I am a black man and interviewed a former white supremacist. It was a powerful experience.

I'm a black man who just spoke with a former white supremacist. He wasn't quite what I expected.

I have to admit that when my phone rang, I felt an overwhelming sense of anxiety and nervousness that I haven't experienced in years.

Am I really going to conduct this interview? Can a white supremacist truly be reformed? Do I really want to hear his story?


Maybe this would be a complete waste of time, but I took a deep breath and listened to everything because I knew it was possible I could learn something from him.

The first thing I learned: The path to joining a hate group doesn't always pass through a dramatic moment.

Arno Michaelis was born in Milwaukee. He described himself as "an angry, bored teenager with a habit of provoking people." Similar to how some misguided inner-city kids turn to gangs, Arno began to embrace the white power narrative because it made him feel powerful.

"The swastika appealed to me because everyone else was so repulsed by it," he told me. "As a bully who lashed out at other kids rather than face the suffering I felt growing up in an alcoholic household, I distanced myself from my family and familiarized myself with hate and violence. The white power narrative gave it all a heroic context."

Arno as an angry teen. Photo via Arno Michaelis, used with permission.

Arno was introduced to the white power skinhead scene through music; he listened to bands that preached racial hate. He received an adrenaline rush from participating in antisocial behavior and quickly became addicted to the movement and its mission. Not long afterward, it came to define him.

In the world of white supremacy, this man could put his resume up against anybody.

He was a founding member of the Northern Hammerskins, which went on to become part of Hammerskin Nation, "the best organized, most widely dispersed, and most dangerous skinhead group known," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks hate groups. He was also the lead vocalist for a white power metal band called Centurion, a group that sold over 20,000 records in the mid-1990s.

It seemed as if his life would be nothing but a cesspool of hatred and bigotry.

Then one moment changed him: He was thrust into single fatherhood.

Arno's daughter Mija giving hugs to her pet rabbit. Photo via Arno Michaelis, used with permission.

"I was with my daughter's mother for about six months before we decided it was our duty as white people to bring white children into the world," said Arno, who was 21 when his daughter was born. "By the time she was a little over a year old, my relationship with her mother ended," he said. "That's when I made the decision to be a good dad first and foremost. Living a life filled with hate just wasn't possible if I wanted to do that."

"That's when I made the decision to be a good dad first and foremost. Living a life filled with hate just wasn't possible if I wanted to do that."

Shortly thereafter, he felt a strange emotion that he never experienced before.

Empathy.

He became more in-tune with the feelings of his fellow humans. In doing so, he acknowledged that he was causing pain to others due to his own pain.

"I knew what I was doing was wrong all along, but I poured all of my energy into suppressing that knowledge," he said. "At the time, all I was doing was fleeing a fire I lit, leaving a trail of gasoline behind me. It was a soul-exhausting, self-created hell. Raising my daughter helped me come to grips with that."

In addition to the love for his daughter, the immense power of empathy also came to the rescue.

"I realized we are all human beings, entirely capable of engaging each other outside of the construct of race," he said. "Once this connection happens, it becomes contagious. When we see ourselves in others, hate and violence no longer make sense. Understanding and love take over."

"When we see ourselves in others, hate and violence no longer make sense. Understanding and love take over."

The healing process started. He would evolve into a man his daughter would be proud of.

But Arno wasn't done.

A depraved act of hatred moved him to speak out against his old life.

On Aug. 5, 2012, a mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, rocked the community and the country. The shooter, 40-year-old Wade Michael Page, was reportedly a member of the Northern Hammerskins, the skinhead group Arno helped create.

Sikhs mourn the 2012 temple shooting in Wisconsin. Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty Images.

Feeling inspired to do something positive, Arno contacted Pardeep Kaleka, whose father was the last person murdered in the shooting. They were both members of a network that is against violent extremism, and they decided to meet in person.

Arno said they both experienced some anxiety at first, but it soon dissipated after they found common ground as dads. They both have children and found plenty to talk about. "We sat down for dinner and talked until they kicked us out an hour after the place closed," Arno said.

Although the two men began to build a bond, how could Pardeep forgive the people in the white power movement who were responsible for his father's murder?

It wasn't easy, according to Pardeep.

"It has taken me a while to get to the point where I am today," he said. "Forgiveness is a way for me to take the power back from the ones who tried to take it from me.

He said his Sikh faith helped him cope with the tragedy, including the philosophy known as Chardi Kala, which he translated as "relentless optimism." At the same time, he wants to be proactive about stopping hate. "We'll either create the world that we want, or one will be created for us," he said.

Pardeep now describes Arno as his "friend, brother, psychiatrist, and teacher." With a combined passion to improve the world, this unlikely team runs Serve2Unite.org, an organization that Arno described as "created to defy hate and violence by bringing people of all backgrounds together."

Pardeep and Arno remembering the shooting in August 2012. Photo via Arno Michaelis, used with permission.

Serve2Unite students and educators have created community art projects and block parties, book drives for incarcerated people, and peace-themed PSAs. Regardless of the task at hand, the goal of the organization remains the same: Bring people together by celebrating our similarities.

And the young men and women they lead are completely on board with the mission.

Today, Arno teaches kids to have zero tolerance for intolerance. Photo via Arno Michaelis, used with permission.

What message does a former white supremacist have for other racists (overt, closeted, or otherwise)?

"I've lived as they have," he said. "What they're doing isn't living. Racism sucks. It's a crappy excuse for existence, and completely unnecessary."

As I listened to Arno tell his story, one thing kept coming to mind: Empathy is the key to stopping racism.

Anyone has the capability to feel empathy if they choose to — for everyone from our tactless neighbor to psychopaths and narcissists. But we have to keep it real with ourselves about what the absence of empathy looks like.

A lack of empathy leads people to dismiss Muslims as extremists bent on harming our country when the reality is the overwhelming majority of them are peaceful and loving (and homegrown extremists have caused more deaths in America since 9/11 than any other extremist group).

"We'll either create the world that we want, or one will be created for us."

A lack of empathy leads people to believe that minorities constantly whine about being victimized by society, when the reality is many of us (minorities) feel hopeless and crave understanding.

A lack of empathy leads minorities to believe that white people are clueless, blinded by their white privilege, when the reality is many of them empathize with us and want to end racism, too.

We can use empathy to eliminate the us-versus-them mentality that plagues our society.

If a former white supremacist can teach us anything, it's that we are way more similar than we are different, and it's time to embrace that.

After speaking with Arno, I'm sold that a person with his dark past can be reformed. 100% sold. This man is intelligent and charismatic, and he's now dedicating his life to ending racism and bigotry. He's the kind of man I would want to be friends with.

And that's definitely not what I expected.

More

Mom and blogger Mary Katherine Backstrom regularly shares snippets of life with her two children on her Facebook page. One particularly touching interaction with her daughter is melting hearts and blowing minds due to the three-year-old's wise words about forgiveness.

Even adults struggle with the concept of forgiveness. Entire books have been written about how and why to forgive those who have wronged us, but many still have a hard time getting it. Who would guess that a preschooler could encapsulate what forgiveness means in a handful of innocent words?

Keep Reading Show less
Family

California has a housing crisis. Rent is so astronomical, one San Francisco company is offering bunk bedsfor $1,200 a month; Google even pledged$1 billion to help tackle the issue in the Bay Area. But the person who might fix it for good? Kanye West.

The music mogul first announced his plan to build low-income housing on Twitter late last year.

"We're starting a Yeezy architecture arm called Yeezy home. We're looking for architects and industrial designers who want to make the world better," West tweeted.

Keep Reading Show less
Cities

The U.S. women's soccer team won the Women's World Cup, but the victory is marred by the fact that the team is currently fighting for equal pay. In soccer, the game is won by scoring points, but the fight for equal pay isn't as clearly winnable and the playing field isn't as even.

We live in a world where winning the World Cup is easier than winning equal pay, but co-captain Megan Rapinoe says there's one easy way fans can support the team: Go see games.

Some people argue the men's team deserves to get paid more because they are more successful and earn more money for the United States Soccer Federation. Pay depends on merchandise and ticket sales, and in general, men's sporting events tend to draw a bigger crowd than women's sporting events. It's not about sex, many argue; it's about the fact that people just prefer to see men play.

Keep Reading Show less
Culture

You think you know someone pretty well when you spend years with them, but, as we've seen time and again, that's not always the case. And though many relationships don't get to a point where the producers of "Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?" start calling every day just to chat, the reality is that sometimes partners will reveal shocking things even after you thought you'd been all shocked out.

That's the case for one woman whose Reddit thread has recently gone viral. The 25-year-old, who's been with her boyfriend for five years, took to a forum for relationship advice to ask if it was normal that her seemingly cool and loving boyfriend recently revealed women shouldn't have a fundamental right. (And no, it's not abortion — although there are a lot of "otherwise best ever boyfriends" out there who want to deny women the rights to bodily autonomy, too.)

Keep Reading Show less
Recommended