Communication Currents

Communication Currents

Investigating the Rhetoric of White Nationalism

September 10, 2020
Critical and Cultural Studies

In the past few decades, colorblindness has dominated American societal discourses about race, particularly among white Americans. Colorblindness is a philosophy that suggests that the best response to overt racism is to not “see” race, and, therefore, to treat everyone equally. However, this also implies that race and racial identities are insignificant. Furthermore, colorblindness is used to rationalize racial inequality through other means. In a new article in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Stephanie L. Hartzell addresses the relationship of colorblindness to the popularity of Stormfront, a white nationalist website, and interrogates the ways in which Stormfront tries to appeal to mainstream white people. 

The concept of colorblindness has been challenged by antiracist groups, such as Black Lives Matter, that seek solutions to racial violence. These groups often directly challenge colorblindness by engaging in discourses about race and racial inequality in the United States. Conversations about race and racism can quickly become uncomfortable for white people, many of whom have a hard time discussing race. Such conversations may also lead white people to want to make sense of whiteness in other terms. In turn, this has allowed white supremacist ideas, such as white nationalism, to become more mainstream. 

Stormfront, which was created in 1995, is a hate site that has influenced the white nationalist movement. According to Hartzell, “White nationalism is a formation of white supremacy premised on racial separatism, the desire for a white ethnostate, and the preservation of white racial hegemony. White nationalists argue that, unlike white supremacists who are fueled by hatred of other races, they are driven by a desire to protect and preserve white identity and culture, which they argue is threatened by diversity and multiculturalism.” Hartzell writes that white nationalists have attempted to define white nationalism as distinct from white supremacy, although the two are fundamentally connected.

Stormfront was created by a former Ku Klux Klan member and has an active discussion board with thousands of users. Because the focus of the site is the discussion board, Stormfront is ultimately a community of anonymized users who share white supremacist ideas and network. Hartzell argues that the anonymity, age, and popularity of Stormfront may make it a gateway for more mainstream users to become introduced to these ideas. 

To investigate how Stormfront has tried to appeal to mainstream white people, Hartzell examines the pinned threads that users are invited to peruse at the top of the site’s discussion board. Whether they join Stormfront or not, people can view these posts, so the posts ultimately play an important role in propagandizing white supremacy. 

In the “Introduction and FAQs” thread, Stormfront attempts to draw a distinction between white supremacy, with which many people are familiar and associate with hatred and violence, and white nationalism, a term that may not be as familiar to people. In drawing this distinction, the site asserts that its members are not violent, hateful white supremacists, but, instead, are interested in the protection of “white interests and culture.” The site also promotes a post from David Duke, a well-known former Ku Klux Klan leader, that similarly asserts that white nationalists are unfairly maligned as white supremacists. 

Hartzell argues that the site’s distinction between white supremacy and white nationalism is an attempt to use “love, communal belonging, and cultural preservation” to motivate white people to join the white nationalist community. Similarly, other posts emphasize that white nationalism is meant to protect white people from other racial groups. Stormfront’s users imagine that white people are “an ‘embattled minority’ excluded from mainstream understandings of diversity and in need of advocacy and protection.”

Stormfront users also attempt to co-opt the language of diversity for white nationalism by imagining that white people are under threat from multiculturalist approaches to diversity and arguing that “true diversity” can only be ensured through racial separation. In contrast to the mainstream view of diversity as respect for many cultures, these white nationalists view diversity as the maintenance of distinct racial and ethnic identities which, they argue, would protect the unique cultures and identities of all racial and ethnic groups. Although white nationalists ostensibly believe in creating a state for white people, Stormfront’s introductory content acknowledges that this is unlikely, and, instead, promotes the idea of white people recognizing and advocating for their shared interests, arguing that “other” groups have been doing so for decades.  

In order to try to appeal to mainstream white audiences, Stormfront also regulates what kind of language and imagery can be shared. In 2008, after an influx of new users joined following the election of Barack Obama, new rules stipulated that racial slurs could not be used, that traditional hate symbols, such as the Nazi swastika, were banned, and that calls for violence could not be made on the site. Furthermore, posts are screened for proper spelling and grammar, again in an attempt to appeal to mainstream white audiences. However, many posts on the site also make clear that this is all for show; some users say that they would like to make overtly racist and hateful statements, but refrain from doing so to make their case more appealing. Hartzell argues that this demonstrates that “white nationalism’s emphasis on love (of white people) is merely one side of the white supremacist coin.” 

Hartzell concludes that Stormfront’s attempt to distinguish white nationalism from white supremacy is “part and parcel of white supremacist rhetorical strategy.” Stormfront’s propaganda has festered online for more than 20 years and has had violent consequences. For example, Dylann Roof, a white nationalist mass murderer, was a member of Stormfront. Hartzell argues that further studies are necessary to understand how white supremacists attempt to appeal to mainstream white people. Such a foundation would assist the antiracist work of dismantling white supremacy. 

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: Stephanie L. Hartzell (2020) Whiteness feels good here: interrogating white nationalist rhetoric on Stormfront, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 17:2, 129-148, DOI: 10.1080/14791420.2020.1745858

About the author (s)

Stephanie L. Hartzell

California State University, Long Beach

Assistant Professor of Communication Studies

Stephanie L. Hartzell