What the rise of “it’s OK to be white” says about the alt-right

Is it ok?
Is it ok?
Image: Nikhil Sonnad
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Last week, Markus Persson, the creator of Minecraft, announced to his Twitter followers, “It’s ok to be white.” There was no additional context, just this. “It’s ok to be white.”

Persson’s is not an isolated tweet. “It’s ok to be white” was invented by the trollsters of the “politically incorrect” messaging board on 4chan. The phrase was carefully designed to trick progressive, left-leaning Americans into saying the contrary—that it is not ok to be white—in a strange nationwide campaign to finally expose anti-white bias.

To those who do not identify with it, the assertion is baffling—mysteriously defiant and worryingly contextless; kind of like ordering a burger, and the server responding very slowly and clearly, “Our lettuce has absolutely no e. coli.” But for the alt-right, as prominent right-wing blogger Nick Land puts it:

“It’s OK to be white” is a brilliant political provocation. Any response other than “Of course it is” looks preposterously demented

Described as “a world-changing killshot” by one commenter, these five words have been hailed by the American alt-right as a brilliant innovation that is sure to advance their cause.

The origins of “It’s ok to be white”

The trolls of 4chan’s “politically incorrect” are usually anonymous, and broadly known for spreading pro-Trump memes and organizing internet raids against causes they don’t like. They are a driver of the alt-right “shitposters,” which we will define as a loose and overlapping cross-section of white nationalist, men’s rights, anti-political correctness, white identity, and other right-wing groups, largely organized online in forums like 4chan and websites like Breitbart.

They latched on to the sentiment of “It’s ok to be white,” after flyers posted on the Boston College campus in October of this year, reading “Don’t apologize for being white,” were taken down by the university. A Facebook comment from Boston College referred to them as “offensive materials,” which the alt-right took as proof that America had it out for white people.

“This is simply another example of how American liberals want everyone to be inclusive and be proud of who they are… unless they are white,” wrote InfoWars, the conspiracy-peddling website run by Alex Jones.

On Halloween, 4chan laid out a “game plan” to turn this sentiment into a wider campaign focused around their simpler formulation, “It’s ok to be white.” As a political operation, it was crude—post flyers with the slogan across universities in the US, printed in black and white with a boring font. By provoking campus progressives with the phrase, the mainstream would “realize that leftists and journalists hate white people, so they turn on them,” said a 4chan post that introduced the idea.

An "it's okay to be white" poster on the University of Toronto campus.
Poster controversy on the University of Toronto campus.
Image: The Varsity/Tom Yun

Flyers bearing the phrase popped up across the country, on a small scale. A few in Cambridge. Then at Washington State University. When a high school in Maryland called them an effort to “foment racial and political tension,” the alt-right again took it as a victory that revealed America was controlled by a multicultural agenda that pushes white people far down the list of priorities.

Milk and the martyrdom of Lucian Wintrich

A couple weeks later, in late November, right-wing blogger Lucian Wintrich gave a speech titled “It’s OK to be White” at the University of Connecticut. After a woman appeared to try to steal a piece of paper from his podium, Wintrich “grabbed her, pulling her back in a violent manner,” according to the police report. He was arrested after the altercation, which Breitbart and others saw as even more evidence of anti-white bias.

A few details: Wintrich wore a tuxedo, calling it a “pretty noticeable outfit from white history.” It was a choice intended to poke fun at ethnic minorities donning their ancestors’ traditional dress, which he sees as a fetishization of foreignness. On his podium he also prominently placed a large, clear glass of milk, the official drink of white supremacists.

The relative lactose tolerance of white people has long been used as evidence of racial superiority.” A casual look at the races of people seems to show that those using much milk are the strongest physically and mentally, and the most enduring of the people of the world,” reads 1933’s History of Agriculture of the State of New York.

More recently, in an incident that is now infamous among the members of 4chan, a group of white men crashed an ill-conceived art installation in New York, hijacking the livestream and chugging whole milk. One stood proudly in front of the camera, letting the milk drip down his chest and onto his tattoo of the Black Sun, an occult symbol appropriated by the SS in Nazi Germany.

When I asked Wintrich about the milk, he dismissed the idea that he had chosen it to symbolize white supremacy. He distinguishes himself from open neo-Nazis like the milk chugger, and from the phrase “alt-right,” associated with the explicitly white supremacist views of Richard Spencer, who coined the term.

But can Wintrich have that and his glass of milk? Drinking milk during a speech is a bad idea speechwise, but it’s not inherently racist. Saying that people who can’t process milk are biologically inferior to those who can is definitely racist. Prominently displaying a glass of milk during a speech called “It’s ok to be white,” given by someone who is acutely aware of its symbolic meaning among white supremacists, might just be racist.

Context is everything

Milk at breakfast and milk in a speech about whiteness are different. The point here is that context matters.

By being removed from context, “it’s ok to be white” allows its audience to fill in the gaps. This is an example of “one of the most important rhetorical devices,” says Christian Lundberg, associate professor of rhetoric at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a debate coach. It is what Aristotle called an “enthymeme,” when the speaker “stops short of making a claim explicit, counting on their audience to fill it in.” By doing that, the speaker can imply controversial claims without actually making them.

Yet denying those implications and ignoring context serves as the foundation for much of the alt-right’s thinking on cultural issues. It’s a rhetorical strategy that purports to reduce political statements to pure logic. Take for example, statements like, “If we want equality, and there is a black history month, why don’t we have a white history month, too?” Or, “Why do we have women’s rights when but no men’s rights?” And again, “If you can be proud to be gay, why can’t you be proud to be white?”

The alt-right takes pride in revealing what it sees as double standards through logic like this. In fact, the alt-right is not wrong. There is a double standard with men’s right and women’s rights. But there has to be, because they address a more fundamental double standard: historical social inequality. Women’s rights, gay pride, and black history month are attempts to compensate for a discrepancy that already exists.

The affirmation “black lives matter” emerged in response to a specific historical context: A spate of public deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police officers who went unpunished. Black lives did not seem to matter. The context for “it’s ok to be white,” on the other hand, is one in which it is more than ok to be white.

The statistical advantages of white Americans are well-known. Black and Hispanic men with college degrees earn 80% of what their white counterparts do. (When I put this to Wintrich, he pointed out that Asian men make more on average than white men. While this is true, the Asian population is much smaller, and Asian women still earn less than white men.) The likelihood of being shot and killed by a police officer is five times higher for black Americans than white Americans. Non-whites are vastly underrepresented in Hollywood. The list of inequalities is so long that to bring it up is insulting.

Here is a dumb simplification, back at the burger joint: Your friend’s burger came with fries, and yours didn’t. You ask the server for your fries. He brings fries for you, but not for your friend, who already has them. If you just look at the most recent delivery of fries, it looks like a double standard—you got fries and your friend didn’t. It is also fair. History and context matter. “It’s ok for me to get fries every time,” your friend might say. Well, it’s ok, but it’s not equal.

Lundberg’s expert suggestion is not to reject the phrase. “I think that the best response is to deny them the pleasure of the fight—of course it is ok to be white: now how can we make it ok to be a person of any color?”