How Tom Hanks’ son inspired a racist internet meme

How Tom Hanks’ son inspired a racist internet meme
How Tom Hanks’ son inspired a racist internet meme

Hanks, Chet (1990- )Right-Wing Extremism and Alt-RightWhitesSocial MediaRace and EthnicityAnti-SemitismGlobal Project Against Hate and ExtremismDiscriminationMen and BoysHomosexuality and Bisexuality

When Chet Hanks first used the phrase “white boy summer,” he seemed to be doing so with irony. Now white supremacists and other hate groups have appropriated it around the world.

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In the spring of 2021, Chet Hanks, singer, actor, and son of Tom Hanks, released a series of statements and a music video with a chorus that caused confusion — and a fair amount of disgust. He declared that it was going to be a “white boy summer.”

Whatever exactly he meant at the time, the phrase has since mutated into a catchphrase for white supremacists and other hate groups, according to a report released Tuesday by the Global Project on Hate and Extremism, an organization that tracks the spread of racism.

Thousands of posts with the slogan “white boy summer” have appeared on the Telegram app this year. According to the report, far-right groups have used it to recruit new followers, organize protests and foment violence, especially against immigrants and people from the LGBTQ community.

For many who use it now, the phrase represents an unapologetic acceptance of white heterosexual masculinity, often at the expense of women and people of color.

Increasingly, the meme has moved from the fringes of the internet into the political mainstream in the United States and elsewhere, said one of the group’s founders, Wendy Via.

Jack Posobiec, a podcaster who the Southern Poverty Law Center has linked to white supremacists, waved a flag with the words “white boy summer” at a meeting of Turning Point USA, a conservative group, in Detroit last month. Former President Donald Trump was the keynote speaker at the conference, along with several members of Congress.

“It’s really about how quickly and devastatingly something like this can go viral and the impact it has,” Via said of Hanks’s phrase. Extremists, she added, “are hurting people all over the world in the name of this thing.”

Hanks, 33, did not respond to numerous requests for comment through his social media accounts and through the talent agency that represents him, but after this article was published he posted a statement on Instagram condemning the use of the phrase in any bigoted manner.

“‘White Boy Summer’ was created to be fun, playful, and a celebration of stylish white boys who love beautiful queens of all races,” he wrote. “Anything else where it has been twisted to support any type of hate or bigotry against any group of people is deplorable and I condemn it.”

Hanks began using the phrase in a series of social media posts in 2021 about fashion and other advice for men. In one of those posts, he seemed to anticipate that the meaning of the words required some explanation.

“Take it how you want,” he said in an Instagram post that March. “I’m not talking about something like Trump or some kind of white guy who likes NASCAR,” he continued, saying he was referring to people like himself and two other white R&B artists, Jon B. and Jack Harlow. “Let me know if you can vibe with that. And be ready, because I am.”

Its music video — produced under the name Chet Hanx — appeared a month later. It was a sort of homage to Megan Thee Stallion’s hit from two years earlier, Hot Girl Summer, featuring Nicki Minaj and Ty Dolla $ign.

It’s packed with profanity, as well as sexist and racist slurs, but also ends with an image of Hanks wearing a T-shirt that reads “stop hate.”

“White Boy Summer” is not the first art creation that white supremacists have appropriated and used online to incite hate.

Pepe the Frog, a comic book character created by Matt Furie, became so popular in racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic memes that the Anti-Defamation League classified him as a hate symbol in 2016. Furie killed off the character a year later, but it still circulates in ways he never intended.

Even before the meme, Hanks faced criticism for using — and defending the use of — a racial slur against black people. He has also been accused of cultural appropriation after he began using Jamaican patois as an affectation in public appearances, including at the 2020 Golden Globes, where Tom Hanks received the Cecil B. DeMille Award.

As a meme and hashtag, “white boy summer” has been adopted each summer by groups like the Proud Boys and “active clubs,” groups that mix racist ideologies with martial arts and other activities.

Though most prevalent on fringe sites with extremist content, such as Gab, Rumble and 4chan, the phrase also appears regularly on X, Instagram, Facebook and other major social media platforms, often with Nazi imagery. The phrase and its various hashtags appear to skirt policies banning hate speech, in part because it is often used euphemistically or ironically.

“While this trend originated on the far right, it is certainly making its way into mainstream right-wing discourse,” said Todd Gutnick, a spokesman for the Anti-Defamation League, which has documented the slogan’s spread from the beginning.

The Global Project on Hate and Extremism’s report noted that the meme was being used by extremist groups in countries around the world.

A group in France created stickers with the phrase — in English — for its members to distribute, while another in Finland held an annual festival last month using the phrase as its name. Writing about last year’s event, Bellingcat, an investigative organization, reported that attendees “watched performances by far-right bands, took part in combat sports and mingled with other hate group members in hot tubs.”

“The far right is adept at bringing its hateful ideologies into the mainstream, especially through the use of social media,” the report noted, “and the already viral ‘white boy summer’ has proven to be the perfect transition to spread its bigotry to a wider audience.”

Hanks, who also previously starred as Chet Haze, has had highly publicized struggles with drugs and allegations of domestic abuse that have contributed to his rebellious persona as an entertainer. “He’s a grown man,” his older half-brother Colin, who is also an actor, said in a 2016 radio interview, when asked if he ever chimed in with advice. “He’ll do what he wants to do.”

Tom Hanks does not appear to have publicly commented on his relationship with Chet Hanks, although the son recently posted an intergenerational text message exchange with him about the recent feud between rappers Drake and Kendrick Lamar. In an interview with The New York Times in 2019, Tom Hanks described his experience as a dad.

“At some point I realized that really all a parent can do is say, ‘I love you, there’s nothing you can do wrong, you can’t hurt my feelings, I expect you to forgive me from time to time, and what do you need me to do?'” she said.

Despite the controversy surrounding its release, Hanks continues to embrace the meme. “I’ve consulted the heavens, felt a westerly breeze, and walked outside a strip club and seen my shadow…” he wrote on Instagram in May. “This is gonna be a #WBS.” He concluded the post with a church emoji.

Steven Lee Myers covers information and disinformation from San Francisco. Since joining The Times, he has covered stories around the world, including Moscow, Baghdad, Beijing and Seoul. More from Steven Lee Myers

 
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