Responding To Deep Engagement
Once teenagers have been fully integrated into a white nationalist group as active participants, with a social network supporting identification with the group’s narrative, goals, and actions, it can be difficult or impossible to open a dialogue that can lead them to change direction. At stages of deep engagement, parents may no longer be in a position to have direct influence on a child’s involvement.
Only a small percentage of young people reach a stage of deep engagement with white nationalism. For those who do, although active intervention may no longer be effective, it’s essential to make clear that the door home is always open.
In those cases, parents may need to assess what other resources they could reach out to for effective support. Are there people in the family’s informal support network to turn to for help, such as relatives, neighbors, or clergy who may have earned a young person’s respect? If your child is still in school, are there school counselors, trusted teachers, or coaches who could help, or who could point to local organizations with experienced people and resources?
Beyond local resources, there is a national organization, listed in the box at right, dedicated to helping advise families whose children have become deeply embedded in the movement. It was founded and is managed by “formers,” people who were once fully engaged in white nationalist groups, some as leaders. Having found ways to extricate themselves from the movement, they use their knowledge and experience to guide others who wish to exit, and they counsel families with kids in trouble.
A young person’s deep engagement with white nationalism may interrupt the influence that parents, family members, and former friends and mentors have. As the person’s experiences and life situations change, however, the rewards the movement brings them will vary, and the strength of their commitment may wane. Factors that may cause such changes include:
- Activities that were initially exciting may lose their appeal when they become routine.
- Social relations within the group may turn sour.
- Positive encounters with members of groups demeaned by white nationalists may weaken the person’s certainty about racial distinctions and the ideology of white nationalism.
- Increasing responsibilities at work or a new role as a parent at home may turn membership in the movement into a burden.
Parents may not be able to know when factors such as these may make it possible that a young person is ready to leave the movement. So although there may be points you feel like giving up, cutting ties, or expressing hostility, it is generally more productive to signal clearly that your door will always be open if a young person caught in the movement wants to change course.
Exiting a white nationalist group is hard for a person who has become deeply involved for a sustained period. Getting out not only risks a loss of certainty about who they are and what they value, it also involves a loss of their primary social support network and the real possibility that group members will retaliate against them. These factors are substantial barriers to exiting the movement.
The lower the barriers are to reconnecting with family and old friends, the more likely a young person who is considering getting out will follow through.
Two sources that deal in depth with the problem of deep engagement are Christian Picciolini’s Breaking Hate and Michael Kimmel’s Healing from Hate. Picciolini was one of the “formers” who founded Life After Hate, and for several years he directed a parallel organization called the Free Radicals Project. His book sets up a framework for understanding the process of radicalization, and it discusses his experiences in helping white nationalists extricate themselves from the movement.
In addition, the video Healing from Hate provides many insights into the causes of radicalization and the process of exiting, as it portrays the leaders of Life After Hate interacting with young people transitioning out of deep engagement. Both Picciolini and Kimmel appear in the video.
Life After Hate has also produced a brief practical guide for friends and family members of people who have become involved with white nationalist groups: “What To Do When a Loved One Sides with White Supremacists.” The guide offers a concise list of principles and suggestions to help maintain lines of communication with young people who have become radicalized, which can make it possible to provide support when an opening toward disengagement arises.
J.M. Berger’s standard work, Extremism, presents a model of the process of deepening engagement in extremist movements (pp. 123-27). Rather than seeing engagement as a linear process, Berger pictures engagement as a dynamic alternation of decisions to deepen commitment, followed by periods of reassessment, during which members of the movement may be more aware of and attracted by the option of disengagement.
Updated, March 2022