Critical ThinkingCulturePolitics

You Don’t Need Me to Refute This White Nationalist Poster for You, but Here You Go Anyway

This past fall, the above poster appeared on some U.S. campuses. The first appearance that I can find was on September 26th at the University of Michigan, and then on November 14th, a group called Fordham Students United reported that it was posted on their campus. It bears the same “Alt-Right” logo as other disgusting racist posters at Southern Methodist University and the University of Oklahoma. I know that this kind of thing does not deserve to be addressed, and that ignoring the trolls is an at least plausible method of defeating them, but I feel the need to do something after Trump’s election, and this is low-hanging fruit.

The poster makes three exhortations to “Euro-Americans” and pronounces three statements. Let’s start with the exhortations.

The first exhortation is to “Stop Apologizing.” This presumably refers to white people who acknowledge the privilege they have gained from historical wrongs. Well, sorry (there I go already), but the Inquisition, slavery, global colonization, and genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas and Oceana (to pick a few) are all massive crimes on a historical scale, and apologizing for them is literally the least white people can do. Better still would be working with others to diminish the damage caused by the legacies of those crimes. A white person today might object that they have never owned slaves, killed someone, or expelled a Muslim from Spain, and thus have nothing for which they need to apologize. But saying “slavery existed and was bad” is not a condemnation of any one person living today. It is step towards acknowledging that whites enjoy unearned privilege in North America, a fact that should make every justice-loving person angry. Moreover, as a [Euro-]Canadian, any command to “Stop Apologizing” offends my national values.

The second exhortation is to “Stop Living in Fear.” Yes, white people, please stop freaking out. Naturally, the poster doesn’t say what to be afraid of: that’s not how insinuation works. But I often hear white people fretting over terrorism and crimes committed by non-whites. While it’s true that ISIS/ISIL/Daesh is driving up rates of terrorism, the average person is still far more likely to die to disease or accident than terrorism. Race and crime is too tough a nut to crack over a simple poster takedown, but if even cops are saying that white people panic too much over the threat of black crime, then maybe we should listen.

The third exhortation, “Stop Denying Your Heritage,” makes the least sense out of the three. White people do not deny their heritage. They celebrate it. Literally. There are numerous celebrations dedicated to majority-white ethnic groups. For example, many North American cities have an area of town called Little Italy, and a festival associated with it. Two months from now, kilt-clad revelers will celebrate Robbie Burns Day, and the poet’s Scottish heritage with it. The other day, there was a Hungarian dance demonstration in the student center at my local university. Speaking of universities, since these posters appeared on university campuses, the poster-makers may not know that Saint Patrick’s day is not just a solemn religious occasion, but in fact a day of celebration of the nation of Ireland and its many people the world over. Oh, and every Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, or Austen class that you’ve ever taken? You were celebrating English culture.

I can anticipate the Alt-Right objection: these celebrations of mostly white ethnic groups are only that, celebrations of sub-groups and not whiteness itself. That’s true. And after all, no respectable person would say that non-white citizens of Ireland should be excluded from Saint Patrick’s Day. But there are several reasons why we do not have a White Pride Day. The first, and most obvious, is that the phrase “White Pride” is so closely associated with Neo-Nazis that any positive usage of the phrase is nearly impossible. It’s similar to the phrase Ich bin stolz, ein Deutscher zu sein – I am proud to be German – in Germany. The phrase is a Nazi slogan, and even to speak it is to give aid and comfort to the enemies of democracy. (Which doesn’t stop Oktoberfest from being a popular event across the Western world). The second reason is because a White Pride Day would beg the question of what heritage, exactly, is unique to white people qua white people, as opposed to the heritage of British/French/Italian etc. people. Going to the Gap?

The third reason brings us back to the poster’s three statements. The three statements are “White people exist,” “White people have the right to exist,” and “White people have the right to exist as white people.” Taken literally, these statements are so obvious and uncontroversial that they do not need to be made, though I suspect that they are meant to be parodies of the concept of “visibility” in cultural studies. (I don’t want to give the poster’s authors too much credit: they may only be familiar with the concept indirectly). The statements are also an assertion of whiteness as an identity. This is interesting, because white people have historically tended to think of “race” as something that only non-whites possess, and have not spent much time considering that whiteness is as much of an arbitrary, socially-constructed distinction as any other racial category. To anti-racism activists, the lack of self-awareness among whites is an obstacle towards combating white privilege—but to white nationalists, it is an obstacle towards advancing it. Recently, Eric D. Knowles and Linda R. Tropp, two psychologists, have suggested that this attitude is coming to an end, and that white people are indeed becoming conscious of their race and pursuing a “white identity politics.” Sadly, this awareness is translating into support for Trump and his ilk. On this point, at least, the poster is getting its way.

None of this is to say that white people do not have problems. A paper by economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case showing a drop in life expectancy for middle-aged white Americans got some attention last year, and the opioid epidemic in New Hampshire was an issue during the U.S. election primaries. Since the election, there have been many articles arguing that the Democrats lost because they ignored the economic plight of… well, everybody, but Appalachian and Midwestern whites in particular. Personally, I agree that the Democrats have conceded too much to austerity in recent decades and should be pursuing more economic-left, pro-labor policies. (And I believe this because I believe that those policies are good, not just because they can win elections!) Nonetheless, though many whites in America and beyond are suffering, they are not suffering because they are white. They are suffering because of the economy and the diminished safety net. The white nationalism espoused by the poster is not the answer.

Well, I have now spent an afternoon writing about an absurd, craven poster. But again, I thought it was worth doing so. Aside from the reasons that I mentioned above, I worry that if we do not address the attitudes raised by the poster, too many people will look at Alt-Right propaganda like this and think, “Huh, I may not agree, but it makes some points that we should consider as part of the debate.” In fact, the poster’s implied arguments are not just offensive: they are outright inaccurate. Sometimes it is worth going over the basics, especially after an upset like Trump’s win.

 

Image credit: Fordham Students United

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Matthew

Matthew

I have a Ph.D. in English, specializing in Medieval Literature. I teach critical thinking and literature here and there. I drink too much tea.

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