Since late November, there has been a surge of discussion about the appearance of white student union Facebook pages branded with the logos of universities in the US and recently in Australia.
Universities have been quick to condemn these unions on the basis that their existence is not officially recognised by the universities and do not reflect the views of the universities.
Since these Facebook pages have cropped up seemingly overnight, there has been debate about whether or not these unions are a hoax encouraged by neo-Nazi white supremacist groups such as The Daily Stormer and created by people who are not students at the universities or are organised by students who are enrolled at the universities.
Rather than debate the sources or legitimacy of these white student unions, it is more useful to think about why these unions have gained some traction amid considerable opposition and to unpack some common assumptions underlying the groups’ key messages.
The first assumption is that anti-racism simply means being against white people.
In the US, a reaction to a Black Lives Matter student protest at the University of Illinois spurred the creation of the Illni White Student Union (WSU).
In a post on the Illni WSU page in response to a Black Lives Matter student protest, white students were told:
“Feel free to send in pictures you take of any black protesters on the quad so we know who anti-whites are.”
A key misunderstanding is that an anti-racism stance, which is the stance of movements such as Black Lives Matter against the “state violence” of black people, is anti-white. As stated on the Black Lives Matter website:
“When we say Black Lives Matter, we are broadening the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state. We are talking about the ways in which black lives are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity.”
The assumption is that the Black Lives Matter movement, in drawing attention to the systemic racial inequalities, countless injustices, daily humiliation, incarceration and deaths faced disproportionately by black people, is automatically anti-white.
What these movements are protesting against is not individual white people but the social injustices perpetuated by a system that privileges white people in countless ways. These are not limited to what most people think of when they hear the word “privilege” - money.
In other words, it is about anti-whiteness, not anti-white people.
Here white refers not simply to people with white skin but to a shifting and contextually specific social category that includes people who are unfairly and systematically advantaged and thus complicit in these systems, simply because those with particular racialised features such as lighter skin colour are positioned as the social and cultural norm, which is also a position of power.
Students across university campuses are speaking up against racism, notably at the University of Missouri and Yale University. This shines a bright light on these injustices and can make people in privileged positions uncomfortable.
Due to feelings of guilt and discomfort, some people can become hardened in their views and become defensive. This is what is happening to a certain extent with the appearance of these white student unions and their reactions to criticism.
Another common assumption is that drawing attention to people who are systematically disadvantaged and marginalised means that white students are being denied a white identity and therefore should bolster and assert pride in their white identities in response.
In an interview with an administrator for the University of Queensland White Student Union, the administrator explained:
“What we hope to do with this page is allow white people to know that it is not racist to have pride in your race, heritage or origins like some may believe.”
Statements such as these imply that white identity is simply labelled “racist”. However, there is a difference between white identities and white supremacy.
To be proud to be white is not to deny the multiple ethnic and cultural backgrounds that white people may identify with.
What movements such as Black Lives Matter are speaking out against is the assertion and continued domination of white supremacy.
Overall, social phenomena such as the white student unions are part of a longer history of systemic racism.
It is also part of a misunderstanding and denial of how contemporary social inequalities are grounded in relations of power that will persist unless, collectively, people from all walks of life, but particularly those in positions of power, take a stand against an unjust system.
Rather than simply shutting down these groups, universities need to engage these difficult conversations as well as confront their own racist and exclusionary histories to support the younger generation to fight together for meaningful social change.