lot, and I got awards for memorizing bible verses. And he said, “It was because I wanted you to be familiar with religion so that, later on, you couldn’t say I had kept it from you, and you would understand that atheism made the most sense.”
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] I guess — I don’t know how to ask this question. I wonder, was there something in that formation of your childhood or, perhaps, something in you that rebelled against that formation, perhaps that you weren’t, yourself, even so — that you wouldn’t have recognized, that led you to say yes to this invitation to have Shabbat dinner?
Mr. Black: I don’t know. I think it’s significant that during those couple of years when I kept coming back to Matthew’s Shabbat dinners, we always avoided talking about the elephant in the room, my activism. But what we did talk about was religious studies — not just personal conviction, but just the idea of religions around the world. I think that was probably the main point we talked about.
Ms. Tippett: Really.
Mr. Black: Because we were both very curious about it; and I don’t know what it means — I definitely was not leaning towards becoming a theist. I still am not. I study divinity in graduate school as a curiosity, as something I find interesting for humanity. And I don’t know exactly what it means, actually, that it’s one of the main things we talked about for years, when we were trying to avoid talking about harder stuff. [laughs] So we talked about religion.
Mr. Stevenson: Always a softball topic.
Ms. Tippett: That’s right. [laughs] It does strike me that what — your father started Stormfront, which has been called the first major internet hate site. And I wonder, would you have described it as a hate site, when you were growing up?
Mr. Black: Oh, no. No, in the same way that the community would never use the word “racist”; they would say, absolutely not “racist,” because that means “bad person,” and we’re not “bad people.” We don’t “hate,” and we don’t “dislike”; we’re just interested in “preserving our own.” That sort of language would never happen within the movement itself.
Ms. Tippett: Would you even say that that’s a way you thought about what was going on, to yourself or within the community?
Mr. Black: In what way?
Ms. Tippett: Would you think of hate as being what it was about? No?
Mr. Black: No; no, it was purely in the sense that there is an opposition in mainstream society to this clearly biologically true and correct, and socially correct ideology, and so they come up with insults like the word “racist,” and “hate.” And the job of an activist is to sidestep and point out the hypocrisy of them using this word, “hate.” And it’s not something that people attribute to themselves or think that others are correct to use it.
Our motivation was much more focused on each other, other people within the movement itself, and going to events and seeing each other and reinforcing that “You believe this, and I believe this, and it’s us against the world; and if we don’t advocate this, no one else will.” And almost all the mental space was devoted to that; trying to talk to other people who believe in the white nationalist ideology and reaffirm that we’re in this together. And very little mental space was actually spent on anybody else and even worrying if what we’re advocating has a negative impact on anyone else, because we were so convinced that it was right, for us and for the world, and there was no possibility that that wasn’t true.
Ms. Tippett: So what would’ve looked like hate-mongering, to someone else, for you was — inside the community, it was almost a by-product of that focus on the “us.”
Mr. Black: I think so. I actually have experience of — one of the people who I met at Matthew’s Shabbat dinners at one point actually agreed to come to a seminar that I had organized. She was completely opposed to white nationalism, thought the idea was horrendous, but we had actually been having these quiet conversations, and she wanted to see if the way that I explained it to her in private looked the same as when I was trying to explain it to fellow people.
And after that debriefing and saying, “What did you think?” was one of the first instances where I could look at it and say that calling this “hate” actually kind of makes sense, because afterward, she said, “Why are all these people here so focused on denying the Holocaust? Why are these people so focused on a Jewish conspiracy in America? What does that have to do with loving your own? That’s hate.” And I didn’t have a good answer. I said, “I’m not really sure why they’re so focused on denying the Holocaust ever happened; it clearly happened, and why is that so intrinsic to the ideology?” And that led to some conversations where I started seeing things from a different perspective that I hadn’t when I was growing up and when I was just talking to people for whom that was totally normal.
[music: “We Move Lightly” by Dustin O’Halloran]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, a public conversation with Derek Black, once a white nationalist heir apparent, and Matthew Stevenson, whose friendship brought him beyond that.
[music: “We Move Lightly” by Dustin O’Halloran]
Ms. Tippett: When I read about the two of you, your friendship and this story, I feel like it’s this linear thing: that you grew up the way you did; you went to college and were exposed; Matthew invited you to Shabbat; and then, you disavow your background and write this rather famous article for the Southern Poverty Law Center. What I feel gets skipped over are these two to three years when, for a time, you were still doing that radio show, I think, and you were still going to Shabbat dinner on Friday night, and that this friendship and this human connection — that there was this time involved.
There’s something, also, really impressive to me — you were away; an upperclassman was doing a research project, discovered your activities online, and posted that for the community to see: “Look who’s in our midst.” And this flies very much in the face of what we hear about college campuses now, where all you can imagine — and I think we also only hear very extreme versions of what happens. But it sounds like there was a real dialogue that went on. And of course, there were people who were alarmed. But Matthew, you describe that there were also people writing and saying out loud, online, right away, “It’s not going to affect anything if we just ostracize Derek.” So there was this discernment, which feels very sophisticated to me. And does that strike the two of you now, as you look back — because I think this is really important intelligence for the rest of us, to figure out, how does something like this happen on a college campus and turn out this way? But also, there was that investment of time and relationship that you made.
Mr. Stevenson: So I’ll start. It’s, I think, spot-on-the-money that it’s easy to gloss over the fact that between the time Derek was first invited to one of these Shabbat dinners and the time that, really, I had any real awareness that his views on white nationalism had changed, was about two years apart. That’s two years of every week, coming over, spending hours; receiving, frankly, a lot of criticism by other people on the campus — not everybody, but certain people on the campus, for what I was doing, including friends who had been coming to these dinners previously and stopped coming because they didn’t want to be around Derek.
Ms. Tippett: Did some people start coming again? Or did the makeup of those dinners change?
Mr. Stevenson: Yes, to some extent the makeup of the dinners changed, but I think that over time, there were certainly people — I can think of specific examples where people who had initially been so vehemently opposed eventually — let’s say, slowly warmed to the idea.
I think that one thing is — you mentioned before, the fact that it might have been easy for me to feel threatened or victimized. In some ways, I felt like I had a unique opportunity because of my relatively visible identity, to be able to extend a hand in a way that students — a Catholic student might not have been able to do in the same way because it might look, in some sense, that he was supporting the ideology that was being proposed.
Ms. Tippett: Interesting.
Mr. Stevenson: I think most people were reasonably — even my critics did not think that I was a white nationalist.
So — and people on campuses today have different backgrounds, and not everyone has the same opportunity set. But I think the fact that someone is, let’s say, the one that’s ostensibly victimized by the ideology, may give them a unique perspective, a unique ability to actually reach out and —
Ms. Tippett: To be that bridge person. And obviously, with the qualification that you were not physically threatened by Derek; Derek was not a violent person, and so —
Mr. Stevenson: No, no, Derek has never beaten me up.
Ms. Tippett: No, but whatever he was about, that could be reprehensible, and so, that would be a boundary. But in this case, I think, it’s counterintuitive but very interesting, again, intelligence, social intelligence, that a person who looks like — who actually had an identity that was most opposed could also step into that uncomfortable place.
Mr. Stevenson: Absolutely.
Ms. Tippett: And you mentioned this before; you didn’t — those dinners were not — you didn’t talk about white nationalism. The conversation was not about what you did this week. You talked about superficial, easy things, like religion…
Mr. Stevenson: In fact, we — I remember, the first time that Derek was invited over, I was very explicit with people that this was not “ambush Derek” time. This was not some opportunity to yell at him for the wrongness of his beliefs, because I knew that he would — first of all, he’d spent his whole life defending this ideology. I hadn’t spent my whole life attacking the statistics and other things that they built their ideological convictions on. And as a consequence, I knew that shouting at him — or, at least, I felt that shouting at him at something like that, or having anybody else at the table do so, would just immediately put him on the defensive, and he’d never come back. So I was very explicit that people were not to discuss his background at the table, or the white nationalism, more generally.
Ms. Tippett: But you say it in such a matter-of-fact way. I feel like right now, in our country, we forget that if we really want people to change, that it has never happened in human history that somebody changed because someone else told them how stupid they were. What was that experience like for you? You must have wondered, when you first went, are they going to grill me about this? Or, will I be put on the spot?
Mr. Black: I think I was less worried about being grilled than what actually happened, where I wasn’t grilled…
…and had to spend, ultimately, years of really enjoyable time among people who — the fact that I was friends with them was contradictory to my worldview. And that was a lot more uncomfortable than had I been grilled, because I had a background doing media interviews since I was 12 years old, where people say, “How do you believe in hate?” And I had crime statistics and IQ statistics and a history of American white supremacist statements from the founding fathers, and other things like that that tend to confuse people when a 14-year-old explains to them why all the races should be separated.
And I was pretty comfortable with that position. I thought it was important, and I knew how to do it, and if it had been a big argument, I would’ve had statistics, I would have misused social science, and I would have not changed their mind and not changed my own mind, but I would’ve at least known what was going on. I think the real thing that happened, where I was just at a Shabbat dinner for two years, and I had to say, “Well, I think my ideology is very anti-Semitic.”
“Maybe I like this dinner, though.” That’s a conflict.
Ms. Tippett: I was thinking, as I was preparing to interview the two of you, about other conversations I’ve had, or just — I was speaking with somebody earlier this year about Hannah Arendt, who, of course, had to leave Germany — a Jew, and covered the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem. She had all kinds of really big ideas about the importance of friendship — friendship, especially when times are hard, and deliberative friendship as political work, as societal work that should — that could be everyday practice in classrooms and schools.
And then I was reading Elisha Wiesel, writing, “My father was a builder of bridges across generations. He valued friendship as an ideal above all others.” So I think there’s quite a lineage for this thing you’ve experienced. It’s very serious, in a way, as much as it was also, clearly, enjoyable.
Mr. Stevenson: I think it’s also worth pointing out that over those two years, I was legitimately friends with Derek. It was not some sabotage project where I was going undercover or something. I was legitimately — felt like I was — especially, over time, counted him amongst my closest friends, even when I frankly didn’t know exactly where he stood.
Ms. Tippett: And you weren’t asking.
Mr. Stevenson: At first, as I mentioned, I was afraid that if I were to ask that the defenses would go up, and that that would be the end of it. Later on — well, after two years, it’s a little awkward. We’d even play games, because he knew that I knew, and I knew that he knew. It was — so there would be awkward things. I screwed with him once, at this conference that he mentioned. I knew that he was doing it, he was organizing it. So I asked him, “What are you doing this weekend?”
He said, “I’m going to see some family.” I said, “Where?” I said, “What are you doing?” So it was a little cat-and-mouse game.
Mr. Black: My answer was, “I’m going to a family reunion,” which was not untrue. My entire family was there.
Ms. Tippett: What else was going on?
Mr. Black: Well, it was a seminar that I had founded the year before in response to being outed at New College. I had been very uncomfortable with the fact that so many people at this college really detested what I was representing, even though I thought it was super-correct. So in response to that, the first year, I had organized this seminar up in the mountains of Tennessee, where people, where a small group would come together, and we would talk about the best ways to argue with anti-racists and to convince people that white nationalism is correct. And this was a year later, after that initial one, and I was a lot less certain of what I believed, and I was going back to it for…
Ms. Tippett: Moral support?
Mr. Black: …the second annual…
Ms. Tippett: So what happened is that you never made — the Shabbat dinners never became conversations about white nationalism. But then, gradually, over a period of time, in my understanding, Derek, individuals would bring something up with you, and you’d — I don’t know. I feel like you all — you handled this so well, and feels like the campus handled it well. So you would end up taking a walk with somebody, and they would say, “I really — I want to understand this,” and that started a different level of conversation.
Mr. Black: People I met at the Shabbat dinners — in particular, one person who did the brunt of all this labor of listening to me explain this ideology and what-all is my evidence for it, and why am I so convinced this is true; and then doing the labor to say, “You are misusing crime statistics. Here’s how statistics works,” and having that sort of conversation happen sort of naturally. It was from meeting at the dinners but then being on a small campus and doing things like, “Let’s go down to the bay to watch the sunset and just spend time as people.” And eventually, it becomes sort of awkward that “We’ve never talked about that you believe in a reprehensible political ideology, and you’re advocating something terrible, and you seem kind of nice; how do you reconcile that?”
Ms. Tippett: And you knew each other well enough that they could actually say it to you that way.
Mr. Black: Yeah, because it was lower stakes than being on an interview for MSNBC or something. It was not that I had to make my points and try to get some converts; it was that I trusted this person. I liked this person. I respected this person. And I wanted to explain why I think this is correct, because “It’s clearly correct. If you don’t want to accept that it’s true, that’s a decision you can make. But it’s an uncomfortable truth.” And that was the position I was coming from.
And explaining that to a trusted friend in private, where I’m not trying to score points, didn’t seem like it was a danger to my belief system, because that was foundationally true. I entered it thinking that I was just talking to a friend, and then, a couple years later, came out the other end, realizing that everything I believed about human nature was totally incorrect, and what do I do about this now?
Ms. Tippett: So those two years, also — and I do feel like I’m belaboring all these points, but I feel like this is a step-by-step, because what also happened that you’re describing, that nobody was charting, was that you got to a point where — when you trotted out your arguments that you were so skilled in and so comfortable with, but it did actually become a conversation. You were actually able to listen to a different way of seeing even those arguments that felt so clear to you.
Mr. Black: I wanted to be someone who used evidence and believed something because it was demonstrable, not because it was some gut feeling. And if the way we were using generalized IQ statistics from around the world was illegitimate because the IQ test is culturally normed, and you can’t go around the world giving it to people, and say, “Look, I’ve discovered the different intelligence of the races” — if that’s actually an illegitimate piece of evidence, I didn’t want to use it, which is why, at the time, I thought, “I’m becoming a better white nationalist. I’m becoming better at arguing this, because I now understand how these things are being misused. And it’s only at the end, where piece after piece after piece is removed, and all I’m left with is the fact that I think that I can be friends with Jewish students and with people of color, but my belief system says that they should all be removed from the United States, and I don’t have any support for thinking that anyone is better off — all that is, is a hateful ideology. And what do I do about my identity and my family? And my future is all tied up in that that was true, and I needed to be active for it. And “What decision do I make now?” was a terrible crisis point. I just wanted to disappear and never speak again, but it was a whole other conversation where I decided — with the same person, I decided I need to make a letter, denouncing this. I can’t just never be heard from.
Ms. Tippett: So it was that series of conversations that then led to your…
Mr. Black: Writing the letter.
Ms. Tippett: …writing something public, and…
Mr. Black: My instinct was, I’ll just be quiet. And it was one last hard thing to realize that I had done too much damage in my activism to just be quiet now.
[music: “Ada Deane” by Origamibiro]
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[music: “Ada Deane” by Origamibiro]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, we’re experiencing the anatomy of a friendship between two young men that is a kind of roadmap for navigating some of the hardest territory of our time. Derek Black grew up the heir apparent of a leading white nationalist family. David Duke was his godfather. Matthew Stevenson, one of the only Orthodox Jews on the campus they both attended, decided, after Derek’s ideology was outed, to invite him to Shabbat dinner — for two years. I spoke with Derek and Matthew at the invitation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Ms. Tippett: You have recently been saying — you were at Georgetown not that long ago, and you’re saying pretty clearly now that civil dialogue and civil discourse alone is not the answer to those energies and those ideologies that you were a part of. And I want you to talk about that. I also feel like there’s an interesting tension here — not a contradiction, but just a human tension; that you also say, you wrote this, “I would never have begun my own conversations without first experiencing clear and passionate outrage to what I believed from those I interacted with.” And yet, as we’ve been speaking, that process of you being able to interact with them and take in that outrage was the seed that got you to that point. So — but I would like to hear about how you are thinking, these days, about this line between civility and outrage and activism.
Mr. Black: I worry that my story gets told as a piece of evidence that the only way that you change people’s minds is by having friendly conversations with them, when it’s clearly not true. It’s essential that you speak up loudly and condemn something that’s wrong. That’s what happened at college. It wasn’t just these conversations. The context for those conversations was that an entire community of people that I had gotten to know for a semester before they knew who I was, and who I respected, clearly had come to a very intelligent conclusion that what I was advocating was morally wrong, was factually wrong. And I found that very unpleasant, and I didn’t want to listen to it, and it initially drove me to organize a seminar to try to make white nationalists be more confident in what they were believing.
Ms. Tippett: At New College?
Mr. Black: No, not at New College; separately.
Mr. Stevenson: A sparsely-attended seminar.
Mr. Black: But that context was just as important as the private conversations. I don’t think — I have no idea, but I don’t think I would have talked my way out of this belief system without those private conversations with somebody that I trusted, in the same way that I wouldn’t have ever entered into those private conversations if I hadn’t had a community who were very clear that what I was doing was threatening to their livelihood. I was not personally engaged in any violent movement; all I had done was go to hotel conferences and wear name badges and go to banquets and talk about race difference. So, I said, how am I threatening anyone or making anyone’s life worse off?
But that reaction that they had made me say, “Clearly, it’s happening; so, why?” And that’s why I went into those conversations. And I really worry that someone will hear the fact that I had quiet conversations over two years and then, ultimately, abandoned my ideology, as proof that being loud and saying, “I condemn that in my society,” is counterproductive, when I don’t think it is. They’re both essential.
Ms. Tippett: No, but it’s both, right? It’s both. And do you think you — without those quiet conversations, would the outrage alone have brought you around?
Mr. Black: No; the outrage alone would have made me a more firm adherent to being a white nationalist. But the quiet conversations couldn’t have happened without the outrage.
Ms. Tippett: Without the outrage.
Mr. Stevenson: I think, from my perspective, every message really has two components. There is the content of the message, and then there’s also the way in which that message is delivered. And there is a difference between being aggressive and being strong. There’s a difference between being vociferously opposed, in this case, to the white nationalist ideology and other hateful ideologies, and taking steps to harm an individual who subscribes to those ideologies. Even an ideology which is as reprehensible as most of us, probably all of us in this room, believe white nationalism to be, once you cross the line to saying, “He’s forfeited his rights as a human being; he’s forfeited his right to human dignity by virtue of having those beliefs” — maybe the Nazis said that the Jews forfeited their rights to human dignity by virtue of being Jews. Where does it end? So to be strong, no question, is important. But there is a difference between being strong and violating the humanity of another person.
Ms. Tippett: And I feel like this is instructive too, because we live in a culture right now where everybody’s very comfortable with their outrage; where it’s just my outrage against your outrage, on every side. One thing that strikes me, Derek, is that you — something that is very different in this equation is that you had taken yourself out of that “us,” which you said was at the center of all the ideology about “others.” You were there in the middle of the “other.” That’s actually a picture that is unfamiliar — is becoming less familiar to us.
Mr. Black: I don’t think I anticipated what impact not being around a bunch of white nationalists would have, because I thought that I was independently-minded — and I think I am. And being in an environment where people were not checking my ideological purity every five minutes turned out to be freeing enough where I could ponder, “Oh” — say, “What if this were not the case?” And thinking that way is only possible when I was not among the people who were telling me to “be stronger in the fight and keep giving ‘em hell.”
Even at home, when — I lived in South Florida; it was a fairly urban, diverse place. And even in that environment, when I was away from the house I could get support for white nationalism. There was a period where I got sort of semi-famous at home, and there was months that went by where I couldn’t buy coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts in the morning without some stranger in line walking up to pay my bill because I was famous for advocating for white people. And they just, on some level, thought that I was doing something good; that I was opposing political correctness and standing up for white people when everybody else gets stood up for. And they were just normal people. And that kind of positive reaction was very encouraging.
And at New College, there was none of that. There was a sense that “We need to think about this very carefully, because this isn’t my outrage versus your outrage; this is you advocating this white supremacy stuff, which you say is just ‘separation,’ but how could it be anything else? — is objectively harmful to everybody else.” And once we were quiet enough to talk about it, there were points to be made on — not on both sides, but there were points to be made, that white nationalism was incompatible with a free society.
And it wasn’t the first time I had heard that; it wasn’t the first time that somebody had told me that racism is bad. It was just the first time that I’d been willing to listen to it.
Ms. Tippett: Right. So I’m curious about conversations — or, not just conversations, but how each of you works with this really transformative experience you’ve had — and I do think you are bridge people, and how that flows into your interactions, your conversations with other worlds; with the progressive world or with the Orthodox Jewish world or with — I believe you still have contact with your family, is that right?
Mr. Black: Yeah.
Ms. Tippett: Are there things you learned that you carry with you through the world that you find help you soften other kinds of experiences? I don’t know…or not?
Mr. Black: I don’t think I know how to answer it. It’s because I spend so much of my time trying to figure out how I fit into this world that —
Ms. Tippett: You mean the world that you came from.
Mr. Black: No, the world outside of where I came from. I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out what it means to have grown up confident in a belief system that, at one particular breaking moment in life, I decided had not only been incorrect but destructive. And what does that mean, going forward; and how do I approach being involved in anything else; and how do I know that something I’m confident in now is something that I should be an active voice in? And how do I know that the words that I choose and the places that I go are not going to be destructive like they once were? And these are the — “Where do I fit in the world?” is a question that I have to ask when I walk into a room. Think of the fact that I’m at a global issues forum for the Holocaust Museum. And the background and the life that led me to stand there is still very difficult for me to reconcile and say, how did I get here, and what does it mean?
Mr. Stevenson: I think that, for me, from a very early age, my mom was very involved in AA, Alcoholics Anonymous. And it’s one thing to say that people could change, but it’s another to see somebody who had been engaged in enormously destructive behaviors not only cease doing those behaviors but do a complete about-face and to actively help other people in the same situation that they had been; actively try to make the world a better place. And I think that Derek’s example, and those, convince me beyond a shadow of a doubt that no matter how deeply involved somebody is in a negative pattern of behavior or a negative ideology, they’re never in too deep. There is always a chance for redemption.
[music: “This Is Home” by Joel P West]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, a public conversation with Derek Black, once a white nationalist heir apparent, and Matthew Stevenson, whose friendship brought him beyond that.
[music: “This Is Home” by Joel P West]
Ms. Tippett: I said to you, Derek, before we walked out, that I — it feels kind of uncomfortable, to me, that you’ve become a symbol; that I want to just talk to you as a human being, because you do — even as you have rejected this, you end up being drawn out as a representative of it. I’d be curious about — given what you’ve learned, this odyssey you’ve been on, what would make — in terms of how this is covered, the world you came from, or this possibility of redemption — what do you feel would make this more possible, in terms of how it’s handled by journalists, by academics, in public life, or even for those of us just in our home communities, in our congregations, in our community organizations?
Mr. Black: Keep in mind that I come at my answer from the perspective of somebody who tried to be a good white nationalist and to be a very active voice in that, and so my experience involves having a rolodex of media people that I wanted to send an email to if I thought that there was something we were doing that should be story-worthy. And if some white nationalist activist wants to be in the news, there is a dynamic there where they can say, “I’m having a press conference,” and major press show up —
Ms. Tippett: And they can say something inflammatory, and it gets covered.
Mr. Black: And then we all talk about it for a while. And looking at that dynamic happen, and realizing how easy that is and how low-cost that is, makes me quite uncomfortable. And it’s also not so easy to say, “Oh, don’t cover them,” because it is an aspect of America, and it’s maybe larger than we like. Even though this movement itself is small and doesn’t hold influence, a lot of the beliefs can resonate in large swaths of America in ways that we don’t like, so we do need to be aware of it. And you can’t say you’re not going to look at it; you can’t say you’re not going to talk about it, and yet, it’s still true that every time a media cavalcade shows up to a white nationalist event, it promotes their organization. And I did that; they can still do that; and it’s a dynamic that’s going to keep going on.
Ms. Tippett: So we just have a few more minutes, and there’s so much more we could talk about. I guess — what is a mentality, what is a way we could begin to think, a question we could begin to ask, small acts in the world that we can see and touch that would make it more likely, more possible, for someone to undergo the kind of transformation you’ve undergone?
Mr. Stevenson: No pressure.
Mr. Black: [laughs] It’s too big, but I — the only lesson that I think that I took from my experience that I feel is fairly universal is that it was grounded in empathy; that the reason why I was not willing to listen to the argument that sounded very straightforward — that we should work towards inclusion, not separation — was because I didn’t empathize with people who weren’t part of my in-group. And I thought I wasn’t necessarily doing anything bad to them, but it was also, the priority was the people who were within my in-group.
And what changed was feeling that people who were not in my in-group were being negatively impacted by my actions and that I should care about that. And trying to reconcile that I should care about people who are negatively impacted by my actions, and I’m still doing the actions, became very difficult. And it really was empathizing with people who were not “supposed” to be part of my group and increasing the number of people who were in my group — that’s the universal thing that I think came out of what I learned from coming through that, because it can — everybody has in-groups.
Ms. Tippett: And that has very practical implications for everybody. I will say, something that impressed me that seems to have gone on with the two of you, and at New College, is that while a lot of things happen online, many people, at different stages, took it offline. There was this mix of letting things unfold as they do in that space, but also, constantly pulling it back to one-on-one conversation, to Shabbat dinner, saying — you also said, Derek, “If you want to talk to me about this, please reach out to me personally.” We wring our hands a lot about the digital space, but I’m just saying, I think, also, New College and you modeled living with that but not letting it overwhelm.
Mr. Stevenson: I think it’s true. I think that the — one of, of course, the great advantages of the digital world is that you can reach so many people instantaneously. One of the great advantages of not being online, though; of having a face-to-face connection, or, even if online, a one-on-one, a personal connection, is that it fosters the kind of empathy that Derek was describing. The other person is not just words on a screen. It’s not just some empty message that you’re responding to, totally impersonally. When it’s face-to-face, it’s a different ballgame. I think it’s much harder, much harder to discount the person’s humanity when he’s staring you in the eyes.
Ms. Tippett: So let me ask you this question as we finish, another question that is far too large, so, whatever, wherever you want to begin it. Matthew, I’ll start with you. Just, as you look around the world right now and think about the context of this conversation we’re having and how this friendship has shaped you and transformed you, what, right now, makes you despair, and where are you finding hope?
Mr. Stevenson: Sure. So I don’t think I would use the word “despair,” because I think the word “despair” makes it seem as though there is no hope. But there is certainly a tendency, I think, increasing trend to only associating with people who agree with you, who have the same worldview, have the same opinions as you. And that’s psychologically pleasing, and it’s maybe fun, but the terrible cost of that is that you run a very real risk of losing empathy for people who disagree with you. And that’s why I see people — people who are my friends, who I love dearly, think nothing to say, “I hate so-and-so.” “I hate Republicans,” or, “I hate Democrats.” Do they know what they’re saying?
As far as hope, I think that the underlying spark of goodness that’s within each and every one of us and within everybody in the world is ultimately gonna win out; that this empathy that people can generate and feel — you can’t stop it in the long run.
Ms. Tippett: Derek, what makes you despair, and what gives you hope?
Mr. Black: I probably would agree with Matthew that I look away from the word “despair.” And again, though, it’s — I probably do, actually, despair at times, because — my background informs my answer — I spent a lot of time trying to be a good activist for a bad cause. And I spent a lot of time seeing the ways that my predecessors had been successful at that, whether it’s winning campaigns or building organizations in large numbers, and so, cultivated arguments that found fertile ground. And that led us to think that we were not only right, but that with time, everybody would see that we were right, and agree.
And then I left. And for a while, I thought that we had clearly been completely wrong, because the world is moving towards becoming more inclusive. And then I got a little bit more despair, thinking maybe they were right, because there are places where a white nationalist argument finds ground among good, smart people.
And now I think I’m back to being confident. People do want inclusion; they do want to make a fair society. I think just about everybody does, wants there to be a society where we are not limited, where we’re not oppressed because of our group. And it’s just very hard to do that. And it starts with our own beliefs and our own assumptions. And so I guess I find despair in the fact that a lot of us have terrible assumptions and terrible beliefs, but that it’s encouraging that by changing our assumptions and challenging our beliefs we can create enormous change and enormous correction in the way things are and the way things work, if we want to do that and if we want to spend the painful time doing that. And that’s encouraging.
Ms. Tippett: Thank you so much, Derek and Matthew, for modeling that, this deliberative friendship and this willingness and this courage to be bridge people. You have so much to teach us. Thank you so much. Thank you for having us.
[music: “Walking with Happiness” by The Best Pessimist]
Matthew Stevenson is currently pursuing his MBA at Columbia Business School, and Derek Black is pursuing graduate work in medieval history at the University of Chicago. This episode is part of On Being’s ongoing Civil Conversations Project. Learn more at civilconversationsproject.org.
[music: “Walking with Happiness” by The Best Pessimist]
Staff: On Being is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, and Jeffrey Bissoy.
Ms. Tippett: Special thanks this week to Sara Bloomfield, Aimee Segal, Kathleen Parke and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice you hear, singing our final credits in each show, is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
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