Whiting Out Racism
By Carl Kozlowski
When Bryon Widner started getting tattoos as a teenager in Albuquerque, he never imagined that he would someday be portrayed on national television as a notorious example of racial hatred. At the time, he was just a high school dropout living on the streets who had fallen in with local skinhead gangs because they offered him a sense of family and a place to live.
But as he grew out of his teens and drifted through his 20s, with only rage and fellow gang members to guide him, Widner became disenchanted with the hate that surrounded him. By the time he decided to make a real break out of the white supremacist underground culture at age 30, he’s wasted 16 years of his life to a cause he now despised.
With his arms, legs, chest and face covered in swastikas and other flashy symbols of hate—including the actual word “hate” tattooed across one set of knuckles in capital letters—it was impossible to find work. So when the Southern Poverty Law Center offered to help Widner remove his most visible tattoos, he jumped at what he saw as a chance to start his life over.
The journey he underwent as he removed dozens of tattoos and escaped the white supremacy movement along with his wife and kids has been depicted in a new documentary, Erasing Hate, by Burbank filmmaker Bill Brummel. While the hour-long version is airing on MSNBC, the feature-length version—currently making the rounds of film festivals in search of a theatrical distribution deal—will be released on DVD this fall.
“After about my tenth year in the movement I was disenfranchised with the White power aspect, but I didn’t know any other way to be,” explains Widner from a secret location. “My wife was in it, too, for five years and was already disenfranchised . . . The head of my crew I was in tried to make me choose between my family and them, and that’s when I got out. The crew is supposed to be your family, and they don’t want you to change your priorities from doing anything—anything—for them. I was no longer useful to the crew, because I was no longer able to be in it on that level.”
And so began a 20-month ordeal in which Widner had dozens of tattoos removed at Vanderbilt University. The excruciating pain he endured served as a form of penance for the man, who had become accountable for the evil acts he had committed in beating and taunting minorities.
And yet, even as he was boldly undergoing the removals, Widner had to also fear for his life and the lives of his family, because skinhead groups share other street gangs’ attitudes about “blood in, blood out.” When he saw some of Brummel’s other anti-hate videos, Widner realized that he’d found the man to tell his story in hopes that together they could convince others not to take the same road he had.
“I think Bryon all his life was looking for a sense of family, and he thought he found it,” says Brummel, who has been making documentaries since the mid-1990s for the History Channel and the Discovery Channel.
The fact that Widner covered much of his face in tattoos put him on the extreme side of the skinhead movement. According to Brummel, the group’s sole purpose was to “make sure the world is frightened of you.”
Widner’s dramatic change of heart was finalized when he met his wife, who had been in the “suits and boots” wing of the white supremacy movement for five years. Julie had four children from a previous relationship when she met Widner, and the guilt she felt from teaching her kids hatred of other races and cultures started to wear out her passion for the cause. They fell in love and were quickly married, but when they learned they were going to have another child, they made the decision to break away for good.
“It’s quite remarkable to witness his transformation back to normal,” says Brummel. “The pigment on his skin appears bleached a little, but before you could see him coming from a mile away.”