Book Review by Amy Kellestine
“Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist” is a detailed account of Derek Black’s journey from white nationalist to anti-racism activist. Researched and written by Eli Saslow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Washington Post, the book provides a detailed look at the history of Derek’s original beliefs and the intimate details of their dismantling. It’s a masterful example of the patience, care, and empathy required to support a fundamental shift in beliefs, and shows what conversations can happen during divisive times to bring about healing.
Derek Black was raised by leaders in the white supremacy movement in the southern U.S. His father, Don Black, is the founder of Stormfront, the first and one of the most popular websites promoting white supremacy. His godfather, David Duke, was a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. He grew up immersed in pro-white thinking, regularly attending conferences with his dad and contributing a youth-focused perspective to the movement. He was considered “the leading light” and heir apparent to the white nationalist movement.
Derek was a bright child and thrived in a homeschool environment where his studies were filtered through the lens of white supremacy. It was when he followed his passion for history to New College of Florida in 2010, and connected with a community that challenged his beliefs, that he started to question his perspective. Even then, it wasn’t until his classmate (and eventual girlfriend) Allison made it her personal mission to dismantle his beliefs that any real change was possible.
It took a couple of chapters for me to feel the rhythm of the account and get hooked by Derek’s story. I found it hard to connect with him as a protagonist, in part due to his original beliefs. However, Saslow painted a rich picture of how Derek grew up, showing over and over that he was thoughtful, kind, creative, and intelligent. This challenged my own stereotype of what a white supremacist is. I couldn’t help but sympathize with and ultimately like Derek. By the end, I surprised myself at how invested I was in him and his transformation.
The entire book was thoroughly researched and is very detailed, but still finds the rhythm and flow of a novel at times. Saslow deftly includes perspectives from Derek, Don, Allison and other students from New College alongside excerpts from chat logs, emails, radio shows, and online student forums. Though sometimes the details bogged down and felt tedious, they demonstrate just how complicated and messy it can be to unravel core beliefs, even ones based on misinformation.
I particularly appreciated the excerpts from the school’s online forum, illustrating the confusion and consternation within the student population of how to respond to Derek and his beliefs that were so opposite to theirs. Should they ostracize? Punish him somehow? Or reach out and try to help him? These exchanges highlighted for me both the confusion, frustration and helplessness we can sometimes feel when confronted with someone with opposing views to ours. How do we engage in a way that honors our perspective and their humanity?
It was the long-term investment of several friends who reached out with care and concern that finally got through to Derek. Matthew, an orthodox Jew who held weekly Shabbat dinners, extended the first olive branch. He approached his relationship with Derek from the angle of “non-judgmental inclusion” and his own spiritual practice, stating, “It’s our job to push the rock, not necessarily to move the rock.” Allison’s mom described her approach to winning arguments as “respectful but also relentless”. She offered Derek empathy as well as mountains of studies and evidence that slowly dismantled his understanding of race.
“Rising out of Hatred” provides insight into the complex nature of beliefs, and challenges the reader to evaluate their own contribution to our current divisive landscape. A New College student on the forum perhaps said it best, “Participate in diversity talks, be upset and give a damn, but in a positive way, not in a hostile way. […] Talk about it, shed apathy, get involved, but do it constructively.”
Amy Kellestine is an educator, engineer, Arati life coach and entrepreneur living in Edmonton, Alberta. She spends her free time camping, gardening, and volunteering for causes such as Cystic Fibrosis and nature conservation. She is a devoted mother and is passionate about helping others and writing.