By Trevor Hobler
As many people have heard, recently there was an art event scheduled by a Gettysburg College student with a rather controversial poster advertising it. The poster was titled, “Tired of white cis men? Come paint and write about it.” This editorial will be focusing on the backlash the poster received rather than the intention of the event.
The common thing people say in regard to this poster is that it is racist. The argument here is very straightforward, the poster implies that cis-gendered white men are something to be sick of, thus it is racist. People have been saying that the poster would have never gotten approved had the group been anyone other than white cis men. Again, this makes sense in a vacuum, saying anything about an entire race of people would be a harmful generalization. The issue with this argument is that not every race has the same capacity to be victims of racism, white people especially. White people have long run all the institutions in this country, and have historically used that power to ensure that no other racial group has threatened that monopoly of control. There are actions behind racism against Black people for instance that do have real consequences for Black Americans. In America, we see this very obviously with police brutality, where many individual police officers have an implicit bias against Black Americans as a result of racist rhetoric, as well as more institutional issues. This causes Black Americans to be victims of police brutality at disproportionate rates compared to other racial groups, which is obviously a very real impact that these racist policies have. If you were to say that “white people are criminals,” however, you would meet much less resistance, as that is not a stereotype that has been taken into account when it comes to how our society operates. We do not see white people being victimized by institutions on the basis of their race, because, since the founding of this country, white people have been the ones making the rules, specifically white men.
Another issue I see with the hatred this poster is getting is that being “white” is not really something that white people actually identify with. White people have never had the need to develop an identity around their race because it has been historically seen as the default. I put quotes around “white” because our modern notion of whiteness is not actually anything inherent to skin color, but is a deliberate way to treat people, with skin color being used as justification after the fact. Races, as we see them today, are relatively new phenomena in the timeframe of human history; being made to justify chattel slavery by claiming that Black people were inferior based on “biology” that had no actual scientific backing. Racism has just been used against everyone perceived as non-white to justify their inferior treatment by “white” society. Most white people do not actively view themselves through the lens of race, because they do not face resistance for that reason. This is not true for many minority groups, however, as they are often treated poorly strictly based on the color of their skin. The concept of white privilege is nothing new, and it simply boils down to white people having the privilege to ignore the lens of race in their own lives.
There is also the common saying that white Americans do not have a culture to identify themselves with, largely stemming from the historical context of the country’s formation. White people largely came to America voluntarily from Europe, knowing their history and traditions. This allowed white settlers to come to America while retaining said traditions and culture of their previous home. In contrast to this, many Black Americans came to America via the transatlantic slave trade, the process in which Africans were kidnapped from their native homes and sold into slavery in perpetuity in some far-off land they’d never even seen before. A combination of mixing different African cultures together on one plantation and deliberate attempts by slave owners to erase their native cultures resulted in the need for the rise of a new African-American culture.
White people, therefore, do not identify with their race as an aspect of their culture in the same way that other minority groups need to. White people do not need to think about their race when it comes to how they’re going to be treated by the police. Obviously, white people can face hardships and be victims of oppression, but the reason for these hardships is not their race; it is some other factor of their actual identity.
Bringing the focus back to the poster, making white cis men a target of a student event and the poster coverage of the said event is not racist in the way that making it about any other race would be. White people have no reason to take this poster as a personal offense, and calling out white cisgender men is not putting any white person in a spot where they’re going to be in any danger. I am a white cisgender man, and I can tell you that I am not personally offended by the contents of that poster. I do not care about being white; it is not a source of pride or personal happiness for me. I am not losing anything by someone saying that they are “tired of white cis men.” I am lucky enough to be in a position where I do not need to think about that in my day-to-day life, and while I’m not totally sure that the poster does anything productive, I’m willing to say that calling it racist demonstrates a deep misunderstanding of the issue at hand.
The event referred to in this editorial has been canceled.