Derek Black entered college as a rising star in the white nationalist movement. He left it a reformed man, condemning the very ideology he was taught while growing up. He attributes part of his reformation to the many Shabbat dinners he attended, which were hosted by another student in his dorm.
The first time Black attended one of those dinners at the New College of Florida, he expected to argue the merits of white nationalism and never return. But to his surprise, nobody brought up his ideology at the dinner. Instead, they debated it with him in private conversations outside of the dinners and, after several years, Black renounced his white nationalist beliefs.
On May 6, Black will be speaking at an event at the Toronto Centre for the Arts called Unlearning Hate, which is hosted by the organization Facing History and Ourselves. He will talk about what the white nationalist movement is, how people become involved in it, how to combat it and his own experiences.
Black’s father is Don Black, the founder of the white supremacist website Stormfront. Don Black’s close friend, and Derek Black’s godfather, is David Duke, a longtime leader in the white nationalist movement and the Ku Klux Klan. Black said that abandoning the worldview he was raised with was traumatic, but abandoning the family and community who instilled it in him was even tougher.
“Any time you go through that, somebody leaving something, it’s not as easy as changing your mind. We tend to elevate it to some kind of platonic ideal, that it’s an issue of ideas, and I think much more often it’s an issue of connections,” he said.
Part of the reason Black was able to change his mind was because he made new connections. Nobody knew who he was or what he believed during his first semester at school and he made many acquaintances, just like any other first year college student. He made friends with people and respected them. When his identity came out during his second semester, and those same people denounced his beliefs, he was curious about their reasoning.
“These people who I knew were quite smart and I knew personally were posting on the forum, were condemning my advocacy because it was making their lives worse, because it was stupid, because it was wrong, on and on. It wasn’t so easy to just say, ‘they’re just dumb or misguided or offensive or something,’ because I knew who they were, I was friends with them,” he said.
There were people within the 800-person campus community who wanted to ostracize him, and others who didn’t choose to shut him out.
“At the Shabbat dinners I got invited to, people had private conversations with me and were never quite sure if they were making the right choice, if maybe they should be much louder and be prioritizing people who were threatened and condemning white nationalism in their community,” said Black.
In the end, Black thinks it was a combination of the forceful condemnation of his views by the community at large and his more personal interactions with people who argued against his views in private that eventually led to him changing his beliefs.
Once he had renounced his old views, Black decided he had to do more. It wasn’t enough to privately renounce them – he needed to speak out, to push back against the harmful ideologies he once helped propagate. Black believes that it’s important for people to speak out against hateful ideologies, as that kind of universal condemnation helped him change his ways.
“Always have some point you can engage,” he said. “It doesn’t always feel like it’s going to be very impactful. Sometimes it feels like it’s just having a few words with somebody. But if you are connected to them, you never know what the impact is going to be. The only thing that people can do that’s wrong is just to give up and say they have no role to play. If they feel something is wrong with society, they have some obligation to speak in whatever small ways they can.”
For tickets, go to facinghistory.org/get-involved/benefit-dinners/canada