How Tom Hanks’s Son Spawned a Hateful Meme Online

In the spring of 2021, Chet Hanks, the singer, actor and son of Tom, posted a series of statements and a music video with a refrain that caused confusion, not to mention a fair bit of cringing. He declared it was going to be a “white boy summer.”

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

Thousands of posts using the slogan “white boy summer” have appeared on the Telegram app this year. It’s been used by far-right groups to recruit new followers, organize protests and encourage violence, especially against immigrants and L.G.B.T.Q. people, the report said.

For many of those who use it now, the phrase represents an unapologetic embrace 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 around the world, one of the group’s founders, Wendy Via, said.

Jack Posobiec, a podcaster whom the Southern Poverty Law Center has linked to white supremacists, waved a banner with the words “white boy summer” on it at a gathering for Turning Point USA, a conservative group, in Detroit last month. Former President Donald J. Trump was the conference’s keynote speaker, along with several members of Congress.

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

Mr. Hanks, 33, did not respond to numerous requests for comment through his social media accounts and the talent agency that represents him. He started using the phrase in a series of posts on social media 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 it,” he said in a post on Instagram that March. “I’m not talking about, like, Trump, NASCAR-type white,” he went on, saying he meant people like himself and two other white R&B artists, Jon B. and Jack Harlow. “Let me know if you guys can vibe with that. And get ready, ‘cuz I am.”

His music video — produced under the name Chet Hanx — appeared the month after. It was a homage of a sort to the hit two years earlier by Megan Thee Stallion, “Hot Girl Summer,” featuring Nicki Minaj and Ty Dolla $ign.

It is replete with profanity, as well as sexist and racial slurs, but it also ends with an image of Mr. Hanks wearing a shirt with the words “stop hate” on it.

“White boy summer” is not the first artistic creation that white supremacists have hijacked and used online in hate speech.

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

Even before the meme, Mr. 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 started using, as an affectation, Jamaican patois in public appearances, including at the 2020 Golden Globe Awards, where Tom Hanks received the Cecil B. DeMille Award.

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

While more prevalent on fringe sites populated by extremist content, including Gab, Rumble and 4chan, the phrase also appears regularly on X, Instagram, Facebook and other major social media platforms, often with Nazi images. The phrase and its various hashtags appear to skirt policies that prohibit hate speech in part because it is often used euphemistically or ironically.

“While this trend/meme originated on the far right, it is definitely creeping into more ‘mainstream’ right-wing discourse,” said Todd Gutnick, a spokesman for the Anti-Defamation League, which documented the slogan’s spread early on.

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

A group in France created stickers with the phrase — in English — for 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, a research organization, reported that attendees “watched far-right bands perform, participated in combat sports and mingled with other hate group members in hot tubs.”

“The far right is adept at bringing their hateful ideologies into the mainstream, especially through the use of social media,” the report said, “and the already-viral ‘white boy summer’ has proved to be the perfect segue from them to spread their bigotry to a wider audience.”

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

Tom Hanks does not appear to have commented publicly on his relationship with Chet Hanks, though the son recently posted a cross-generational exchange of text messages with him about the recent feud between the rappers Drake and Kendrick Lamar. In an interview with The New York Times in 2019, the father described his experience as a parent.

“Somewhere along the line, I figured out, the only thing really, I think, eventually a parent can do is say: ‘I love you, there’s nothing you can do wrong, you cannot hurt my feelings, I hope you will forgive me on occasion, and what do you need me to do?’” he said.

Despite the controversy over its spread, Mr. Hanks continues to embrace the meme. “I have consulted with the heavens, felt a westward breeze, and walked outside of a strip club and saw my shadow …,” he wrote on Instagram in May. “This will be a #WBS.” He ended the post with the emoji of a church.

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