The Fragile, Toxic Masculinity Of White Supremacy

The Proud Boys march in Portland, Oregon in August, 2019, as well their participation in past marches like the one in Charlottesville, was a bitter reminder that racism and sexism go hand-in-hand.
White nationalists preparing to enter Emancipation Park holding Nazi, Confederate, and Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flags – 12 August 2017 (Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally – Photo Credit: Anthony Crider)

White nationalists preparing to enter Emancipation Park holding Nazi, Confederate, and Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flags – 12 August 2017 (Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally – Photo Credit: Anthony Crider)

Dr. Miranda Christou is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right and Associate Professor in Sociology of Education at the University of Cyprus.

The emergence of groups, such as the Proud Boys, challenges us to delve deeper into how a threatened white masculinity is predicated upon a racialized and misogynistic view of the world. The concept of fragile masculinity can be used to explain how sexism is the default state for men who feel economically endangered and racially threatened. To ask the question of gender in the radical right, therefore, is to begin by acknowledging another “gender gap” – not only in representation and in voting behavior between men and women – but also in our understanding of how different racist and misogynistic ideologies intersect.

Here, I provide three questions through which we can approach these issues in our research and understanding of the radical right:

How Men And Women Are Represented By The Radical Right

To answer this we need to start from basic comparative research on voting behavior and representation for the full range of the far-right, from emerging populist alliances to the out-and-out extreme neo-Nazi parties. The overall data shows that the radical right is indeed headed by male figures and women do not tend to vote for these parties—although it is not clear how employment, class status, and migration issues influence these preferences.

On the other hand, as Miller-Idriss and Pilkington pointed out, the increasing role of women in the far-right and – even their involvement in radical right terrorism – should not be dismissed. Several books, from Blee’s seminal Women of the Klan to Right-Wing Women, Women of the Right and Gender and Far-Right Politics in Europe, have already established that taking women’s absence from the frontlines at face value means ignoring the complexity of how femininity and female empowerment are defined and constructed within different historical and political contexts.

At the same time, the dominant presence of men should be questioned: “Why is the far-right dominated by men?” asked Cas Mudde a year ago; a crucial question that has not been systematically addressed. Part of the answer is socialization: in Healing from Hate, Michael Kimmel explains that former skinheads and neo-fascists admitted that their very first entry point in these groups was social, not ideological. They gained a sense of belonging to a community through friendship and camaraderie with other men. This newly-granted sense of masculinity was crucial in forging their commitment to the movement.

Finally, we need to examine how the gender divide widens deeply when we account for acts of violence. Interestingly, when violent extremism is recognized as white supremacy, its reporting remains genderless – even when the most consistent demographic is the gender of the perpetrator. Facile psychological explanations of “lone wolves” and “freelance terrorists” almost never take into account the fact that all these offenders are men. At the very least, this is bad social science.

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How Racism Intersects With Sexism

At the individual level, sexism and misogyny seem to be the “gateway drug” for the radical right: people join a group because of its regressive gender politics and stay because of the racism and anti-immigration stance. At the collective level, the radical right’s tactic of supporting “anti-gender” campaigns has triumphed. Here, what started off as religiously-based protests against reproductive rights and LGBTQ demands, ballooned into far-right demonstrations where support for “family values” and the moral evils of globalization are melded into a single ideological bloc.

As Kováts and Põim have argued, these campaigns are not just about gender. Rather, gender is the “symbolic glue” for a host of issues: from questioning the European political and value system, to claiming “cultural exceptionalism” and protesting the neo-liberal world order. This is not an ideological pigeonhole, but a fertile ground for exploring the affinity between one’s support for anti-migration policies and the conviction that women should stay home and have more children.

This intersection may explain the existence of the Proud Boys. Designated as a Hate Group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, they see themselves as “Western Chauvinists” who maintain their pride in being white. At the same time, they do not allow women to become members and they developed a 4-stage initiation process that includes violence in at least two stages. This is the area where we notice commonalities between white supremacist groups and the general umbrella of Men’s Rights Movements (such as A Voice for Men).

How Misogyny Is Racialized

A historical lens is always the best antidote to any kind of impression that we are witnessing something new in all of this. I will end with a note from the field of post-colonial studies to explain how the vicissitudes of white masculinity have always implied a racialized and feminized other.

In his classic text, Orientalism, Said described how the West narrated its superiority over the Arab-Islamic world by constructing a primitive, erratic and violent Oriental person – trapped in the darkness of a pre-Enlightenment era. In Colonial Fantasies: Towards a Feminist Reading of Orientalism, Meyda Yegenoglu attempts to go a step further as she points out that the Western colonial obsession with the veiled woman indicates a white male view of the Oriental other – creating a feminized, seductive and dangerous subject. She argues that articulations of cultural and sexual difference are constitutive of each other and that it is this connection often goes unobserved. Thus, the Western white male identity was constructed on the othering of a racialized Oriental subject through a feminized lens.

Why is this important?

These reflections may help us understand how to apply a gender lens in our understanding of the radical right and probably a whole range of movements that bring misogyny and white supremacy together. Again, Michael Kimmel’s work on masculinity is a lighthouse in navigating these questions. Kimmel points out that while feminist theory has connected masculinity with hegemony, (indeed, the concept of “hegemonic masculinity”), in reality, men do not feel powerful.

These ‘Angry White Men’ declare themselves powerless and lost in their effort to survive the new socio-economic order and its cultural upheaval. Their sense of “aggrieved entitlement” is the fear that they are the real losers in both racial and gender wars; a fear that is successfully channeled by the radical right.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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