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“I’m interested in why people do the things they do,” said Muslim filmmaker Deeyah Khan, explaining why she put herself face-to-face with Klansmen, neo-Nazis, the alt-right, white nationalists and other extremists, and joined them at the now-infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

The Milwaukee Muslim Film Festival featured White Right: Meeting the Enemy in March in its 2021 Virtual Film Series, which streams films online monthly. A talkback following the film featured prominent local anti-racism activists. The MMFF is planning to return in-person in October for live film screenings and talkbacks with directors and experts.

In Khan’s 2018 Emmy-award-winning documentary, the Norwegian documentary director and human rights activist interviewed fascists, racists and proponents of alt-right ideologies to try “to understand the personal and political motivations behind the resurgence of far-right extremism in the United States,” she said in a press release about the film. Her goal, she said, was “to discover new possibilities for connection and solutions, to try to see beyond the headlines to the human beings.”

“When we chose this film, we had not anticipated the horrific killings that took place in Georgia,” Najeeb said during the film’s talkback. Four days earlier a series of mass shootings killed eight people at Asian-owned businesses in Atlanta. Rather, it was chosen to feature the work of an outstanding female director during Women’s History Month. “It just goes to show you how unfortunately common this is and how we really need to address these issues of white supremacy and violence that continue to wreak havoc on our society,” Najeeb said.

In the film, Khan followed her subjects over time. She got to know her subjects well and several said they considered her a friend. The documentary explores the extremists’ complex feelings about their beliefs and their new friendship with Khan.

“You know I am Muslim. I know you hate Muslims. Do you hate me?” she asked. “Do you want to deport me? To kill me? Do you want to kill my family?”

Discussing white supremacy and racism

Following the screening of White Right: Meeting the Enemy, prominent Milwaukee-area activists against racism and discrimination, Pardeep Singh Kaleka and Jessica Boling, discussed the film and current events in a talkback with Najeeb.

Kaleka, the executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee and co-chair of the Asian American Pacific Islander Coalition of Wisconsin, has been a school teacher, a police officer and a therapist. He is co-author of Gift of Our Wounds, a book about his experience of seeking out and developing a relationship with a white supremacist after his father was killed in a mass shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek. He was also interviewed in the film White Right.

Boling is co-chair of the AAPI coalition and was the director of community engagement for the AAPI for the 2020 Democratic Host Committee. She is also co-founder of Elevasian, an organization dedicated to “raising the visibility and amplifying the voices of Asian Americans in our communities.”

The following is a paraphrase of the discussion.

Najeeb: What are your reactions to the film?

Kaleka: At the time this film was made, I was doing de-radicalization work or counter-narrative work, as it is called. We did films and other projects to form a narrative to help people get out of these movements. This is one of those films.

Deeyah is an amazing filmmaker and person. Who she is, her charisma, is front and center in her interviewing methodology. She cued in on (each subject’s issues) even off-camera.

She is de-radicalizing a lot of these folks and they stayed de-radicalized. You don’t usually see that happen from a film project. It’s a masterclass on using empathy to change people’s hearts and minds.

Najeeb: Khan addressed two different types. There were those who were lost and wanted connection. Then there were others like Richard Spencer, a neo-Nazi who came to prominence in the alt-right in 2016, from more elite backgrounds. What are your thoughts about these types of extremists?

Kaleka: There were multiple groups: militia groups, nationalist groups, the Klan, neo-Nazi groups. In my opinion, Spencer and his type are the more threatening because they are reaching so many different people.

When we talk about intellectualizing white supremacy, he has become an expert at it. Media will give these types of people a microphone because they can intellectualize their nationalistic call. That is exactly what happened in 2016 when Trump came into office.

Najeeb: Jessica, can you explain the Asian community’s reaction to the murders in Georgia?

Boling: “Even though we could see this coming, we are still shocked. We are also really frustrated because we have been saying for the last year, since the pandemic started, that we are being targeted. I don’t think people took us seriously and it took this to happen for people to really look at it.

The way the narrative is being put out in the media, a lot of people are refusing to say it was anti-Asian racism, that it was racialized violence. They are focused on the sexual deviance and not saying that it is a hate crime. But we AAPIs know that it was.

We know Asian women are being sexualized and being targeted. The fact that he said he had a sexual addiction and wanted to eliminate it and associated that with Asian American women shows it is racism.

The AAPI community is fed up. It is just unfortunate that it took something like this for people to realize that Asian Americans are part of this story of racism and white supremacy in the U.S.

Najeeb: Tell us more about the Asian American Pacific Islander Coalition.

Boling: We started a little less than a year ago, when the pandemic started and we saw the rise in anti-Asian racist attacks. We saw the need to protect our community and to raise awareness with everyone. We also saw an opportunity to bring together different Asian communities and organizations. The AAPI community hasn’t always come together because we are so diverse, but this is one issue we can all get behind.

It has given us a unique opportunity to put our energy together, building relationships with each other and creating these bonds. We are also learning from each other about each other’s cultures. We are creating a community that is needed here.

Najeeb: What is it going to take to have our voices heard by elected officials?

Kaleka: I am hopeful. There are a lot of difficult, deliberate conversations we need to have. We need a curriculum that takes on some of these difficult conversations about our nation’s history and comes to grips with the fact that we are a white supremacist culture. It is so embedded inside of us that it is has become subconscious to the point that somebody can go and kill six Asian Americans and not even know they are doing it. It is so subconscious to our nation that many of us don’t question if it was even a race crime.

In small towns across America, the demographics are changing. If the demographic changes faster than we can have these conversations, the likelihood of hate crimes increases. Change is inevitable; if a town can embrace equity and navigate the changing culture, more people will be safe.

Najeeb: What I also came away with after watching this film was how brave Khan was to put herself in some of those places.

Kaleka: When Khan did this film, she was pregnant. She was at this camp with all these white supremacists and neo-Nazis. One of the neo-Nazis came up to her and said, “You better not catch me on camera. If you catch me on camera, I can tell you are pregnant right now. I will kill you and the baby.” That is the level of abuse she had to take to bring this film forward.

Najeeb:  The Black Lives Matter movement has really propelled and allowed us to grab onto its cape, not that our stories are not important in themselves. We know the African American community has suffered tremendously. Historically, we haven’t always seen the Asian and African communities work together. Do you think things are changing?

Boling: I think things are changing. In the Asian American community, we are aware of the model minority myth and that we are under a white supremacist culture that pits us against each other. We are trying to move past that and work together to dismantle it.

Within our group, we are very conscious that we need to look at the anti-Blackness that exists in our Asian communities. It is something our coalition is dedicated to working on. We want to develop relationships and work together, showing up for each other. We were very touched when we had our vigil that Black leaders came without hesitation to be there with us. We want to do the same thing.

Najeeb: What has the reaction of the interfaith community been to the hate against Asians and to the Black Lives Matter movement?

Kaleka: The interfaith community is aligned with the movements and the progressiveness that is happening. But we need to go beyond making statements to a deeper level and start to make changes in institutions. Looking at it from a faith perspective, we can see there is a lot of guilt about what happened around the sycamore tree, when people gathered and families watched a lynching as if it was a sporting event. We have the responsibility to interject compassion and love. We are all suffering from trauma that is happening now and has been happening for so long. It is spiritual work we need to embark on.

Najeeb: Where do we go from here?

Boling: For the AAPI community, a lot of moving forward is recognizing our role in racial equity and owning our voices. At this point, we have just been fighting for representation. I’d like to see us start to make demands. We want to work together with other non-white communities to dismantle white supremacy culture.

We do have our white allies who are now doing the work, being there and want to learn how they can work with us. I feel really good about that.

I was touched by this film and impressed with the director’s ability to reach out to these men. That is something I haven’t thought about. The director humanized Muslims for them, but she also humanized the white extremists to me. I’d like to explore that more.

Kaleka: Humanizing others is definitely something we should all do. The shooter in our situation (at the Sikh Temple) was at one time a baby, a boy, a teen. He wasn’t a monster. It makes me think there is something that would make a difference.