During a recent summer stroll near an Ivy League campus, I happened on an SUV with a decal on its rear window that read “The University of Rhodesia.”
The University of Rhodesia no longer exists, but it was located in Rhodesia, a self-declared state in southern Africa from 1965 to 1979 (the area now known as Zimbabwe). An independent state successor to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia, it was named after the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes.
C. Brandon Ogbunu is an assistant professor at Brown University who specializes in computational biology and genetics.
In recent years, Rhodesian iconography has gained popularity among young men with white nationalist leanings. Infatuation with Rhodesia first received media attention after it was discovered that Dylann Roof—the white supremacist who killed 9 black churchgoers in 2015—had a personal website called “Last Rhodesian,” where he posted his manifesto. Soon after the mass shooting, we learned about Roof’s idolization of Rhodesia: The territory was led by Ian Smith, who famously declared that “the white man is master of Rhodesia. He has built it, and he intends to keep it.” It was a state defined by military conflicts with African people. To Dylann Roof and many others, Rhodesia is a symbol of militarized white nationalism and the fantasy of a race war.
Why do we see a “University of Rhodesia” decal in Rhode Island—or anywhere in the US, for that matter? Rhodesia has a history that is so alien to the places we’re seeing it celebrated that we should be curious. One likely suggestion is that Rhodesia is a stand-in for the more familiar Confederate flag or Nazi swastika. Because most people don’t know much about Rhodesia, its iconography functions as Confederate or Nazi messaging, but without the same consequences (for now, at least).
Newfound fascination with Rhodesia is just the latest iteration in the growth and diversification of white nationalism, much of it taking place in digital spaces. Two of the movement’s original symbols remain: Nazi Germany and the Confederacy. Despite the fact that these places are real—Nazi Germany, the Confederate South, and Rhodesia—their popularity among white nationalists can be attributed to an insidious finagling of historical source material that reads like storytelling, complete with mythological lands, heroes, and villains. In this way, the resurgence of white nationalism resembles the most ambitious kinds of fan fiction.
Fan fiction has many definitions, but it can be loosely defined by the use of source material (often, but not always, fiction) as inspiration for new and original stories written by someone other than the original author. It has existed as long as stories—and fanbases for those stories—have been around. The internet provided a niche for its expansion, and fan fiction rapidly transformed from boutique online gatherings to a thriving industry. The power of fan fiction is in its simplicity. Anyone can transform their love, hate, or fascination with a piece of fiction or history into new worlds.
Were you intrigued, as I always was, by Star Trek’s Romulan-Klingon relations? You can dream up your own version of their history, one that involves original tales of war, diplomacy, love, and religion.
Are you curious how Wreck-It Ralph came to occupy his space in that particular game, in that universe? In only seconds, I could share my version of his origin with millions.
Based on the definitions provided and countless other examples, I assert that white nationalism operates as a dangerous perversion of the fan fiction model. Though white nationalist fantasies are loosely based on real events, modern elaborations are often authored by people with no actual connection to the original place or people, and their fairy tales can be self-propagating. Faux historical tales beget more cartoonish historical tales.
Conveniently, the trio of white nationalist regimes that I’ve discussed so far—Rhodesia, Nazi Germany, and the Confederacy—feature similar fan-fictionalization DNA:
1. Valorization. Whatever the actual historical fate of the states, their “fans” transform them into places of triumph—or, at least, tragic tales of paradise lost.
2. Centralization. In all cases, “fans” place the whiteness of the people at the center of their fictionalized triumph. That is, the whiteness defines the triumph and paradise.
3. Kinship. “Fans” manufacture a kinship connection to the fictional triumphant state via their common whiteness.
In 1, we should note that details of what actually happened in history (who won wars, etc.) are less important than the ideals. For example, “fans” love Rhodesia not because of any specific event but because it was an audacious pro-white state that was in armed conflict with black people. Similarly, certain defenders of Confederate monuments in the US speak of the virtues of its political and military leaders. Slavery, the issue that defined the Civil War (and underlies most salient political conversations), receives fan fictional short shrift. In the minds of “fans,” slavery might be relevant, but less so than the legacy of Robert E. Lee, an awesome dude who was totally misunderstood.
Items 2 and 3 are where the nationalistic elements emerge. Whether from Alaska or Alabama, “fans” find more solidarity with a hypothetical Rhodesian than an actual African American. But these relationships are built out of magic. The connection between that Rhode Islander parked at the edge of a liberal college campus and a hypothetical Rhodesian is whiteness alone—not culture or history. Only the whiteness. Same for all the young men on the internet who, after a few hours on the white supremacist website Stormfront, are experts on their phantom Viking heritage.
This cult of whiteness, its essentiality and omnipotence, is the straw that stirs and spreads the nationalist pixie dust. And it is in the conjuring of this identity that the expansive imagination of fan fiction really emerges. Whiteness is akin to the Force in Star Wars: Only some people can lay claim to it, and it grants those people super powers.
Elaborations on this idea now invoke a fairy tale genetics that far surpasses the X-Men in absurdity, including the milk chugging ritual as a signal of advanced (white) mutant powers. The argument goes something like this: The ability to break down the milk sugar lactose into adulthood—a trait called lactase persistence, which is prevalent in certain geographical human populations—is a marker of European ancestry, a sign of whiteness, and a symbol of superiority. The ritual might only be racist and corny if it wasn’t also embarrassingly wrong—lactase persistence evolved independently in sub-Saharan Africa.
But, again, this is fan fiction we’re talking about. It’s not supposed to be true.
Or is it?
Fictional spins on historical figures and events can be a lot of fun. We read Harriet Tubman, Demon Slayer because we’re curious how the author managed to fuse a historical figure to demon slaying. We don’t expect to learn new things about the the actual life of Harriet Tubman. And yeah, fiction can entertain and teach, but it is crucial that the reader understand the difference between the history and the fantasy.
White nationalism applies fantastical details to historical source material but forgets that it is fiction. In doing so, it has become among the most destructive, democracy-corroding movements in existence, and a threat to national security. To equate white nationalism to fan fiction is not to trivialize it, but rather to understand why it is so virulent. It isn’t borne from a common culinary history, nor shared music, language, or politics. It’s a brand of fan fiction we call Us versus Them, and it lives in the darkest parts of our imagination.