Every widespread meme has an origin story. An invention. An intention. An ascension. The rest is interpretation. But understanding both the context and the consequences can teach us something about ourselves.
Consider the origin story of this recent meme. Throughout November 2017, high schools and universities across the country reported signs popping up on campus bearing the message “It’s Okay to Be White.” The message has since spread—and the narrative surrounding it has become complicated. Retracing its steps can help teachers understand why such a simple message might appeal to young people as well as to white nationalists, and why teaching about whiteness and white racial identity is important.
In theory, the “It’s Okay to Be White” messaging campaign began as an attempt to expose the “hypersensitivity” of supposedly left-leaning media and campus leaders. But before the signs showed up at high schools and universities like Tulane, Washington State, Utah, California Berkeley, Concordia and Harvard—and before “It’s Okay to Be White” became the titular message behind an incendiary speech tour—the movement began where many dubious movements begin: 4chan, an imageboard and birthplace of memes featuring mostly anonymous users.
The original 4chan thread proposed a social experiment: Put these signs featuring a seemingly benign phrase up en masse, and then watch the media and campuses overreact. The goal, to quote the original poster: “credibility of far-left campuses and media gets nuked, massive victory for the right in the culture war.”
Given the current context of increased racial insensitivity and intimidation on many campuses, the media did cover the signs and universities, and school districts issued statements denouncing any ill will behind their appearance. In some ways, these were the desired results the architects of the social experiment had hoped for. To the eye of some observers, the media blew the signs out of proportion, constructing racial hostility from a seemingly benign sentence.
Because, after all, it is okay to be white. It always has been.
Of course, this interpretation doesn’t acknowledge the history of injustice or the current context that set off alarm bells for so many viewers. The fact that the phrase shares the simplicity of a sentence like “Black lives matter” makes any refutation of such a basic premise that much more difficult.
But the context and the consequences of the “It’s Okay to Be White” movement go beyond a simple message. Despite the original 4chan user’s intention to keep far-right branding off the signs, white nationalists and white supremacists quickly co-opted the phrase and weaponized it in their ongoing attempt to 1) appeal to young people and 2) position white people as victims of a multicultural society.
To white nationalists, the “It’s Okay to Be White” meme justifies an insidious message that could easily appeal to young people: a promise of belonging to an identity, to something anti-establishment and anti-PC. It also gave them permission to embrace their learned prejudices. But, ultimately, this mindset graduates to a full-fledged ideology that romanticizes a mono-ethnic society, and does so with no regard to truth, science or humanity.
So, no matter how it began, “It’s Okay to be White” represents the latest wolf in sheep’s clothing for white nationalists who are controlling and twisting the narrative on white identity in the United States. Despite its prankish origins, it is now being deliberately used to sow division, create distrust of anyone who promotes equity and inclusion, and inspire young white students to see white nationalism as a natural defense mechanism against a supposed cultural war against white people.
Educators can take this narrative back. It begins by talking about the history and perpetration of racism—and that conversation includes helping white students frame their whiteness as one of their many identities. They do not have to belong to white nationalist circles in order to belong somewhere.
The Summer 2016 issue of Teaching Tolerance explored this very topic, with author Emily Chiariello underscoring the importance of helping white students explore their identities, too.
This poses a challenge for educators committed to racial justice. We know it’s important to make space in our classrooms to explore students’ cultures and identities, but when it comes to white students, many are left with questions about how to talk about group membership and cultural belonging. These questions stem in part from the fact that, while it’s true whiteness is seen as a social default, it is not true that whiteness is the absence of race or culture. As one male participant in The Whiteness Project puts it, “As a white person, I wish I had that feeling of being a part of something for being white, but I don’t.”
One place to start is by acknowledging that generations of European immigration to the United States means that our country is home to the most diverse white population anywhere in the world. Differences between Jewish, Irish, Italian, Greek, Polish or German culture matter—a lot—to those who identify as ethnic whites. Part of “seeing” whiteness includes caring about these rich histories and complicating our discussions of race by asking questions about the intersection of ethnicity and race.
These explorations can help counter white nationalist messaging and the suggestions inherent in stunts such as the “It’s Okay to Be White” sign campaign. This Teaching Tolerance webinar provides resources and guidance on leading such a discussion.
Even before the 4chan stunt was co-opted by known white nationalists, its origin story bore the markings of “alt-right” messaging, which usually relies on a false assumption: that there is a culture war against white people, that the mere pretense of promoting equality means simultaneously promoting the degradation of white people.
But understanding both the context and the consequences of the meme fills in a more nuanced version of its story—and a deeper understanding of the problem.
White students don’t need a sign to tell them it’s okay to be white. They need an understanding of their multifaceted identities. They need a frank discussion about the history of racism and white privilege. And they need a reminder: that a diverse democracy can thrive, and that affirming the belonging of people of color doesn’t mean they belong any less.
Collins is a senior writer for Teaching Tolerance.