When “OK” is not OK

Posters with a slogan tied to white supremacy were recently posted and then removed from Ferris’ campus

Article by: Grant Siddall and Ry Rodriguez | News Editor and Torch Reporter

On the evening of Halloween, Ferris experienced unauthorized racially charged posters displayed around campus that read, “It’s Okay to be White.”

One professor took a picture of these posters and sent them to Ferris Professor of humanities Gary Huey who contacted the Torch.

“I agree that it is white supremacists doing this, and they are trying to soften the message … the [supremacists] think their rights are going away so that’s why we saw these posted, I believe,” Huey said.

Ferris professor as well as founder and director of Ferris’ Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia David Pilgrim echoed Huey’s comments about an attempt to soften the message of white supremacism being promoted by the posters.

“One of the things I learned early on [about the slogan ‘It’s OK to be white’] is that it was an attempt to provoke, but not in the usual way. By that I mean, if you have a Nazi flyer that’s an obvious sort of white supremacist provocation. You see a Nazi flyer up and you ask yourself ‘What’s the community going to do in response to that?’” Pilgrim said.

Pilgrim said “It’s Okay to be White” posters are more nuanced in their approach to promoting white supremacy than more direct messages such as Nazi propaganda.

“The goal was that you’ll put up a statement that in and of itself is innocent. It’s obviously OK to be white, it’s OK to be black, to be brown, whatever, and even though those of us who work in this area know that that’s a slogan that was created — if not created certainly appropriated by — white supremacists groups, the casual person looking at it just thinks ‘Yeah, what’s wrong with that?’” Pilgrim said. “So the campaign to use that tries to play on the idea of ‘We’re going to provoke a response from a university where if they say this is racist and hate-driven then the casual person is going to say, ‘oh my goodness, we’ve moved so far to the left in this country that we can’t even say it’s OK to be white anymore without it sounding like hate speech,’ and if you don’t say something then it looks like you don’t care about a welcoming and inclusive campus.”

Pilgrim compared those who put up the posters to “internet trolls” trying to stir up trouble — but in real life — and he added that people shouldn’t fall for the provocation and instead “say we recognize what you’re doing and here at Ferris we don’t tolerate that but we’re also not going to fall for [it].”

One student claimed feeling uneasy after hearing about and seeing the poster.

“I didn’t know this even happened, it made me uncomfortable when I first heard about what happened and saw the poster,” Ferris architecture freshman James Rudnicki said.

These posters have become more common around America in the last several years and have recently shown up in cities and on campuses across the country. Universities have taken different approaches to handling the matter.

Eastern Tennessee’s president personally released a statement saying how ‘disgusted’ he was, and Western Connecticut University even involved their Federal Bureau of Investigation state division on the matter.

Ferris’ news services and social media manager Sandy Gholston said the university has an official statement prepared, but in lieu of releasing it, they preferred to speak with the Torch about the matter.

Gholston also said while Ferris’ Department of Public Safety was notified and called to the scene and documented the postings, they determined that the act was not a criminal one though if those responsible are discovered and are students, they may be referred to the office of student conduct.

As the posters become more of a national trend some have argued that from a legal standpoint restricting them is an infringement of freedom of speech.

A Ferris student had their own beliefs about people’s freedom of speech.

“I think freedom of speech is important. We are like a box of crayons; we might be all different, but we are still made up of the same things so don’t try to put others down. If they wanted to do this, they should have taken a more mature route to express their message” Ferris welding engineering and technology freshman Kyle Drouillard said.

Pilgrim added that legally there may not be much that can be done but that the message is more about ethics.

“I think our campus would benefit from having a month where we talk about ‘What is free speech and is it really free?’ Because I think we benefit when we engage our campus in hard discussions but I also think it would be an opportunity for people to be educated about what’s legal and illegal. By the way, just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s ethical. I sometimes think the legal bar is a low bar.”

Pilgrim also said that he believes these posters and their message show the need for more dialogue on race at Ferris.

“We always need to be having discussions about race, race relations and racism because if we were an informed campus, and I don’t think you’re going to know everything as an informed campus, but if you are an informed campus then you’ve laid the foundation for discussion when things like this happen,” Pilgrim said.

Pilgrim said that once discussions about incidents such as this are had, it reminds people that we are better as an institution for promoting such meaningful conversations about race.

When asked about if he thought the university would be willing to take a step towards opening these discussions Pilgrim said, “It’s going to be willing to take it because I’m going to make it happen. I’m going to do it.”

In the time immediately following the event, some felt the lack of an immediate public statement showed complacency from the university.

“When there is silence it makes me feel alienated and isolated, but nobody has any empathy … and what [Ferris] has is an incident which is aimed at threatening minority students”, Ferris’ Professor and director of the Institute for the Study of Academic Racism Barry Mehler said. “This is serious business and it needs to be addressed … instead of bringing in the FBI to find DNA on the scotch tape [Ferris] should just address the matter publicly.”

When initially contacted, DPS, the Office of Student Conduct and the Office of Multicultural Student Services declined to comment.