I don’t think the only problem with Richard Spencer is that he is a white supremacist. The problem with Spencer is that he provides a bogus answer to a legitimate and enigmatic question academia has left unexplored: What does it mean to be white in 21st century America?
The position of white people today is a confusing one — we want to celebrate our past, but we feel morally compelled to reject it. I am a distant relative of Robert E. Lee; how should I feel about that? To me, this is a question worth discussing. The structure of our culture’s discussion of race, however, is framed in such a way that white people are often not participants. As far as I know, every college class dealing with race is taught from a nonwhite perspective; forums on race are hardly ever led by white people.
Nonwhite perspectives are essential; I submit, though, the way we have framed the discussion of race reinforces the myth that white people are not affected by race, which is self-defeating. If we can only discuss race from a black or Hispanic perspective, this silently tells me that race is not a part of my life. Privilege, though, is an experience of race. Why is this not an experience worth exploring?
The blame does not fall only on universities or on our culture. White people do not have a place in the race conversation because, in large part, we don’t want to join. White people tend to bristle at the subject of racism or privilege. The reasons for this would require a separate column much longer than 660 words. It is a massive and frustrating problem, and I think Spencer seems to embody the consequences of white people’s apathy.
He attempts to answer the unaddressed question: What does being white mean for white people today? The problem is that his philosophy is uncontested within the white community. He is the only white person I know of who is trying to help white people make sense of their position today. While I was writing this column, I thought about James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry — African-American authors whose work explored the way racism affected black people. I tried to think about white authors who did the same, but I couldn’t think of any, and that’s the problem. We need the emergence of white people who have a racial conscience, who can teach whites how to reconcile our past and present and how racism has sadly benefited our existence in America. The effort to supplant Spencer’s ideas has to start within the white community.
I think Spencer has benefited from the longstanding silence of white people, who, because of this silence, mostly believe that race is absent from their lives. Affirmative Action, or Black Lives Matter, make no sense to a person whose worldview excludes race. It is as confusing as a scientist witnessing water being turned into wine. Spencer is a consoling presence to those who reject race as an integral feature of others’ experiences of the world. I, too, want consolation. I don’t want to be told I am a privileged monster by a “social justice warrior.” It makes a tough pill to swallow even tougher. To me, the solution is what I mentioned earlier: Leaders need to rise up in the white community, with the purpose of showing their own how we can accept and live with the harsh truths of racism, hopefully in a gentler, more accessible way.
Paradoxically, there is no public space for white people to make sense of their disillusionment, yet white people have done nothing to carve out a public space for themselves. Spencer, though, wants to accomplish both of these things. Until either the university reframes their approach to race, or white people acknowledge the existence of privilege, Spencer and his followers will endure.
Scott Stinson is a UF English junior. This is a guest column.