On White Student Unions


Ryan Williams-Virden

March 20th 2013

For my mental and emotional health I try not to follow the news coming out of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Yet, yesterday, I couldn’t avoid one particular story.

On Friday, March 15th, members of the White Student Union at Towson University challenged a speaker from the Frederick Douglass Republicans. One of them made a statement defending  slave holders saying they provided “food and shelter” for their slaves. The member, Scott Terry, and the founder of the White Student Union, Matthew Heimbach, have since evoked even more controversy due to their refusal to back away from the statements. Scott Terry went on to call slavery a “complicated issue” and said he “can’t make one broad statement that categorically it was evil all the time because that’s not true.” These comments have rightfully garnered media attention. They are offensive and were probably meant to be so.  These comments are not what I would like to focus on. It seems all reasonable people can agree these are ignorant, even stupid, comments. I, instead, would like to focus on the White Student Union and the inherent racism of such an organization.

While you will be hard pressed to find someone in your circle that will argue the merits of slavery, you may find several in your circle that understand, and even support, the creation of a White Student Union, placing it on par with other campus orgs such as the Black Student Union. This mindset demonstrates what Du Bois calls the psychological wages of whiteness and is the point where the privilege allowed whites, via the system of white supremacy, becomes painfully obvious.

The first step to understanding this is not simple and therefore is one that very few actually take: understanding “white.” Today, many lump everyone with a lack of melanin and ancestry from Europe into the category. It is understandable, this is how we are socialized; however, it is also dangerous. For several decades, many who are perceived as white today were anything but. Mick, Honkey, Greaser, Dago, and Guinea are all pejoratives used to racialize Euro-ethnics in this country such as Irish, Italians and Hungarians. These groups only become white when it becomes necessary to maintain the economic interests of the Anglo-Saxon’s running the country. This is not simply a fun fact from history; this history has very real consequences: only those considered white could enjoy the benefits and rights, via government policies and programs, of this country. With this history as context we see “white” is simply a function of social control meant to maintain the social status of White- Anglo-Saxon- Protestants (WASPs). In real ways, it became necessary to become white for social and economic mobility and to obtain material resources. Euro-ethnics did their best to assimilate:  anglicizing their names, losing their accents and languages, straightening their hair and lightening their skin.

Step two for understanding a White Student Union comes naturally from understanding whiteness: understand power. With the material benefits of becoming white came power. With white being a prerequisite for land ownership, and other legal rights, the system quite clearly titled for the benefit of those that fell into this category. As time progressed, and skin color became the only characteristic that delineated race, those privileges built into the system came to be perceived as natural; in short, white folks felt this was how it should be, these were god given rights. Not the least of these is the ability to think of yourself as white, to think of yourself as the upper echelon of humanity, at least according to America’s racial hierarchy. This ability was, and is, defended at any cost. We see it throughout history, whether it’s working class whites siding with slave masters and enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act, or opposing immigration reform and identifying with groups such as the Tea Party; unlike the actual working wages, Du Bois’ wages of whiteness have not stagnated.

It is here that I return to the White Student Union and its members: Mr. Davis and Mr. Heimbach. They are quite clearly grasping tightly to their wages of whiteness. Terry states that he feels the inclusion of people of color in the Republican Party comes at the expense of young whites like himself. Heimbach says “diversity is not a strength,” and that “we’re being displaced from our own country.” They are manifesting the fear that many whites carry silently: that if we truly strive for justice and equality they will lose some of those benefits, privileges, and wages associated with whiteness. What type of privilege does it take to proclaim you are being “displaced from your own country” while standing on the ground of the Indigenous who were actually displaced via genocide? The same type of privilege that keeps that point out of the public discourse, that allows the Occupy movement to “occupy” already occupied land.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to value and honor your culture. The problem is white is not a culture. White is a marker for the privileged and unprivileged. There is no white culture. There is an Irish culture. There is a Greek culture. There is a Polish culture.  There is a German culture. You get the point. White is a marker of power, nothing more. A White Student Union only serves to further institutionalize that power and privilege. It is backlash to the Civil Rights Movement, and all movements for justice, indeed, it is their antithesis. Remember that fellow descendants of Europeans, as we continue to untangle the mess that is race in this country.

2 thoughts on “On White Student Unions

  1. I have some thoughts and maybe they would best be discussed via email. I’m going to try to avoid all hedges and just let it out.

    I agree with you that “White” is a power marker. But what about applying that definition of “White” to Ireland, Greece and Poland? It has to be ethnic/racial/cultural power disparities in those countries too. It has to be a dominant (“White”) culture that writes history in those countries too, right? So to label something as Irish culture may not be fair to, say, underprivileged Irish folks who feel their oppression bans them from claiming that Irish culture. Maybe that is what you were getting at and I just didn’t read thoroughly enough. So if you could expand on that, I would love to continue that conversation.

    Also, I think it is untruthful to say that White is not a culture. After all, it’s a lot of people in America who don’t identify with their ethnic background and instead may claim American identity. Now, it goes to say that to claim American identity is to inherently and perhaps unknowingly claim that White power marker. It is also dangerous to do this because of the idea of the White default. Parallel to the Ireland example, it’s also a lot of people whose oppression bars them from being able to claim that American identity, whether they be White or People of Color.

    However, I say that White culture can exist because I am thinking about punk rock. Someone told me that to be punk is to deconstruct and reject White privilege. Maybe the act of rejecting White privilege is only a reinforcement of that privilege. But I think it has to be ways for White people who don’t identify with their ethnic backgrounds, or the dominant culture in their respective country/community, to claim some kind of culture without appropriating it from someone else. And I think it has to be a way to claim a White culture without coming off as a White Student Union or the KKK. And punk rock may not be an exemplar in the eyes of the general public (it’s sweaty, it’s loud and sometimes it’s violent), but neither is hip hop/rap music and that is definitely a positive piece of Black culture.

    Right now I’m reaching, I’m grasping, I’m touching something with my fingertips, but I haven’t quite gripped whatever it is I’m reaching for. I would really like to continue this conversation because I’ve been reading a lot and internalizing, but I haven’t quite yet found a way to talk about it.

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