“It’s Not OK to be a Nazi”: In Search of Counter-Narratives as an Anti-Alt-Right Strategy

In late January and early February, timed no doubt to coincide with the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the start of Black History month, we began to hear internet-based, anticipatory “chatter” about yet another wave of racist, white supremacist posters on college campuses.

These posters and fliers, which began appearing on campus in significant numbers in Fall 2016, have trafficked in disturbing visual imagery that is often as sexist and homophobic as it is racist and disparaging of immigrants and people of color.  Not only is much of it explicitly anti-black, anti-Islam, and anti-diversity, broadly construed, but it is also “pro-white” in ways that we need to interrogate carefully and confront directly.  This interrogation and confrontation is easiest when the content explicitly calls for the creation of a white ethno-state à la Richard Spencer.  Calls to “reclaim our heritage” and references to “blood and soil” (Blut und Boden, as the original Nazis would put it) are also easier to contextualize historically.

The most problematic of these messages, I contend, is the deliberately simple and seemingly straightforward proclamation: “It’s OK to be White.” On one level, the reasonable answer is: “Of course it is.” But let’s not be too hasty. Implying that the critique of white privilege is automatically an attack on white individuals, such statements not only miss the point, but also produce—and reproduce—a narrative of false victimhood by attempting to erase the historical fact of white privilege. Of course there’s nothing wrong or problematic about any skin color, white skin included. But historically, the only skin color deemed “OK” had been white. Therefore, statements like “It’s OK to be White” articulate a false sense of grievance that is decidedly not “OK.”

Those of us who specialize in critical race theory and the study of whiteness have long insisted that these modes of systemic analyses are about structures and histories and not about individual people: what they feel, what they believe, and the choices that they make.  I often take great pains to make this clear, especially in the undergraduate classroom at our predominantly white institution.  Systems and logics that established and continue to support white dominance can be entirely separate from the personal beliefs and moral choices of individuals classified by society and law as “white.”

While we all bear responsibility to understand and “check” our privilege—whether rooted in race, gender, gender expression, sexuality or class—each of us is also responsible for our own choices. Persuading white students to “choose racism” by stoking grievance and promoting complacency is in fact an admonition to choose and defend whiteness. We need to be clear in our own minds about this, and then assist students in arriving at a critical consciousness and, hopefully, a mode of resistance. It is vital that we find measured ways to respond with pointed critique without alienating young people with hyperbolic denunciations that inadvertently demonize them only on the grounds of an ascribed identity.

Hence: “It’s Not OK to be a Nazi.” This series of posters were produced and hung on a central campus “Posting Wall” as a pre-emptive intervention against the possibility that “It’s OK to be White” fliers would hit campus around the same time.  They did not, although another, albeit smaller, wave of white supremacist detritus did appear, both around campus and in the city of Ann Arbor.  This exercise was instructive nonetheless.  Creating, posting, and then discussing this counter-narrative approach reminded us that humor can be deployed in deadly serious ways, and that levity can be the spoonful of sugar that prepares us for deep reflection.

Charlie Chaplin led the way in this respect; his film The Great Dictator is a guide to the challenges of bringing humor and a critical political message together. Unlike the “It’s Not OK to be a Nazi” posters, Chaplin’s 1940 film was not criticized for stylization and hyperbole, but for the serious and moralizing tone of his character’s final speech.  But 2018 is not 1940, and criticism of anti-racist humor reflects those differences in very meaningful ways, up to and including the charge that humor has become increasingly problematic on contemporary college campuses.  Broad-brush generalizations, moreover, typically elicit much justified criticism.

Among the criticism garnered by the “It’s Not OK to be a Nazi” series was a concern about Poster 4 featuring a tongue-in-cheek PSA on how to identify and avoid Nazis through “Appearance,” “Habitat,” “Reproductive Behavior,” “Natural Enemies,” and “History.”  Some colleagues objected to the geographical references (“Habitat”), observing that limiting white supremacist hate groups to the South and Midwest ignores their equally troubling presence in places like Portland, Oregon where two men were stabbed defending Muslim women under attack by a suspected supremacist. And, as others pointed out, doing so runs the risk of demonizing students and others from rural areas by painting with much too broad of a regional brush. Nazis are indeed everywhere. I would be inclined to alter this section if the group of people I originally collaborated with decided to do a second run:

Habitat: The North American variant is most at home in rural areas of the US south and midwest. Avoids coastal areas and urban centers, recently ventured into college campuses, often via aliases (posters, flyers, dorm room door defacements and “free” hate speech).

Some critics took issue, too, with the references to “Appearance:”

Appearance: Ghastly. Dissatisfied. Angry. Demeanor generally ranges from contained aggression to seething rage. Common physical features include fasho haircut, khaki pants, shirts with collar – preferably flannel or white. In extreme situations, see Charlottesville, the contemporary Nazi has been captured on camera shirtless.

In “Appearance” we wanted to focus on affect and avoid direct reference to facial features and body type (which we skirt closely) as well as racial and ethnic identifiers. But the concern was raised that this still hews too closely to the practice, in Nazi Germany and elsewhere, of dehumanization and extreme “othering” of populations. The reservation expressed in this context, simply put, is that we do not want to become what we are fighting.  I consider this assessment overwrought, but the caution is worth reflecting on.

A few eyebrows were also raised about the use of profanity in Poster 2 (Nazi, noun, Na-Zi. \ ˈnät-sē , ˈnat- \ Pronounced: Total Asshole), and by the discussion of whether it’s OK to Punch a Nazi in Poster 2:  “Also, someone who it may be OK to punch, depending on where you stand on this debatable practice; see also Richard Spencer and the “Punch a Nazi” debate. But we do not recommend this.”  One can almost hear the indignant howls of “that’s not funny” wafting across the Diag.

On the other hand, there was widespread agreement that the section on “Natural Enemies” was effective: “Thinking people, compassionate people, informed people of all backgrounds, religions, races, genders, nationalities and political persuasion.” This is important. While many of the poster sections make fun of Nazis and warn about the dangers of what they represent, others contain an explicit call to human solidarity, and to reason, evidence, and critical thinking. Poster 2 reads:

“The 21st century Nazi will claim to be calm, reasonable and (alt) right-minded, but don’t be fooled. If cornered will spout nonsense about a coming “white genocide” and to advocate for “race war.” A Nazi, in this sense, is not just someone who you don’t agree with!

Similarly, in Poster 1:

Definition: a small minded person gripped by fears of non-white peoples, immigrants, Jews, and large swaths of the human family that they are known to despise. Paranoid and often delusional, the 21st century Nazi attempts to sound reasonable and to use “evidence” and “common-sense” to mask their hatred and bigotry, but don’t be fooled; see also racist troll.

The target in this regard is the “reasonable racism” of the Alt-Right, their appeals to “scientific thinking” about biology and race, and to “evidence” writ large (and wrong).  Several of the posters and fliers that have infected out campus in waves over the past year and a half claim that there are things that our (liberal) university will not teach or credit for ideological reasons (sometimes described as Cultural Marxism) as opposed to factual determinations rooted in history, the natural sciences, sociology, anthropology, and the study of the humanities.

Countering long-discredited notions that undergird and seek to bolster white supremacist ideologies is unfortunately as time-consuming as it is necessary, as Alt-Right and neo-Nazi groups continue to seek to “recruit” on our campus. The “It’s Not OK to Be a Nazi” series is designed to be a simple and cost-effective tactic, easy to reproduce at a moment’s notice. I share all six posters here in hope that they might serve as a useful model for others who want to poke some serious fun at Nazis and the growing presence of the Alt-Right on our campuses.

(For a PDF version of the “It’s Not OK to be a Nazi” poster series, click here.)

Angela D. Dillard is Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education in the College ofLiterature, Science and the Arts (LSA) at the University of Michigan.  She is also the Earl Lewis Collegiate Professor of Afroamerican and African Studies and in the ResidentialCollege. Dean Dillard specializes in American and African-American intellectual history,particularly around issues of race, religion, ideology, and politics — on both the Left and the Right sides of the political spectrum.  The author of Guess Who’s Coming to DinnerNow?: Multicultural Conservatism in America (2001) and Faith in the  City: Preaching Radical Social Change in Detroit (2007), she is currently at work on a book entitled Civil Rights Conservatism on the relationship between the postwar civil rights movement and the rise of the New Right.