When White Guilt turns to White Hate

Last fall fliers appeared on college campuses across the county. They bore a simple slogan: “It’s Okay to Be White.”

On my own campus, the hastily taped, 8 ½ x 11-inch signs elicited anxiety and alarm. Like so many institutions, we were still reeling from news about Charlottesville and dealing with our own racial incidents on campus—the “n-word” scrawled on a Black student’s dorm room door, a swastika scratched into the metal paneling of an elevator.

In January, the ante was upped. This time the signs showed up in St. Joseph, Minnesota. These read “Unapologetically White” and “We Have the Right to Exist.”

Those of us who know this nation is better for its racial diversity are right to be alarmed. The word “Russia” may dominate the news, but the racially vitriolic language that continues to flow from this administration is no less dangerous to our democracy.  And it’s not going anywhere anytime soon—something has been unleased in this presidency that we will be contending with for decades to come.

In fact, many of us who know this country is at its best when we collectively assume a commitment to racial equity must be our shared starting point (even while we have a long way to go to get there) find ourselves on our heels.

So what is it precisely that’s so alarming about those signs? We need to be able to answer that question well and wrestle more openly with the challenge of white identity in the current political climate. Our ability to do so is directly related to how likely we are to be successful in winning over for diversity and justice the same white youth who are so vulnerable to the white nationalist messages implied in slogans like “End White Guilt.”

The initial fall flier campaign wasinitiated through an online, alt-right affiliated website (4chan). “It’s okay to be white” was a kind of cultural jam: post the signs, watch people freak out and expose the “anti-white agenda” of the media, liberals, and all the lefties running amok on college campuses.

Campus administrators did respond. Some called the police to see if the local culprits could be found. Others denounced the fliers as racist.Still others reiterated educational commitments to diversity. As Concordia College’s president put it, “. . . [I]t is indeed OK to be white — and to be black, to be brown, to be Christian, to be Muslim, to be straight, to be gay, to be conservative, to be liberal, and so on. We are stronger for this diversity of identities.” In St. Joseph, a few months later, the police department took the signs down and the incident was discussed at a town hall meeting that also explored the three-year rise in hatred toward “Muslims, Somalis and people from Africa.”

These responses are important. But they fall short if we aren’t yet able to address a big elephant in the room. What are the signs about? On what anxiety do they play? Is it okay to be white? Or not? If we’re honest, many of us aren’t really sure. And until we sort that out we’re unequipped to disarm one of the more powerful right-wing tactics being used to nurture vitriol against communities of color—the tactic of painting white people as victims.

White nationalist agendas are trying to control the terms of debate. They insist there are two options: either you think it’s okay to be white or you don’t. (And, if you don’t, you obviously hate white people and, voila, an aggrieved, white victimhood is given another dose of steroids.)

This false binary poses existential threat to our democracy. To successfully counter it we have to expose the terms of debate as trumped up. And we’ve especially go to do that among white youth.

I engage young white people every day who’ve been taught repeatedly that racial differences are worth celebrating. They know they’re supposed to value diversity. But they also know celebrating their “whiteness” is problematic.

Meanwhile these same white students have had almost no support in developing a healthy sense of their own identity. I don’t mean healthy as in believing “white” should be embraced as a cultural parallel to “black” (it’s not). I don’t mean downplaying the truth of white behaviors or histories. I don’t mean ignoring the social structures that insulate white Americans from harms communities of color face every day.

I mean healthy as developmental terms—a state in which white people are comfortable in our skin and, at the same time, committed to anti-racism. I mean a sense of identity firmly invested in creating racial equity and equipped with tools to actively do that. I mean a sense of self that understands I, as a white person, have a constructive role to play in racial-justice building.

Many of our youth are being brought up in schools, churches, and organizations where there’s much talk of diversity and equity but few resources teaching white youth how to live out those values themselves as white kids. Neither do white youth have many mentors modeling how to be part of making justice real in their communities. Already confused about their role in diversity, so many white youth come to experience discussions about racial difference and inequity more as onlookers than embodied participants.

As a result, they are vulnerable to accepting the false binary posed white nationalists. So, they either 1) embrace diversity and conclude it’s not okay to be white—thus, enter white guilt; or 2) reject diversity and proclaim that it is. In this latter case they’re likely to eventually decide they’ll shout “it’s okay to be white!” too—thus, enter white hate. Such a response isn’t because they’re wed (yet) to the worldviews and dispositions espoused by the white nationalism taking up more and more of our political bandwidth. It’s because white adults haven’t helped them navigate what is, in fact, a disorienting identity in a deeply racially unjust and divided nation that also proclaims “celebrate diversity!”

We need to engage these white youth by exposing the binary for the falsehood that it is. We need to say, “Of course it’s okay to be white. The question is, what kind of white people do we want to be?”

We need to, then, invite white youth to learn ways to answer that good question. We need to acknowledge with them why “white guilt” exists and, before guilt turns into hate, help them discover that committing to the long-term work of creating a racially just society is a life-giving experience. We need help them see that interracial relationships are possible in a diverse society if and when whites become involved in anti-racist living and that such living enables all of us to flourish.

Are we up for this challenge? I don’t know. But the truth is, supporting all of our youth requires we white parents, teachers, clergy, and grandparentsdo more to figure out how to actively live antiracism every day ourselves too; that we too become agents making our workplaces, schools, organizations and faith communities both diverse and equitable. Weowe it to the generation coming next—a truly multi-racial generation—to publicly do our part in this urgent work. Indeed, the viability of our democracy depends on it.

So, is it okay to be white? The jury’s still out. The answer will depend on what kind of white people we decide we are going to be.

**This piece is a revision and expansion of a piece I originally wrote right after these signs appeared at Drake University. That these incidents remain ongoing across the country merited a more reflective and expanded piece, which I have re-published here.

One Response to “When White Guilt turns to White Hate”
  1. Carol says:

    Thanks for dismantling the binary that there are only two options for white people. The binary is simplistic because it ignores the unequal power relations that have allowed white people many options about who, how and where they want to be in the social world. Not naming or acknowledging these inequalities helps to keep white supremacy in place.

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