A pretty girl with blond hair and blue eyes stares blankly from the poster. Scrawled across her white skin are some bold statements and questions:
“Is WHITE skin really FAIR skin?”
“We don’t experience the daily disadvantages – the looks, the fear, the hassles – that thrive in the unspoken work of WHITE ENTITLEMENT. And that’s UNFAIR.”
The poster in question is part of a controversial new advertising campaign, sponsored by the University of Minnesota, Duluth, plus a host of other charities and advocacy organizations like the Young Women’s Christian Association and The League of Women Voters.
The aim of this campaign? “To raise awareness about white privilege in our community,” the unfaircampaign.org website explains. “To provide resources for understanding and action, and facilitate dialogue and partnership that result in fundamental, systemic change towards racial justice.”
The challenge at the end of each poster or commercial: “If you see racism, SPEAK UP. Break the silence.”
Well, many people are breaking the silence – claiming that the only racism the campaign highlights is that of the people who created it – so many, in fact, it appears that the campaign has managed to achieve the exact opposite of what it intended to do.
For example, the Unfair Campaign’s 30-second PSA has so far garnered 421 “likes” compared to 5,717 “dislikes” on YouTube. That’s 94%, and illustrates that the controversial message does not resonate as intended with its intended audience.
The growing backlash against the campaign was reported by The Examiner, who claimed: “It turns out white Americans don’t like anti-white hate speech. They don’t like being told how they are evil and vile, and how their lifestyle is exploitative and racist.”
“The ad campaign’s core message is very difficult to distinguish from undiluted racism,” claims Mytheos Holt, on Glenn Beck’s inflammatory website The Blaze.
But is that true?
Well, look at some of the messages from the ad campaign itself:
“You don’t judge me before you know me,” this poster claims, despite doing exactly the same of every white person who reads it.
“We’re lucky that people see us, not a color,” this poster claims, despite the fact that the entire campaign is based on doing exactly that.
The sad fact is, the Unfair Campaign doesn’t combat racism – it perpetuates it.
It reinforces the concept that people exist not as individuals, but as homogenous, demographic lumps defined by the color of their skin. Ultimately, saying that “all whites have privilege” is no different than saying “all Asians are good at math.” It’s a totally racist accusation and one that often has very little bearing on reality.
And it’s not just those on the far right who feel this way.
One of the students of the University of Minnesota, Duluth, emailed Chancellor Black to argue:
“This campaign is drawing awareness to factors that we might otherwise not pay attention to. It's creating a gap between people and it's only making people more racist on both sides.”
Instead of eliminating racism, the campaign encourages it, creating resentment amongst both whites and minorities and leading to more friction, instead of less.
So, yes, the ad campaign is racist. But that’s not the only reason I hate it.
I also hate it because it represents much of what’s wrong with discussions and accusations of “privilege” in the first place. It’s pointless.
Having spent a decade in the fast-paced world of advertising, the first thing that offended me about the Unfair Campaign (aside from its explicit racism) was the fact that it did not have an effective call to action.
What was the aim? What did it intend to accomplish?
Most commercials convince you to do something – like buy a new brand of coffee, or shampoo. Similarly, most public service announcements convenience you to do something too – eat more vegetables, give up smoking or “clunk, click, every trip.”
But the Unfair Campaign? It’s a dud.
What does it ask people to do? Well, if they’re white, the answer appears to be: “feel guilty.”
Which is my problem with the entire “privilege” argument in the first place.
There’s no doubt that being born white has certain privileges, but the solution to ending “white privilege” is not to make people “aware” of it. It’s not to imply that white people should feel guilty of racism merely for the “crime” of being white.
The truth is; racism will only end when we quit focusing on people’s skin color, as this offensive ad campaign does, and treat them as individuals instead.
And for the most part, we do. In fact, one of the failures of the Unfair Campaign is that it exists in an era of race relations from which most of America has moved on. As President Obama says in his book The Audacity of Hope: “White guilt has largely exhausted itself in America,” which means it’s no longer an effective “hook” to base an advertising campaign on.
And ultimately, that’s why the Unfair Campaign is a bad idea. It’s shitty advertising, it’s an offensive message and it’s something the University of Minnesota should be ashamed to have their name attached to.
But worst of all – the most cardinal of capital sins in advertising – is that it just won’t work.