As recently as a few years ago, the bowl cut was primarily known as an unfashionable hairstyle popular among toddlers whose parents cut their hair, and 1990s child stars. Over the past few years, however, some far-right extremists have appropriated references to the hairstyle as a chilling symbol of racism and extremist violence, according to a recent report from the Anti-Defamation League.
On Thursday morning, the ADL released its additions to its hate symbols database, a library of more than 200 symbols used by hate groups. In addition to entries such as the Happy Merchant, a meme of an anti-Semitic caricature gleefully rubbing his hands together; and the “OK” hand emoji, which actually originated as a 4chan and an 8chan hoax before being adopted by the white supremacist movement as an actual hate symbol, the database now contains the bowl cut, a reference to the hairstyle sported by Dylann Roof, the white supremacist behind the 2015 mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, which killed nine people. (Roof pleaded guilty to state murder charges in 2017 and is currently serving nine consecutive life sentences without parole.)
On white supremacist chat forums on platforms like Gab and Discord, the bowl cut takes a few different forms, says Pitcavage. Images of Roof’s hair are often photoshopped on other people in various white supremacist memes (one popular meme features Roof’s bowl cut superimposed on an SS military shield); some white supremacists will also Photoshop a halo or a glowing effect around Roof’s head for emphasis. The bowl cut is also used as verbal shorthand within fringe groups, with white supremacists referring to themselves as “the bowl gang” or inserting “bowl” into other words, such as swapping out “brother” for “bowlther.” There is even a white supremacist podcast called the BowlCast, named after Roof’s distinctive cut.
The rise of the bowl cut has nothing to do with the hairstyle itself, or the view that it’s somehow a cool or attractive hairstyle to be emulated. In fact, in a lot of ways, it’s precisely the fact that it looks silly that it gained traction as a white supremacist symbol. Mark Pitcavage, the senior research fellow with ADL’s Center on Extremism, compares Roof’s bowl cut to Hitler’s mustache: an objectively ridiculous-looking, yet distinctive enough feature that it can be easily subject to memeification. Yet the rise of the symbol is inextricably tied to part of a larger effort to canonize Roof within the white supremacist movement.
The ADL started seeing white supremacists incorporate the bowl cut into their iconography around 2017, a few years after the Charleston church shooting. Pitcavage says this timing is significant, in large part because in the immediate aftermath of the Charleston shooting, many white supremacists either disavowed Roof or expressed disapproval of his actions — not necessarily for moral reasons, but because they believed violence would attract undue scrutiny to the movement.
That changed, however, with the rise of accelerationism, a term used to describe a class of white supremacists who advocate for violence as a means of hastening the collapse of society in order to build a new one. The advent of the alt right around 2016 also “brought a number of newly radicalized males into the white supremacist movement, who are full of testosterone and adrenaline,” says Pitcavage, which has resulted in a rising acceptance of violence as a means of bringing about societal change. And this has been accompanied by attempts to deify men like Roof, the Tree of Life synagogue shooter, and the New Zealand mosque shooter — so-called “lone wolves” — as martyrs to the cause. The rise of bowl cut iconography, says Pitcavage, is part of a larger effort to “turn Dylann Roof into an iconic figure that [a certain class of] white supremacists revere and want to emulate,” he says.
Of course, none of this is to say that the bowl cut symbol has risen to the level of, say, Pepe the Frog, in terms of a relatively innocuous symbol becoming synonymous with far-right extremist violence. Like most memes, the image of a bowl cut is entirely dependent on context, and white supremacists “are not going around telling people to go out and get bowl cuts,” says Pitcavage.
But it is a reflection of a wider and extremely chilling trend within the movement, which is to not just defend figures like Roof, but to actively canonize and encourage people to emulate them. And there is evidence that this is actually working, which is actually what drew the ADL’s attention to the use of the bowl cut in the first place. A number of white supremacists have been arrested for attempting to pull off copycat attacks, with one woman in Toledo, Ohio who planned to blow up a local bar, even corresponding with Roof by mail. And much like the other symbols that have been coopted by white supremacists, the fact that it is often used in a deeply ironic or even shitposting context does not detract from the fact that its implications are absolutely chilling.
“The bowl cut is different from a number of other hate symbols, because by its very nature it is explicitly condoning murder,” Pitcavage says. “A lot of other hate symbols in our database are offensive and objectionable and awful, but this is one of the few that is implicitly promoting — and in some cases, explicitly promoting — the idea of going out and committing extreme violence.”