U of M president David Barnard released a statement Friday condemning acts of racism after posters with the phrase “It’s OK to be white” were discovered on the Fort Garry campus last week.
The posters were displayed on white paper and placed throughout campus sometime overnight Oct. 31. The posters were mainly concentrated in the faculty of arts, including the Isbister, Fletcher Argue and Tier buildings.
Barnard’s email to students and staff came more than 24 hours after the posters were first discovered Thursday morning.
The women’s and gender studies department received the same message via fax, signed by “A Wyatt. Mann.” An UMSU release initially reported the fax was sent to the Native studies department.
Barnard denounced the action as part of a “coordinated international effort by neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups.”
“The university has removed those posters that have been identified and security services is already investigating this incident,” he said. “Anyone identifying additional locations is asked to bring them to the attention of security services as well.”
Campus security has footage of at least one person in a costume hanging the posters, but is unable to identify the individual.
The president also called upon faculty, staff and students to “fight back against ignorance with knowledge.”
Some students have said the signage is indicative of a dark facet of campus culture, including the Indigenous student co-ordinator for the nursing students’ association River Steele Guillas.
“Currently, I do not feel safe,” he said.
“I do not feel welcomed.”
Guillas said the perpetrators behind the incident intended to send a message to the student body.
“That poster was put there by neo-Nazis and white supremacists simply for the purpose of eliciting a response from people of colour or minorities,” he said.
“And going after people who are vulnerable like that — they’re race-baiting.”
Campus community speaks out
UMSU released a statement Thursday calling on students to act against acts of racialized violence and president Jakob Sanderson called the event “extremely troubling.”
Noting the university is located on traditional Treaty 1 territory and is home to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, he said the U of M needs to take a leading role in advocating for racialized students.
“It is incumbent upon us to take a leadership position, I think, within this country, as a campus that is committed to equity, to diversity and to inclusion,” he said.
“And to being a trailblazer, if you will, for that message. So I think that it is a broader issue, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a responsibility to take a lead on that on our own campus.”
Sanderson said UMSU receives complaints from racialized students feeling unsafe on campus “often,” and incidents like these exacerbate those concerns.
“It’s been clear since the establishment of this country that it is OK to be white, but what has been perpetuated is that it’s not OK – and not preferable, certainly – to be Indigenous, to be black, to be racialized in any way,”
“So to go around defending this by saying ‘Well, it is OK to be white’ is frankly a redundant, unnecessary and hurtful statement.”
Head of the department of Native studies Cary Miller called the incident “disappointing” and said she believes the Indigenous campus community was not the sole target.
“Certainly with it coming to women’s [and gender] studies, there’s also a gendered piece of it […] which I found particularly concerning,” she said.
Miller called the posters a “defensive statement” and said focusing the message in faculty of arts buildings is indicative of a broad message.
“We have all the different ethnic studies in [the faculty of] arts, so in targeting all of the arts buildings in the extent that they did, that’s where I’m suggesting it’s a wider statement,” she said.
Miller added that a direct response to the incident could be putting up additional security cameras within the Native studies department, especially considering the building’s proximity to public streets.
“Given how unsettling this has been for our students and our colleagues, I think it would be helpful to have those cameras in place,” she said.
Alt-right groups reaching Canadian campuses
The poster campaign has roots in the U.S., where it originated on a message board on anonymous online forum 4chan.
After similar posters with the phrase “Don’t apologize for being white” were taken down from a Boston campus in 2017, members of the message board developed a phrase that would be, as one commenter put it, “linguistically harder to subvert.”
Plans included putting up the posters on Halloween – as to guarantee anonymity with costumes – avoiding further vandalism and using an identical, simplistic font and style.
The idea has caught on outside of the U.S., with Canadian alt-right online communities posting the guidelines and encouraging followers to take part in the campaigning.
Stickers with the phrase were found near the University of Winnipeg campus in 2017.
Similar posters were found this week in Halifax, New Westminister and Ottawa.
Another stated goal is to foster distrust in journalists and the media. Some 4chan posters predicted the response to the signs by news sources would result in white people feeling alienated or angry.
Since Halloween, alt-right Canadian subreddits have been posting the media responses to the signage with titles insinuating media, as once poster commented, “took the bait” by reporting the events.
The phrase “It’s OK to be white” has been co-opted by the alt-right in other formats. In November 2017, alt-right blogger Lucian Wintrich was arrested after a lecture at the University of Connecticut, titled “It’s OK to be white,” ended in a physical altercation.
Moving past hate
Student response to the posters has been swift.
Conversation series 13 Fires Winnipeg, a group focused on “building a more racially-inclusive Winnipeg,” already has planned a discussion period Sunday to work toward a “creative response.”
An email was sent out to the Manitoban from an encrypted email address Friday evening with the subject “I put up the ‘It’s Okay To Be White’ flyers at U of M.”
The author, who claims to be a student of several years, provides no proof of this claim. They dismiss accusations of being connected to white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizations as “patently false.” They also deny sending any faxes.
Guillas said the university administration has a responsibility to act directly in response to this incident.
“I feel it is the responsibility of those in power here, on these lands, to do something about it – and they can, and they should,” he said.
Guillas said he believes it is time for activist groups to counter hate groups by engaging in direct action.
“These people have the mindset, they truly believe that it is their right […] to harm others,” he said.
“And that needs to end. And it will end. The end is near for that.”