Hating Whites Online: Sarah Jeong’s Tweets and Anti-White Racism

“Oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men.”

This statement, along with a number of similar postings, was tweeted in 2014, by Sarah Jeong, who has recently been hired to the New York Times editorial board. Her appointment has been greeted by a predictable firestorm of protest, but she’s also received a surprising amount of support, mostly from commentators on the social justice left, that branch of the left which is heavily influenced by identity politics, standpoint epistemology, critical race theory, and intersectionality. As a staunch believer in free speech, I will defend both Jeong’s right to tweet whatever she wishes and the Times’ freedom to hire whomever they please, though I also fear this decision will damage the publication’s credibility. But I’m not going to focus primarily on Jeong as an individual here—I am more interested in the wider implications of the double standards that allow so many to condemn racism against people of color and defend it, when directed at white people.

 I’ll examine two of the most common arguments presented by those who maintain that Jeong’s tweets were not racist. First, that racism towards white people is justified because of the historical and structural inequalities which have benefited white people in America and allowed them to oppress people of color. And, secondly, that this kind of speech cannot be considered racism, because its intent is simply to signal allegiance to the cause of social justice, and that “jokes” about white people are just an intrinsic part of the rhetoric of those who want to help bring about racial equality.

Structures and Individuals

 When we are trying to improve society as a whole, it’s important to look at trends and averages. Sociologists can provide statistics which demonstrate which groups are experiencing disproportionate hardship and ill treatment. This helps us devise policies designed to ensure equal opportunities and fair treatment for everyone and to make society more equitable. We can then monitor how different groups are faring, to see whether our policies are working or having unintended adverse consequences. Historians can explain why some groups are more disadvantaged than others and can trace the root causes of inequality and discrimination. We can also chart structural racism—i.e. uncover the ways in which our societies are, accidentally or purposefully, designed to make things more difficult for specific groups. We can look at how attitudes towards different groups have been formed and try to challenge the assumptions made about them. Tackling structural racism is important work.

But we should not forget that society is also a collection of individuals. The reason why many of us want to challenge structural racism and trace the historical bases of racist attitudes is because we care about human beings as individuals. Our aim is to achieve a society in which every person is accorded equal rights and treated with equal dignity and respect. Many on the social justice left have lost sight of that aim. They can’t see the trees for the forest.

Instead, they speak and act as if this were a zero-sum game, a power struggle between groups, in which one group’s gain will be another’s loss. In this vision, the formerly dispossessed groups are fighting to overthrow the oppressor group. It’s people of color against whites. In her many tweets on white people, Jeong never qualifies her words, never specifies that she means racist white people. This slippage is sinister. And it reflects a much more widespread phenomenon. The problem, we are often told, is “white privilege,” “white fragility,” “white tears,” or even just “white people” full stop. The common element here is not racism, but whiteness.

We are told to question and challenge the views of “white people.” But this makes little sense. White people are not a monolith. They have a wide range of opinions. And many of them are themselves on the social justice left and completely committed to the cause of anti-racism. In fact, I often encounter white people telling the world—at some length—not to listen to what white people have to say.

The Dangers of Tribalism

This rhetoric also plays right into the hands of the far right. They do believe that this is about a historical struggle between races, a fight between white people and people of color, in which there can be only one victor. And they have chosen the other team. I’m not blaming the excesses of the social justice left for the rise of the far right. Those who are committed to far-right ideologies have usually been influenced by the crude us-and-them thinking and racial determinism of fascism. They have based their ideology on a historically illiterate and scientifically shallow view of themselves as the superior “race.” But an ideology alone will rarely inspire people to join an extremist movement. We humans generally respond more strongly to emotional appeals. The far right runs on fear—irrational, exaggerated but very real fear—of being taken over, outnumbered, attacked. Every time someone publicly states that they hate white people, and are applauded by many on the left, it fuels that fear. Extremism on one side increases extremism on the other.

 It’s telling that, in India, where the far right currently poses an imminent threat, racist and bigoted rhetoric is much less common as a leftist political strategy. Perhaps this is also because of the fundamental lesson recent Indian history teaches us: if you want to find reasons to hate a group of people of a specific color, caste, or creed, you can. Every group has been guilty of terrible acts. During Partition, both Hindus and Muslims committed the most terrifying atrocities: children were burned alive, women were gang raped, villages were torched, entire trainfulls of passengers were chopped into a bloody pulp. It was always possible to look at the other side and say “they are evil; look at what they did; they deserve to die.” This created a cycle of violence, during which over a million Indians killed each other: a horrifying demonstration of our human tendency towards blind allegiance to tribalism.

When you paint a group as a dominant oppressor people, you stoke hatred and justify vengeance. This rhetoric is used to excuse much of the current violence against Muslims in India. The Hindu far right describe Muslims as the descendants of invaders, the inheritors of the Mughal conquerors, who—in Hindutva’s incomplete and biased version of history—exploited, ravaged and victimized a peaceful Hindu population. Similarly, the white far right describe Muslims as a wave of militant extremists who threaten to swamp Europe, outbreed the natives and—once they have the upper hand—impose their retrograde religion on them through threats of jihadist terror. Neither group see them as human.

False Equivalences and Double Standards

Many people have argued that anti-white racism is a non-issue, so trivial in its consequences compared with other historical manifestations of racism that we shouldn’t be talking about it at all. There is some truth to that argument. No one I’ve encountered on the social justice left has been advocating violence against white people. White people are not an endangered minority in the West. Even if we assume that people who make statements like Sarah Jeong’s genuinely feel intense loathing towards whites—which is unproven—they are probably not in a position to act on that hatred in ways that would impact white people on a grand scale.

I agree that racism towards minorities is a far more threatening social phenomenon, by definition. When people in positions of real power voice or endorse—or even just fail to condemn—racism or bigotry against minority groups, the situation can become grave. I am genuinely concerned by Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric about Muslims, Mexicans, and others, and even more so by Modi’s endorsement of some vile anti-Muslim bigots within his own party. The majority have force of numbers on their side. If enough of them are racists, they can coalesce into mobs, they can physically intimidate and threaten minorities, they can even, if the situation becomes endemic, use the police, army, and courts to strip them of their rights, to brutalize, imprison, exile, kill. So why am I talking about racism against whites? For two reasons.

First, it is the one sticking point when I try to convince people that racism is wrong and that we must treat people as individuals and judge them, not by their skin color, but on a case-by-case basis. When I decry racism towards other groups, fellow leftists and liberals agree with me. If I tell them racism against whites is wrong, they demur. If there were a consensus that sentiments like Sarah Jeong’s are racist, I wouldn’t have written this article. I don’t consider the tweets, in themselves, of much importance. What worries me is how strongly people are defending this flavor of bigotry.

Secondly, the attempts to justify statements like Jeong’s as an exception to the general rule about racism, and to sneakily suggest that it’s OK in this case are damaging, for both strategic and moral reasons. If we want to combat racism, the only way to convince people to join us is to be clear, consistent, and honest. Blatant double standards will only alienate anyone who has a sense of fairness. But it’s OK when we do it simply won’t wash. And, more importantly, we will have abandoned one of our key principles: that every human being is of equal worth, no matter what the color of her skin. If the left’s slogan ever becomes We Hate White People, or It’s OK to be Racist Against Some People most white people will vote against the left or abstain from voting altogether. And so will I.

Word Games

One excuse I frequently hear for anti-white racism is that it isn’t actually racism because racism means “power plus prejudice.” This is nonsense. Words acquire meanings through the mutual agreement of a large number of speakers of the language concerned. You cannot change the meaning of a word in common use by simply publishing an article in an academic journal, giving a talk, or otherwise announcing that the meaning has now been altered by fiat. Even if English lacked a precise term for hating or despising someone on the basis of their race it would still be a real phenomenon. Luckily, however, it does not. Most people who attempt to redefine the word racism do so because they want to be racist with impunity. We should resist this casuistry. The word has strong and ugly connotations—and rightly so. This habit of mind needs to be named and shamed, whenever we encounter it, not just in an institutional context. Attempting to stir up racist feeling is never harmless. Racism of every kind—including anti-white racism—can be tremendously hurtful and damaging in families and workplaces, and sours everyday interpersonal relationships.

Some are also arguing that Jeong and others don’t actually hate white people. By making statements like the one quoted at the beginning of this essay, they are simply signaling their membership of the social justice left. I can believe this, especially given that so many of those spouting anti-white rhetoric are themselves white. It’s become part of the in-group code. Some defend statements like “Cancel White People” as all just a joke, a bit of harmless fun. These arguments are very similar to those made by the alt/far right, who often claim that their SS costumes are just cosplay; their gas the Jews jokes and oven memes are just for amusement. They’re simply trolling; they’re not sincere.

I am unconvinced in both cases. A statement that someone sincerely racist would have been just as likely to make in exactly the same tone, manner and context is probably not a joke (jokes rely on comic hyperbole, irony, and incongruity). If you simply make repeated statements like “white people are scum,” you can reasonably expect people to take you at your word, just as you can if you assert that “Jews control the media.” Trying to wriggle out of responsibility afterwards by claiming you were actually joking is disingenuous and unpersuasive. This kind of trolling also muddies the issues, debases political discourse, and makes the left appear untrustworthy.

I often hear that people who object to this kind of rhetoric are just “triggered white people” who have had their “feelings hurt.” This is the left-wing mirror image of the right’s tendency to say outrageous things simply to “trigger the libs.” It’s facile attention seeking and it’s a bogus rebuke anyway. People’s feelings are often hurt if you tell them you hate all their kind. That’s normal. Making racist statements in order simply to hurt people’s feelings is not something to be proud of: it’s the act of a bully. This argument is also a gross oversimplification. Many of those spouting anti-white rhetoric are white people themselves and many of those annoyed, frustrated, or offended by it are people of color. Anyone with integrity opposes racism—no matter whom that racism is directed against.

For the record, I am mixed race. I don’t fit into a neat white versus non-white dichotomy. I won’t join in with performative racism of any kind. I won’t endorse trolling. I won’t provide cover for bullies or spout racist slogans about any group. I will continue to speak out, loud and clear, in favor of a universal liberal humanist approach, in which a person’s worth is not determined by their skin color. I know I’m not alone in this. Join us.

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30 comments

  1. Bravo, Iona! Thank you for your thoughtful analysis of a disturbing, and seemingly growing trend. I have long considered myself to be a Democrat, liberal, and progressive, and I now find myself concerned with how to distinguish myself from the so-called “social justice” folks. Racism is never ok. We’ve fought racism against Blacks; we must also fight racism against Whites.

  2. What gets me with the argument to conflate structural power relationship and race-based contempt or hatred is that the proponents think of themselves as superiorly sophisticated while they only make the definition more complex in order to enable their simplistic Manichean world view with only two categories of perpetrators and victims nicely delineated along skin colors.

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  3. Excellent article Iona.

    The only addition I’d make is to say the whole majority/minority issue isn’t as simple as people make it out to be. Power doesn’t simply exist on 1 scale. Power also exists at the state level, at the city level, and at the level of the local neighborhood.

    If a wealthy white man is walking down a street at night and a group of black men with a gun jump him, the institutional and political influence of white people means absolutely nothing in that situation. Yet the hatred directed towards the white person might well mean he ends up dead.
    A great example of this is the grooming gang scandal in the UK, where a group of muslim men committed mass rape against young british girls, and on several occasions explicitly claimed to be targeting white girls specifically. Muslims were a minority in the town in which that occurred and they’re a minority in the country. And yet you have thousands of victims of their prejudice.
    If power was only something that operated at the national demographic level, incidents like this should simply be impossible.

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    1. This scandal in the UK revealed a something scary: employees of social services and authorities have missed the point mentioned by Iona and what modern UK is supposed to be built on. They failed to stop a group of racist predators, because they didn’t want to look racist. So they became.

  4. Iona, thank you for this beautifully written, wonderfully informed and balanced (in the sense of logical truth) essay. I, too, was disappointed in the Times, not for deciding to appoint Jeong to their editorial board (this is their prerogative, obviously), but for not using the opportunity of her hire to actually address head-on, the issues surrounding race and racism in the media, in our language, in our behavior — in exactly the way that you’ve done here.

    The Times had the opportunity, and really, as the nation’s paper of record, the responsibility, to set a high bar calling for ethical and dignified treatment of *all* people, regardless of color, origin, etc., echoing King’s indelible reference to “the content of their character”. Instead, they sought to cast her remarks as defensible *and* made in regret. No, this is an inconsistent and weak response, and immediately makes me suspicious of their motives. Either they didn’t perform due diligence in reviewing her social media history (unfathomable for a major media organization), or they saw this as a facile way to increase readership via outrage and division, in the exact same way that Trump exploits the press through Twitter. Either way, it’s disappointing, and more so because of the way this incident will be exploited by the right, as you’ve described here.

    I wish I could have read your essay in the Times. Sorry for the windy response, but thank you again.

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  5. Thank you for this article Iona.

    I have been moderate left too over recent years but feel more and more alienated by the hostility taking place. When I adress it, I am shunned and attacked. Since I cant identify with the right-wing either, this has become a political existential crisis. Just during last year or so. And as a male I feel deeply saddened by the attitude of both Sarah Jeong and the NYTimes. We built the left for tolerance, not for this kind of prejudice.

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    1. Oh, me too for sure. I’ll never go right-wing, especially with Trump leading it. In fact, for most of the election cycle, I was very much a “both candidates suck” kind of guy… until Trump’s tweet following the Pulse nightclub shooting. Before even offering condolences, he immediately made it about Radical Islam and congratulated himself for “being right.” I was appalled, and that was the final straw. It swung me in Hillary’s direction.

      Now, whenever a shooting occurs by a white person, out come the thinkpieces saying stuff like “When we talk about mass shootings, we’re talking about white men,” and “we don’t have a guns problem, we have a white people problem.” And I’m just like… what the hell!? Is it okay to stereotype people, or is it not okay? Make up your damn minds.

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      1. I would like to respectfully add a couple of counterpoints.

        1) Islam is beyond question a terrifyingly homophobic religion. Depending on whose count you go by between 8 and 12 Islamic countries make homosexuality a crime punishable by death. Trump is an odious human being but by denying the problem the left puts him in the position of truth teller–a hell of a thing for a career huckster, if you ask me.

        2) Blacks make up only 13% of the population but, and this is true, literally commit more than half the murders; an utterly staggering statistic. Since the vast majority of murderers are male that statistic is even worse than it looks.

        Trying to discuss reality w/o coming off as a bigot–now there’s a chore!

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  6. Excellent article. The problem with directing the language of hate towards a group is that the mere existence of the group becomes your problem. How do you solve this problem? There is no way you can solve the problem by reforming individual members of the group. Even if you reform all of them, the group will still exist.

    The Identitarian Left has yet (for the most part) confronted what it means to solve a problem when the problem is that a group of people exists. The solution, of course, is to make the group not exist. Oddly enough, this is easy for race. Race is a construct, so deconstruct it — just stop believing in it. Or you can try to wipe out the other “race” (that you’ve constructed) using … whatever.

    As a postscript, if you are going to call for genocide against a group, it’s probably a bad idea to pick the largest, most aggressive, and most heavily armed group in your society. Come to think of it, that’s probably why the Identitarians have yet to jump over that cliff.

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    1. In fact, Scientific Racism was instituted by progressivists and practiced by “social scientists” (sociologists, psychologists, economists, political scientists, etc.). Scientists (physicists, chemists, biologists, and practictioners of subdisciplines and combinations of subdisciplines [geology, oceonagraphy for example]) have spoken clearly on the matter: no physiological or behavioral attributes or attribute values useful to partition members of Homo sapiens into races or subspecies have been discovered or are likely to be discovered. Full stop. There are no races or subspecies of Homo sapiens, and the appearance or assertions of such in public discourse or on official forms is an display of ignorance.

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      1. The assertion that no physiological attributes useful to partition Homo sapiens into races have been found, was written by the blind or people in denial. Race is the name we give to visual differences we find among Blacks, Caucasians, Asians, Indians, First Nations, all of whom have observable differences. Dinal never makes justice and those who deny what we all can see are just plain wrong.

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    2. Whataboutism is a propaganda technique first used by the Soviet Union, in its dealings with the Western world.[1] When Cold War criticisms were levelled at the Soviet Union, the response would be “What about…” followed by the naming of an event in the Western world.[2][3] It represents a case of tu quoque (appeal to hypocrisy),[4] a logical fallacy that attempts to discredit the opponent’s position by asserting the opponent’s failure to act consistently in accordance with that position, without directly refuting or disproving the opponent’s initial argument.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whataboutism

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  7. Excellent piece. Lately, my position has been this…. let’s say we grant the Far Left the idea that you can’t be racist against white people, only prejudiced. Okay, but guess what? Prejudice is still wrong. Writing off a person based on his/her identity is still wrong. Whatever word you want to use for it, it’s still wrong.

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    1. It’s actually kind of interesting to hear this sort of ideology attributed to the “Far Left” because a lot of scholars are now arguing that this ideology is not a emblematic of a truly egalitarian political Left but actually the “left end” of a “bipartisan neoliberal spectrum” in the United States. I think the better terminology is “reductive identitarianism.” Bipartisan neoliberalism is defined as a political system in which one party is decent on multicultural and diversity issues (Democrats) and one party is reactionary and terrible (Republican) on those same issues; but both parties do nothing to help address the deepening chasms of economic inequality in the United States.

      These discussions always bring me back to the 2016 US elections because I feel like I’m always hearing some variation of “the majority of white people voted for Donald Trump,” which is just factually incorrect. Just to be clear, I did vote for Hillary Clinton.

      But if you look at the statistics, 42 percent of the eligible voting population did not vote – white voter turnout was down, black voter turnout was down, voter turnout for ages 18-35 was low. And Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump earned about 26.5 percent each of the eligible voting public with about 2.7 percent of eligible voters voting for third parties. This means that the majority of the US public *did not* vote for Donald Trump. You might be able to say that the majority of Trump voters were white, but you cannot say that the majority of white people voted for him. It’s just not accurate. And does voting for a Democrat or voting for Hillary Clinton automatically mean you’re politically progressive or not racist? I think not. There are *plenty* of conservative Democrats across racial and ethnic lines who eschew abortion rights for women, who believe that LGBT people are psychologically disordered, who hold racist views, who are against gun control, et cetera.

      I say all of this to say that we need to stop stereotyping entire groups of people and stop manipulating statistics and data to dismiss people based on membership in a particular group. The reality is much more complex than our current vapid political discourse wants us to believe.

  8. Iona, thank you so very much for writing this piece. I’ve written to you before, but I wanted to reiterate how important it is that you are naming and shaming this phenomenon. I have been involved in Leftist politics since the 2008 election cycle, have enrolled in and dropped out of a Gender Studies program influenced by this ideology, have participated in the online “social justice” communities that excuse this behavior, and have constantly been on the receiving end of these sorts of comments. And they have left me feeling absolutely rejected and hurt to my very marrow.

    It should go without saying, but I would never deny the history or the reality of systemic racism in Western society. My (Leftist) politics have been informed by those realities. I have been a vocal proponent of inclusive Leftist spaces and of racial justice, but my individual efforts have often seemed not to matter at all because of the color of my skin. Or a negative comment about “white people” as a group will be made in front of me, and there will be a caveat like “Oh, we love you.” Or something there is no qualification of the statement…and sometimes I will push back only to have the other person say “You should be able to discern that this statement is not meant for you.”

    And maybe the reason why I hurts so bad is that it feels very similar to how people have (and still do) made negative comments about gay people in front of me both growing up and in adult life. It’s a comment made about a group to which I belong or a negative characteristic associated with an aspect of myself that I cannot change.

    From comments about how white homeless people have “no excuses” to being rejected for an HIV service committee position explicitly because “we have too many white gays,” this rhetoric and ideology are corrosive, pervasive, toxic, and absolutely antithetical to social justice and the building of an inclusive, egalitarian equity-focused Left. And the impact on one’s mental health when you are constantly confronted by this nastiness can be devastating. You can only hear things like “We were not talking about you” or “It’s just part of the healing process” before you start to question whether or not people want you to be eradicated. And, unfortunately, sticking up for one’s self or voicing a objection will often lead to an accusation of “white fragility,” “white tears,” et cetera which will only make you feel worse.

    Sorry for the long response. I’m very grateful for your writing on this issue.

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      1. No problem! I actually just took a look at an archive of the Tweets myself after listening to your interview with William Campbell. Phew, some of her tweets are really inflammatory, and there are a lot of them! My comment was mostly based on personal experiences off of Twitter and in real conversations.

        I can see how these tweets might be excused as being “satirical” or “trolling,” but that’s impossible to know, really. I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I still think she’s giving cover to racism even if “she doesn’t really mean them.” As you’ve said, that deflection is a common tactic of the so-called alt-right. And the fact that they happened repeatedly doesn’t reflect well on the New York Times’ decision to hire her.

        I don’t know if you saw a recent “debate” on so-called political correctness that featured Michael Eric Dyson, Michelle Goldberg, Jordan Peterson, and Stephen Fry. I don’t see the excesses of the social justice Left as something encapsulated well by “political correctness,” but that’s another conservation. Although I’m no Jordan Peterson fan, Dr. Dyson really crossed the line in the debate when he called Peterson a “mean, mad white man.” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxYimeaoea0

        Of course, I don’t want to see free speech stymied. But at the same time, we have to reckon with the fact that “freedom of speech” does not mean “freedom from the consequences of abhorrent speech.”

        1. Yes, though the consequences should be vocal condemnation of that speech, i.e. with other speech.

          Agreed. I’m not a JBP fan either, at all, but I winced when Michael Dyson made that comment.

          1. Yes, I definitely think that vocal condemnation should be how we answer abhorrent/repulsive speech – rather than censoring, no-platforming, or violence.

            Dyson actually has a new book out that fits in pretty well with the politics that Jeong was supposedly signaling to with her tweets. It’s called “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.” The linguistic and rhetoric parallels to conservative/evangelical Christianity in the book are pretty eerie. Interestingly enough, Dr. John McWhorter has written several pieces about the parallels between the ideology of the social justice Left and religious dogma.

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