Earlier this week, The Daily reported that posters displaying the phrase “IT’S OK TO BE WHITE” appeared in Crowe Hall, mostly around the African American studies offices. Northwestern was just one of a growing number of American college campuses hit by a wave of these posters. The flyers originated in an alt-right 4chan post aimed to “nuke” the “credibility of far left campuses and media.” The posters on campus were promptly removed and reported to authorities.
I was appalled by these posters, and you should be too — especially if you’re white.
It’s easy to interpret reactions to these posters at NU (and on campuses around the country) as over the top or unfounded. What’s so wrong with saying that it’s OK to be white? Any tolerant person would say the same thing to a person of color, right?
Let’s go back to the rise of the “All Lives Matter” campaign as a reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement. Some people viewed BLM as unproductive, focusing only on one race but neglecting to value others. “Why is it that just black lives matter?” people asked. “Don’t all lives matter?” All lives obviously matter; BLM was an effort focused on bringing attention to the unequal treatment of black people in society, particularly in law enforcement and the criminal justice system. If a house is on fire, we don’t say, “all houses matter” and hose down every home in the neighborhood — we use our water to stop that one house from burning. BLM called attention to that one burning house, and “All Lives Matter” was utterly unhelpful in extinguishing those flames.
Think of “IT’S OK TO BE WHITE” as the alt-right’s version of Black Lives Matter. It stems from the belief that white people are oppressed in society by globalism and multiculturalism. It insinuates that white people must now take pride in their identity and work to preserve their cultural heritage in the face of forces that seek to destroy it.
The crucial difference between BLM and these posters is that this “white” house is not burning — there is no societal mistreatment of white people.
There is no data to support the notion that white people experience societal oppression in any way. We are not disproportionately targeted by police; we do not experience redlining or workplace discrimination; and we are not underrepresented in mainstream media. Instead, we experience privileges that put us ahead of people of color.
There is no need to say “White Lives Matter” or “IT’S OK TO BE WHITE” because there is no pressing problem white people as a race are facing in society that we need to call attention to. These posters would have you believe that, because you are a white person, you are experiencing some form of oppression that warrants a validation of your identity. White people don’t need this — Western society was created in part to validate whiteness. White people benefit from being society’s default identity.
In this case, however, we can use the previously faulty “All Lives Matter” logic against the people behind these posters. We have to wave them away by saying, “Of course it’s OK to be white. It’s OK to be any race.”
These posters are still, however, a reaction to something. White nationalist 4chan trolls wouldn’t put them up if they didn’t feel that they’d be controversial in our national context. And, in fact, they do recognize that something is in jeopardy here: white supremacy. With the emergence of far-right white supremacy groups to the forefront in recent months, America (read: white America) is coming to the realization that this ideology did not die with the Civil Rights Movement.
White supremacists are aware of this, and with these posters they are attempting to frame their movement not as an attempt to maintain control over people of color but as a grassroots effort to save white people from some imagined societal oppression.
It is the duty of white people like myself to call out and actively fight against this disguised violent ideology wherever we see it — whether it be on Twitter where neo-Nazis masquerade as young, dapper “white nationalists,” at the dinner table where a relative claims “black people get too many handouts from the government” or on our campus, where these posters try to fool us into thinking we are the oppressed instead of the oppressors.
It can be hard to accept this fact about ourselves at first, that the very color of our skin puts us at an advantage in a society where many of us have been told that all humans are equal. It can be even harder to recognize that the largely comfortable lives we have led have been at the expense of others who were simply not fortunate enough to not be born the same shade as us. But these are crucial steps we have to take to make those childhood lessons of equality and acceptance a reality; we can’t live in denial about our positions as white people in society anymore.
I understand that, in a way, I am giving into these trolls’ wishes by bringing attention to the posters. But I feel that, in a political climate that is doing everything to prevent white people from discovering, recognizing and checking their privilege, this is an important lesson for us. We can’t be fooled into thinking that we play no role in perpetuating white supremacy just because we don’t wear Klan hoods or swastikas. In light of these posters, it’s time for white people to explicitly reject the notion that we are in any way disadvantaged.
It’s time for white people to stop coddling ourselves and start deconstructing a society that places us on a pedestal. But we need to recognize the existence of that pedestal first.
Alex Schwartz is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected] If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected] The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.