"Hate is both a collective and an individual failing, and it's so important to recognize that," Seyward Darby tells PEOPLE about her new book

By Sam Gillette
July 24, 2020 11:26 AM
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Corinna Olsen
Ruth Fremson/The New York Times/Redux

Seyward Darby's new book, Sisters in Hate, seeks to reveal the ways women have participated in "some of the worst forces in American history." Specifically, white nationalism.

The book, subtitled "American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism," was released on July 21.  It shows just how "permeable" the line between mainstream America and white supremacy is — and explains why one of the three women Darby profiles, Corinna Olsen, an embalmer and former adult film star, decided to leave the hate movement. 

"She's a person who always jumps into the deep end first. If she wants to do something, she goes full in," Darby, 34, tells PEOPLE of Olsen.

In 2008, Olsen, who was struggling with feelings of isolation, discovered one of the most popular online forums of the hate movement after a quick internet search, the book explains. Darby writes that Olsen wanted to feel more connected to her late brother Harley, who died at 20, and was a skinhead. Her initiation into white nationalism had begun.

A year later, Olsen was the leader of National Socialist Movement in Portland, Oregon, Darby writes.

"In talking to her, the impulses that drove her to be an extreme individual are very familiar," says Darby. "It's just everything was dialed up a few notches in terms of wanting to matter, wanting to belong, wanting to understand, wanting to make sense of the world, having a narrative that helped her navigate it."

In Sisters in Hate, Darby shows how Olsen's entry into white supremacy, as well as the two other women featured in the book, speaks to individual struggles and failings — as well as the failings of society as a whole. Some cringe at giving white supremacists any type of platform, but the author argues that the only way to combat hate is to understand it.

Little, Brown and Company

Olsen told Darby that she decided to leave the hate movement mainly because she was uncomfortable with the violence — a bloody legacy of hate that persists today. She has since converted to Islam.

"I guess I just got disillusioned with white nationalism in general," Olsen told the Southern Poverty Law Center in an August 2013 interview. "I realized, okay, no, people of other races have never done anything to me or my children in the way white nationalists have. This is the real enemy."

But Darby thinks Olsen's reasons for leaving are more varied and nuanced than her aversion to violence. (Olsen gave the FBI information about the Northwest Front for a few months, before fully exiting the hate movement in 2012, Darby's book explains.)

Olsen wasn't getting "the things she was looking for out of different roles in the movement," according to the author. Like entry into the hate movement, reasons for leaving are highly individual, Darby explains.

"There was disappointment and disenchantment, and at the same time, she had lost track of her career, she's an embalmer," says Darby. "She had lost contact with her kids, and she was finding that there were things she wanted that the movement could no longer offer."

In 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Center traced 940 hate groups throughout the United States. Not only do these groups pose a threat to the country, they're the living embodiment of the terror and trauma that has followed Black Americans, Native Americans and other marginalized groups for 400 years.

For Darby, education is the best way to fight against this horrifying reality.

She started profiling women in the white supremacist movement four years ago, after she witnessed two furious white women, in separate instances, spew racial slurs at innocent bystanders. One of the women verbally accosted a counter protestor at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. A few months prior, another white woman yelled at a Black mother with two little girls at a gas station in Virginia.

RELATED VIDEO: Charlottesville Victim Identified as 32-Year-Old Woman Who Stood Up Against 'Hate & Bigotry'

"I think that those instances, combined with my general reaction to the political moment," Darby says, "planted this seed about wanting to understand the ways in which women have shaped some of the worst forces in American history."

Contrary to public opinion, white supremacists aren't just "angry, white men." Darby thought: "Where are the women? Who are the women?" She found them, and the women were eerily familiar.

"White nationalism and the hate movement are not as foreign as I think people in the political mainstream would like to imagine that it is," she says. "The line between hate and the mainstream is extremely permeable, and the hate movement draws strength from the mainstream."

She adds: "Hate is a bit like a fun house mirror, where if you were to look at it, as a white person, you would be seeing a distorted, but ultimately familiar reflection."

Fully recognizing the power of white women is an important step in understanding this hate-distorted reflection, Darby says. In her book, Darby explains how, from the beginnings of slavery, white women have been actors in violence and hate. This truth can be traced from plantations in the antebellum South, to the 1955 death of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy who was horrifically murdered after a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, accused him of flirting with her. Most recently, it can be tied to Amy Cooper's decision to call the police on bird watcher Christian Cooper in Central Park in May 2020, Darby says. (The woman told police an "African American man" was "threatening" her after he asked her to leash her dog in the designated bird watching area.)

Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant
AP/Shutterstock; Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty

"I think this gets back to the issue of how deeply embedded systems of racism are in the United States, that a woman might, in a moment where she feels uncomfortable, think, 'I know that if I call the authorities, they will do right by me,'" Darby says of watching the video of the Central Park confrontation. "That's feeding on more explicit systemic racism that we all live in, and white people are complicit in."

Amy Cooper is facing charges of filing a false police report. Christian Cooper has decided not to aid in the investigation, for one main reason.

"I’ve said all along that I think it’s a mistake to focus on this one individual," Christian Cooper wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post. "The important thing the incident highlights is the long-standing, deep-seated racial bias against us black and brown folk that permeates the United States — bias that can bring horrific consequences, as with the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis later the same day I encountered Amy Cooper, or just small daily cuts."

Darby hopes that the stories of the three individuals in her book will help contribute to the larger national conversation about racism and hate that's been pushed to the forefront by the Black Lives Matter movement.

RELATED VIDEO: Meet 5 Inspiring People Charting the Path Forward as America Fights Racism

As excited she is by the activism, Darby also wants readers to be aware that, even as activists take to the streets, more people will be incentivized to join hate groups. (The same phenomenon occurred during the Civil Rights and after President Barack Obama's election in 2008, she explains.)

"There's probably going to be backlash. That's what history shows us," Darby says. "Maybe it's a smaller backlash than it was once upon a time, but it still can happen."

She adds: "Hate is both a collective and an individual failing, and it's so important to recognize that."

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:

• Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.

• ColorofChange.org works to make government more responsive to racial disparities.

• National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help Black youth succeed in college and beyond.