​Q&A: Lori Wilkinson explains why 'It's OK to be white' posters are not OK

Last week students and staff at the University of Manitoba were greeted with posters and faxes displaying a single sentence: "It's OK to be white." The message was condemned by campus leaders, but some ridicule that condemnation. A U of M professor explains what's wrong with the simple signs.

Don't ignore messages of hate, University of Manitoba sociology professor says

Sheets of paper with the phrase "It's okay to be white" were taped to walls around the University of Manitoba campus last week. (Submitted by Cary Miller)

Last week students and staff at the University of Manitoba were greeted with posters and faxes displaying a single sentence: "It's OK to be white."

The messages brought quick condemnation from students who are not white and expressed concern about the "element of fear" the posters brought to the school.

School officials also denounced the posters, which the school president called part of "a co-ordinated international effort by neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups."

But anonymous discussions on some online forums say the posters were merely a ploy to highlight the "political correctness gone insane" on college campuses.

Similar posters were found at universities in Nova Scotia, Ontario and other parts of Manitoba.

Lori Wilkinson is a professor of sociology at the U of M who specializes in anti-racism. She talked about the posters, the message and how we should react to them with CBC Manitoba's Information Radio host Marcy Markusa on Thursday. Their conversation has been edited for length.

Marcy Markusa: How innocent is that phrase, 'It's OK to be white?'

Lori Wilkinson: It's not remarkable, right? It's quite a clever statement because in and of itself, if you just read it you say, "Oh, it's OK to be white," but the impression, or what the message implies, is that the other part of that sentence that's not there is not being white is not OK — that's the other end of the message.

What do you say to people who suggest that this is somehow just celebrating being white in a world where people may somehow feel discriminated against if they're white?

We have to look at where the posters were placed and who received the messages. So if you look at where this happened at the university, they were heavily postered around the women and gender department, the Native studies department, in places where international students and Indigenous students congregate in large numbers. They weren't posted in places where these people don't tend to be.

How common is the belief that white people are the victim of racism and discrimination?

I wouldn't say it's not uncommon, but I wouldn't say it's common either. People who think that white people are discriminated against are part of a group who have had a long history of being underprivileged themselves. There are another group of people who maybe hasn't been underprivileged, and they believe that society is more or less equal — if you work hard, you get a job and you obey the laws and you pay your taxes, everything will turn out all right. That group of people too maybe doesn't understand how hard it is to get out of poverty and that many white people are poor too.

Why lash out at other groups? 

It's very easy to propagate myths and stereotypes about people who are not like you and so, if you look at who uses the message, "It's OK to be white," these are groups of people that propagate ideas that Western civilization is under threat by immigration, for instance. This is also the group of people who want to use these messages to silence people who are working in diversity, multicultural and multi-faith communities, who are working toward equality.

Can there be prejudice against white people?​

I think there can. I think what we're seeing with these messages is what has been a long time failure by researchers… politicians, by people in power in order to recognize that privilege isn't just about the colour of your skin. There's other ways to be underprivileged in our society.

Some people might think the best response to these kinds of events is to ignore them and not give perpetrators the attention. What's your response to that?

I think the worst thing that we can do is to sit back and do nothing, because it lets this group of people send out this message uncriticized.

What do you think of this online claim that this was merely a trolling campaign designed to expose post-secondary institutions and the media?

We have to be very careful when we talk about these kinds of messages because it's not a simple, "Oh, this is directly racist" — it's unconsciously racist. It gets us talking about these things and gives racist people a little bit of fodder to criticize us, but I think the more we talk about these things and the more people learn, the less often that we face these problems.