Why We Tear Them Down, Part II

My critique of the “It’s ok to be white” flyering campaign builds from Jared Gardner’s point that “These are not posters to be judged by their words alone.” Understanding the slogan’s origins in white supremacist organizations is key to making manifest their racist intent. But it is also worth elucidating how the words themselves operate within a context marked by a collision between institutionalized “diversity and inclusion” and the recent rise of white supremacist violence and messaging.

In its most neutral guise, the statement “It’s ok to be white” places all racial groups on the same plane and thus erases power asymmetries between white people and people of color. Less neutrally, the meme implies that white people are victims marginalized, presumably, by “liberal” or “political correctness” agendas on American campuses, thus inverting dominant and subordinate subject positions and rendering white people as susceptible to harm and in need of comfort. This inversion appropriates the methods deployed by minoritarian identity politics that base their incitements to social change and political redress on grievances grounded in that identity’s historical and contemporary oppression. Disregarding those grounds, the slogan, when read as addressed to white people, aims at assuaging a sense of guilt for racial privilege and potentially recruiting the disaffected.

The notion that white people are structurally equivalent to or under siege by people of color exploits the use of “diversity and inclusion” as the name designated for academic offices, policies, curricula, and programming meant to address conditions of inequality and oppression due to race, gender, sexuality, class, disability, immigration status, veteran status, etc. At one level, the slogan seeks to provoke a response that capitulates to the faulty assumption that white identities are equal to non-white identities in terms of power and privilege—a trap that at least one campus spokesperson fell for in the past by iterating white, black, brown, Christian, Muslim, straight, gay, conservative, and liberal as though they existed on a level playing field.

At another, more insidious level, the meme seeks to elicit responses that contradict the principle of diversity and inclusion for all: “Is it not ok to be white? Are white people not welcome in spaces that purport to be diverse and inclusive?” Here, the slogan exploits the unspecific language of “diversity and inclusion.” For example, OSU’s diversity web page is headed with these words:

Ohio State values diversity in people and ideas.

We’re an inclusive, supportive community where you can comfortably join in or confidently stand out.

Again, wouldn’t any criticism of the flyer, taken at face value, transgress these declarations of the institution embracing all kinds of people and ideas and supporting those who wish to confidently stand out?

The idea that a predominantly white institution like OSU discriminates against white people not only erases or inverts the racial power dynamics operating in the U.S. but also mischaracterizes (or, at minimum, miscomprehends) the basic tenets of critical ethnic studies. Far from taking racial categories for granted, much less reifying them for the sake of celebrating cultural diversity, this interdisciplinary field examines how racial differences—including whiteness and its hierarchical relation to non-whiteness—are produced at specific historical junctures and reproduced through an array of institutional, material, and discursive policies and processes. From this point of view, the flyering campaigns in their repetitious plastering of signs on walls and doors constitute a blatant attempt to reassert a static, mythic, pure racial whiteness untainted by non-whiteness and is directly aligned with contemporary white supremacist discourses and activities.

Finally, while the slogan extends consolation to aggrieved white people and invites those sympathetic to its message into its “nationalist” cause, it is clearly meant to send a threatening signal to people of color and their allies. The fact that the flyers were put up anonymously and secretly contributes to the sense of intimidation that they pose to vulnerable populations in that they give rise to an atmosphere of uncertainty: Who is behind these campaigns? Are they in our classrooms, residence halls, offices, public spaces? How many people are participating in these actions? To what extent might these stealth tactics escalate into more direct, confrontational actions? In this respect, the actions forfeit any appeal to the notion that they should be allowable under the cloak and cover of “diversity and inclusion.” Even the most toothless, bureaucratic version of campus diversity prioritizes dialogue across differences as the fundamental means by which inclusion is made possible. By refusing to engage in dialogue and retreating into a monologic proclamation, the flyering campaign abandons any pretense to accountability and thus violates a central precondition of how diversity and inclusion is enacted on the ground.

 

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