There was outrage on Monday after A&E announced that is was producing an eight-part docuseries called Generation KKK, which explores the lives of three of the most prominent Klan leaders today and their families. People expressed their fear that the series—along with a related article in the New York Times—would inadvertently normalize white supremacists.
Though the documentary had been in the works for about a year-and-a-half, its release after an election in which white supremacy played a disturbingly prominent role made the whole thing feel eerie and wrong to many people. Grey’s Anatomy actors Jesse Williams and Ellen Pompeo were along the celebrities to join in calling for a boycott of A&E.
On Wednesday, the network began responding to its critics more forcefully on Twitter. It also highlighted the eight-minute trailer it had released for the show.
“Generation KKK documents activists working to expose and end hatred. In the KKK, hatred is passed down as legacy. It must stop. #ExposeHate,” A&E said in a tweet.
The network also highlighted that it had worked with the Anti-Defamation League to help Klan family members (mostly mothers and children) who want to stop the generational cycle of hatred and bigotry to leave.
The opening scene of the trailer shows Steven Howard, the Imperial Wizard of the North Mississippi White Knights, gifting his young children (who look no older than eight or nine years old) red Klansman hoods. Later a scene shows Howard saying that he wants his daughter Maggie to be the “first woman Imperial Wizard,” and even though she’s not yet 18, he’s already planning for her to take over. However, it’s clear throughout the trailer that Maggie feels differently. In the most obviously “TV” twist, it even turns out that Maggie’s best friend is black.
The trailer highlights just how fine a line A&E is trying to walk with this show. Your first reaction is to say that the network is normalizing the KKK, which is definitely an important critique. After all, Howard or any other Klansman probably only agreed to be a part of this show so that their message would be spread. And turning anything into television risks sensationalizing and humanizing the people involved, no matter how odious.
But we also have to think about the way we’re use the word “normalization.” Exposing different perspectives—even evil ones—is sometimes necessary. Isn’t it important for the rest of the world to have insight into the thought process of the KKK, and to have a firsthand look at how hatred is instilled in children at a very young age?
We just hope that A&E is asking hard questions.
Update: In an interview with IndieWire published Thursday afternoon, A&E Executive Vice President Rob Sharenow said the network is considering rebranding Generation KKK and changing the name to something “less flippant” due to the outcome of the election and the backlash the show has received. Sharenow said he doesn’t want people to see the program as a political statement timed with Trump’s election and said, “This is not a reality show starring the Ku Klux Klan.”
He compared it to A&E’s Intervention series, which provides a window into drug addition.
“I think this does the same thing for race hate and hatred. I don’t think that the right thing to do would be to just pretend it doesn’t exist. That’s also part of the message to acknowledge that there is this reality out there, and that it needs to be dealt with,” Sharenow said.