Is it OK to be white? The question is at once disingenuous, facetious, satirical, and self-parodic. It is also one of the consequential questions being posed in earnest by the moral and political vanguards of our time. The question invites the typical reader to resist its implications—to deny that the question is one that anyone would think to ask, or that people are asking. But people have thought to ask it, they are asking it. It is the sort of question that one doesn’t think to ask at all unless the answer is going to be no.
The pranksters who originally posed the question did so by interjecting a proposed answer into the physical world. The answer that they posted on signs and scraps of paper at universities and high schools in the United States and Canada was an affirmation in five uninflected words, rendered in a slender sans serif font in all caps on a plain white background. “It’s OK to be white.”
The flyers pose two questions: Who posted them? And, why? The answer to the first question is an online network of ironic, post-ironic, and deadly earnest white nationalists, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and others hosted on forums such as 4Chan, the anonymous free-speech zone that is at once a predominant influence on the form that online communication now takes today, and a cardinal exemplar of the social hazards of unfettered speech. The answer to the second question is deducible from the news coverage that the flyers received. The news media fulfilled the prank’s aims, which were only achievable with its unwitting—and as the pranksters well understood, inevitable—collaboration.
“The news at 11 continues with a disturbing story from out of Montgomery County,” began one newscast, noting that flyers were taped up at a local high school saying “It’s OK to Be White.” The monitor beside the anchor’s face displayed the flyer reading “IT’S OK TO BE WHITE” alongside an all-caps graphic blaring “RACIST FLYERS?”
The contrast between the minatory framing and the innocuous message captured in that image was never, as the delusional anonymous 4chan poster who conceived of the prank believed it would, going to shatter the legitimacy of the media and deliver a “massive victory for the right in the culture war.” Still, the campaign succeeded in generating gales of the malicious laughter, known as “lulz,” that reverberate through this deplorable region of the internet, as many of the reports the media dutifully generated resembled nothing so much as Christopher Guest mockumentaries brought to life. The campaign also showed that the meme brigade waging homemade mass psy-ops on the broader population of “normies” (referring to the ordinary Americans not yet inducted into the online culture wars) were evolving in their methods and learning from their adversaries in the competition to colonize minds and polarize the world into bitterly antagonistic factions.
“Black Lives Matter” was a simple declarative, instantly memorable, impossible to dispute, yet inviting dissent (“All Lives Matters”) that would delegitimize the dissenters. “It’s OK to be White” reads like a nonsequitur and induces people to pose questions without foisting conclusions on them. It invites dissenters to overreact. Whereas once the 4chan trolls gleefully trafficked in shock and provocation, they had now discovered the power of indirection and understatement, of confounding instead of confronting their enemies. Instructions for poster-makers sternly warned against altering the poster to include links to far-right websites, while leaders of the meme brigade on Twitter enjoined participants in the spread of hashtags to scrub their timelines of overt racist or sexism. These preparations indicated an awareness that their messaging had to be more moderate, which is a first step in any movement, in fact, becoming more moderate, and attracting mainstream support.
It is OK to be white. That some inner part of me flinches and hesitates to write the preceding sentences testifies to the bizarre, surreal, and yet all-too-salient polarization that has gripped the country since the election of Donald Trump. The statement is true—unambiguously so, and without qualification. One flinches to put oneself in agreement with a mob of white nationalists and white supremacists affirming that “It’s OK to Be White”—but only long enough to recognize that dissenting from what is obviously true would serve the avowed interest of that same mob even more. One anti-racist tweeter insisted that what the posters were really saying was “It’s OK to be a white supremacist.” But that’s of course precisely what the posters didn’t say. They also didn’t say that it’s a source of pride to be white, that being white makes you better than other people, or even that it’s good to be white. It’s just OK.
The cannier college administrations took care not to take the bait dangled in front of them by the posters, to reaffirm the diversity gospel while acknowledging the obvious truth. “There is and must be a place here for people of different ethnicities and skin colors, of different faith traditions or no faith traditions, of different nations, of different gender identities, of different political convictions,” wrote one. “In that sense, it 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.”
Part of responding to the coalition of white resentment from which the posters emerged in ways that stanches rather than feeds its growth, then, means taking stock of the way our own thinking has been affected by polarizing memes. In recent years we’ve seen the rhetoric of social justice activism change. Where once the targets of those concerned to fight injustice were “racism” and “sexism,” today the targets are “whiteness” and “masculinity.” In a characteristic passage, the New Inquiry writer Aaron Bady calls whiteness “an imaginary concept and a figment of the racist imagination.” “Inextricable from racial subordination, whiteness has no other content at all,” Bady writes. The newly pervasive coinage appears in writings explicitly focused on race, and in those that incidentally refer to it. A review of a book about millennials posted online by the journal n+1 laments that “whiteness and masculinity continue to bedevil the socialist left, even in its committed anti-racist and feminist quarters,” making explicit that it’s not enough to be anti-racist and feminist if you continue to remain, as the review’s author, Gabriel Winant does, white and male.
The underlying premise is plain: that there is no whiteness independent of the domination of nonwhites, and no masculinity independent of the domination of women. Neither ever were, or ever can be, neutral descriptors of traits incidental to the person whom they characterize. They are instead forms of identity rooted in genocide, colonialism, and slavery that reproduce the violent conditions of their emergence everywhere they are treated as neutral descriptors of traits incidental to the person whom they characterize. They are what both permits and compels the white man to, as Bady puts it, “take his own experience as normal and privileged, and to presume all others to be debased copies of his own primary existence.” A feminist writer at Public Books recently urged her readers to “attack masculinity directly. I don’t mean that we should recuperate masculinity—that is, press men to identify with a kinder, gentler version of it—I mean that we should reject the idea that men have a psychic need to distinguish themselves from women in order to feel good about themselves.” She later coined a neat apothegm that brings to completion certain latent tendencies in contemporary feminism: “The problem is not toxic masculinity; it’s that masculinity is toxic.”
In this new cosmology, there is no chastening, reforming, or accommodating retrograde modes of being that can leave the rest of the world safe from oppression, because these modes of being are radically and purely evil. They must be, in the parlance of the new anti-racist activism,“abolished,” “deconstructured,” or “dismantled.” For it is not racism but “whiteness” that is, as Ta-Nehisi Coates, the writer whose oracular pronouncements about an all-pervasive white supremacy emerged as a secular religion for liberals during the second term of America’s first black president, put it in a recent essay on the Trump presidency, “an existential danger to the United States.”
This rhetoric may appear at first to be primarily made up of bits of modish jargon drawn from certain academic subfields that have found new life on social media. And it is. But language has power, and a shift in usage has direct and intended consequences. The replacement of “racism” by “whiteness” as the problem that bedevils the world encodes another progressive meme within it: that because racism is “prejudice plus power,” and all structural power is situated in the hands of whiteness, nonwhites may be capable of prejudice—a bad thing to be sure—but they cannot be racists. The default use of the term “whiteness” as the target of opprobrium bakes this contention into the language.
Reprogramming language to achieve a political end is a strategy derived from post-structuralism, which holds that language is a system of difference in which the endless flux of signification is only arrested by the operation of power, and that this power is constitutive of a world (since our social world is constructed out of language) that will elevate some and enslave others, identifying some with truth, rationality, science, progress, justice, law, purpose, power, and agency; and others with emotion, grievance, superstition, particularism, benightedness, and submission: the former born to rule, the latter fit to be ruled. The shift corresponds to a broad turn away from liberal categories of thought and action, which emphasize laws and rights, to a Foucauldian account of a “malleable and insidious” racism, found in “the architecture of expectations, the ranking of authorities, the sway of circumstance, the nudge of defaults, and the grammar of culture. … It’s in the norms, customs, precedents, and incentive structures of institutions, jobs, and roles.”
Liberals think that there’s a way to design a fair system of rules applicable to all people that would induce us to cease judging each other through the lens of the superficial physical traits that mark as off as racially distinct. Postructuralists think that the very idea of a fair system of rules applicable to all is a pernicious mystification disguising the partial interests of the dominant class as universality itself. No such universal position is possible; what remains to be done is the re-engineering of norms, customs, and precedents to favor the marginalized.
This dense and rebarbative account of a racism that pervades the very structure of our shared reality remained largely sequestered in humanities departments until recently. Critics of such theories used to mock its pretensions to enact a form of political praxis in recondite journals. Now we know that the theorists were right—indeed they were more practical than their ostensibly more practically minded critics. But it took the invention of social media to realize the potential inherent in a deconstructive strategy to change the world.
Social media provided a medium for an iterative and collaborative process to turn critical race theory into sticky and contagious progressive memes. The memes were then injected directly into the collective progressive central nervous system. This applied deconstruction was made easy and fun through an automated, crowd-sourced process that resembles thought without involving any reasoning. As the game iterated, it achieved the power to shift the ground of permissible debate. A 2015 survey found that 40 percent of millennials believed that speech offensive to minorities should be prohibited.
Eventually, the new ways of thinking and talking begin to affect the form that activist campaigns and bureaucratic interventions in pursuit of diversity and inclusion take. By hopscotching from one meme to the next, certain ideas, such as the “progressive stack,” which holds that one should deliberately call on marginalized people first, or ask white people to move to the back to make way for “racialized” people, become not just thinkable or defensible, but morally obligatory.
An instructor at the University of Pennsylvania became the target of right-wing outrage when she tweeted out a description of her classroom practice informed by the progressive stack. The university then announced that the instructor was acting in violation of its rules and that she would be disciplined. Her error in this was announcing aloud her adherence to the progressive stack.
Others who align themselves with the steadily advancing anti-racist doxology will practice it without declaring it aloud. What begins as a provocation becomes a practice.
Anyone who objects to this as itself “racist” (“You’re controlling people’s access to resources simply on the basis of skin color! Isn’t that the DEFINITON of racist?”) simply proves that they don’t grasp the underlying change in the intellectual terrain that has taken place. Such thinking remains embedded within the prior system of identity that was itself not just complicit with but, in fact, constitutive of racial domination, Those who resist any of its terms are therefore themselves complicit with racism, and therefore racists. The white person who resists the new account of racism exhibits “white fragility,” itself a form of racism, all of which is inherent in and endemic to whiteness itself.
This intricate system of racial casuistry, worthy of Jesuits, is a beguiling compound of insight, partial truths, circular reasoning, and dogmatism operating within a self-enclosed system of reference immunized against critique and optimized for virality.
A Note on ‘Meme Wars’
Meme warriors of the social-justice left and the alt-right have successfully polarized the world into antagonistic camps, hollowing out from within support for the meta-discursive rules that permit the peaceful co-existence of diversity. The meme war has already changed the world and pitched the country into a condition of hostility that some have likened to a “Cold Civil War.”
My method in this biweekly column will be twofold: to chronicle and track the unfolding in real time of the identitarian meme war, and to parse out its intricacies in a disinterested way by revisiting the theoretical and empirical scholarship—in critical race theory, “whiteness studies,” the works of the radical-feminist canon—from which the meme war takes its direction. My goal is to survey from a distance the polemic, making legible its unstated premises, rather than becoming a combatant myself. I’ll also revisit works by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Samuel Huntington, Richard Rorty, and Mark Lilla, that attempted to hold at bay the onslaught of the identitarian Left, and measuring these arguments against our present conundrum. I wish to create a venue for sustained reflection on the process that triggers us into the tribalism that first emerged online and has since consumed the country as a whole.
Wesley Yang is the author of The Souls of Yellow Folk.