Former neo-Nazi Michael Kent has decided to remove his swastika tattoos after becoming friends with his black probation officer Tiffany Whittier, who he claims pushed away the hate in his life and introduced him to love. Kent was a white supremacist and involved in neo-Nazi groups in Arizona for twenty years, committing hate crimes and recruiting young people into the group. During his time as a white supremacist, he had two swastika tattoos put on his chest and a large tattoo of “white pride” placed along his back. He tells BBC that, “Every letter I had of the white pride, I had to go on a mission and I had to hurt somebody to gain each letter of that.”
He claims that his lifestyle of hate stems from his childhood in a prominently black neighbourhood, where he claims he often had to fight others to help his family survive. His first influential encounter with a black man was when he was twelve years old – the man broke into his house and tried to rape his mother. The second encounter was with the mother of one of Kent’s black friends, who claimed that she did not want “that blue-eyed devil in this house.” In his interview, Kent speaks about how even though it was a very small amount of black people who treated him badly, it fuelled his hatred and he decided to start hating blacks and other minorities more than anything else. During the next few years, Kent acquired excessive hate paraphernalia which hung in his house, including swastikas, confederate flags, and pictures of Hitler.
Kent had an incredibly violent crime record and recently completed a prison term for drugs and weapons charges. Whittier was assigned as his probation officer for a year after his release and knew of his violent and hateful past, but decided to remain with his case. According to Kent, she was the first probation officer to visit him alone, claiming that previously the probation officers had come in pairs due to his propensity for violence. Her courage impressed him and he decided to allow her the benefit of the doubt. Over the next year, their friendship made Kent a less hateful and aggressive person, and he began to get rid of his Nazi belongings. Kent finally elected to have his tattoos removed by the American non-profit organization Redemption Ink, which covers or removes hate-related tattoos. His tattoos are now covered by an extremely large wolf face across his chest, a process which he says has been extremely emotional, “They are turning all this ugliness into something beautiful. I am almost in tears every time.”
Whittier and Kent hope that their story will encourage others to be more open-minded and to combat racisms wherever it is seen; the duo plan on writing a book about their experiences and want to create a Facebook group to have a more open dialogue about race issues.
This story, while touching and truly life changing for those involved, raises an important question of the possibility of redemption for those who have been so hateful and violent for most of their lives. Choosing to embrace love rather than hate is a path everyone should aspire to take; in a world where white supremacy is gaining more traction amid increasing racial tensions, it is refreshing to see someone reevaluate their actions and choose to be more loving. Yet, it cannot be denied that, to an extent, atonement is necessary for the suffering that white supremacists such as Kent have caused. Although it is true that Kent served time in prison for some of his more violent escapades, mandatory punishment is not the same as voluntary. Kent believes that the 15-hour, painful process, of covering and removing his tattoos will help him atone for his violence, but will not relieve him completely of his guilt.
While it is often not simple or easy to forgive someone who caused so much suffering, as a country, America must try. In a world so divided, we must embrace those who step away from lives of hate and choose to spread kindness. To see a person such as Michael Kent, who is attempting to truly apologize for his actions, and to still shun him, is to perpetuate the hate and close-mindedness that fuel neo-Nazis.
Humans are not simply black and white, nor are we static creatures – we live in shades of grey and make choices that we often look back upon with shame. How we choose to move forward and deal with the mistakes made, despicable as they may be, is what defines us and allows us to become better people. It is almost impossible to call Michael Kent a great man, but he is progressing; one day, he might even be a really good man. To deny him this is journey is to essentially deny him his right to be human.