Confronting 'It's OK to Be White' Posters

Over 10 days, posters have appeared at nine American campuses.

November 5, 2018

“It’s OK to Be White” is the message that has periodically appeared on campus posters over the past two years, typically placed by people or organizations who haven't taken credit for doing so, and who are believed to be from off-campus groups.

Pro-white propaganda of various types has been appearing on campuses in increasing frequency in the last two years. But the last week has seen a surge in such postings.

Last weekend leaflets with the "OK to be white" message turned up in Vermont, at the University of Vermont and Champlain College.

Since then the posters have appeared at American River College, Duke University, North Carolina State University, Tufts University, the University of Delaware, the University of Denver and the University of St. Thomas, in Minnesota.

The trend is not confined to the United States. One Canadian institution, the University of Manitoba, also had the posters turn up. In Australia, the use of the phrase by some politicians has set off a major political debate (and appearance of the posters), but in that case, the focus is not in higher education.

Also last week, white nationalist posters turned up at California State University at San Marcos.

The campuses seeing the posters do not seem to fit any pattern. They include public and private institutions, two-year and four-year, institutions where white people make up a minority of students and institutions where they are the overwhelming majority.

Colleges have generally removed the posters as soon as they are discovered. Colleges generally require those putting up posters to identify themselves and/or get permission to place them. That hasn't happened in these cases. So while college leaders have condemned the message behind the posters, they have not faced free speech challenges because those putting up the posters have violated college rules.

The surge in these posters on campus has come at a challenging time for many institutions, as students respond to a divisive midterm election and recent killings of black people in Kentucky and Jewish people in Pittsburgh.

Richard A. Baker, president of the American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity, said via email that "on its face, the statement is both innocuous and obvious. It is OK to be white. But the intent of the flyer’s author is not to state the obvious. It is to find sympathizers to the white nationalists' cause."

Baker, assistant vice chancellor and vice president for equal opportunity services at the University of Houston System, added that "what is interesting is that a position is being inferred by some on the national stage that whites are a marginalized group and are being made to feel 'not OK' in their whiteness. This flyer’s purpose is to attract persons who may be sympathetic to that position but may not respond to a swastika or other traditional symbols of white nationalism or direct recruitment."

Although Baker said that the message behind the posters is protected free speech at a public college, he said that college officials should be paying attention to those spreading this message, and thinking about the implications of the message.

For the last two years, the Anti-Defamation League has been documenting an increase in white supremacist activity (including posters) on college campuses. There were 292 cases of white supremacist propaganda reported on campuses during the 2017-18 academic year, compared to 165 in 2016-17.

Share Article

Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

Back to Top