By Luke Anderson | [email protected]
In her 2017 documentary, “White Right: Meeting the Enemy,” Muslim filmmaker Deeyah Khan works her way under the skin of white supremacists and possibly alters a few perspectives along the way.
In the film, Khan meets with and follows several “alt-right” white nationalists and neo-Nazis to attempt to understand their hate and what makes them tick. She was prompted to make the film after receiving hate mail and death threats in response to her statements in a 2016 interview with BBC about living in a multicultural society.
The white supremacists Khan meets often say or do things that are alarming but not necessarily surprising. After all, racism is not a new phenomenon. However, white supremacists have found a new energy and boldness in recent years, evident in their willingness to show their faces and identities on camera. Both Khan and the men she meets attribute this to the election of President Donald Trump.
Journalist and filmmaker Jackson Landers (“Charlottesville: Our Streets”) stated in a discussion after the film that some of the men publicly identified as white nationalists at the Unite the Right rally in 2017 have faced serious consequences, such as being fired from their jobs or disowned by their families.
In the film, Khan sits down with Richard Spencer, a prominent and wealthy white nationalist, as he drinks whiskey with his “followers” in his apartment, situated above a chocolate shop on King Street in Old Town. With an arrogant yet chilling smile, he tells Khan that “elites” like him are the ones with power, the ones who write history.
“We did it, we took it,” Spencer says. “We took it with force, we won. We took the entire continent. That’s what matters.”
Soon after, Khan films Spencer returning home to a group of people outside his apartment holding candles in a vigil for Heather Heyer, who was brutally killed at the rally in Charlottesville. Spencer taunts them and calls them pathetic; they respond peacefully by joining in song.
Though it was not mentioned in the film, Spencer reportedly vacated his Alexandria apartment in 2018, presumably due to the frequent protests just outside his door. As it happened, this was one fight Spencer did not win.
At one point in the film, Khan reads several of her interviewees graphic threats she received after the BBC interview and asks, “Would you condemn it?” As she builds relationships with the men, several tell her that they view her as a friend.
By the end of the film, one man, who earlier said that he would have Khan deported, tells her that he is resigning from his position with the Nationalist Socialist Movement. Knowing Khan and the abuse she faced was part of the reason for his decision, he says.
In these instances, Khan humanizes the extreme racists she meets. In her BBC interview, she asserted that “just shutting [racists] down isn’t going to resolve this. The feelings don’t just disappear.”
It would be nice if all it took to change the minds of white supremacists was to introduce them to a non-white person. Of course, things are never that easy, and it’s a stretch to believe that the men Khan spoke with were dramatically changed.
Yet, Khan also humanizes herself too. Many of the men admitted to hating non-white people without ever getting to know a person outside their race.
Khan’s attempt to bridge this violent race war while risking backlash from both sides is at least a courageous step in the right direction.