Graffiti in Stroud Hall Sparks Thoughts About What it Means to be White in Changing Times

By T. Storm Heter

Philosophy Professor

I’m not usually puzzled by the graffiti I find in bathroom stalls. But these words were different.

Someone in the men’s bathroom in Stroud Hall felt the need to tell the world, “It’s okay to be white.”

Who wrote these words? And why?

In the classroom I talk about whiteness a lot.  I talk about my own whiteness and how it informs my teaching, writing and daily life.  I invite discussions about white food, white fashion, white music and white hairstyles. Strangely, I’ve found that people of all backgrounds have an easier time naming examples of black music, food and fashion than naming white equivalents.

For example, we have a name for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), but non-HBCUs are just called “colleges.” Actually, there is a name for white colleges. They are called PWIs, or predominately white institutions.  

The term PWI had to be invented to describe a reality that was invisible to many of us. ESU is a PWI.

But like our county as a whole, ESU is changing rapidly.

Our country is a becoming a “majority-minority” nation.  Whites will number less than 50% of the population by 2050.

New Mexico, California, Texas and Hawaii are already majority-minority states. New York, Phoenix, Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and twenty other cities in the US are already majority-minority.

At the local level the demographics of whiteness are also in flux. Between 2000 and 2010, Bethlehem, PA went from 81% to 76% white. Similarly, Easton went from 78% to 67% white; Allentown, from 72% to 59%. And right here in Monroe County we’ve seen nearly a 20% drop in demographic whiteness.

The ESU campus reflects these national and regional changes.

When I began teaching here twelve years ago, the campus was visibly much whiter, with less than 7% of the students coming from Latinx and African-American communities.    Today our student body is approaching 40% non-white.

The phenomenological effect of this demographic change is that as white people, we are beginning to feel our whiteness in new ways.  We are starting to experience what black and Latinx philosophers have talked about for years—what W.E.B. Du Bois called “double consciousness.”

Double consciousness is the inability to simply feel like “an American.” It’s when we feel defined by our skin color.  It’s when one feels compelled to write, “It’s okay to be white.” For many whites this feeling white is a new and awkward phenomenon.

I am both white and Jewish. Being in the religious minority is sometimes less than comfortable. I’ve been in a room full of people when someone blurted out,

“Well is anyone here Jewish? What is the Jewish opinion on this?” It wasn’t meant as an insult, but I felt like I had sprouted horns.

I hope that the graffiti artist who tagged the Stroud bathroom also expressed his views to his friends, family and teachers.

Confronting what it means to be white in a society deeply scarred by the legacy of white supremacy is a serious task.

The sooner and the more earnestly we start this task the better.

Email T. Storm Heter at:

sheter@lpo-box.esu.edu

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