‘We trolled so hard we became real’: meet the founders of UBC’s White Student Union
Three co-founders of the White Student Union say they want to provoke a serious conversation, and insist they are not hoaxers. And one is South Asian
We meet in a quiet corner of a Vancouver-area library. They aren’t exactly what you might expect, the founders of the University of British Columbia’s White Student Union. For a start, they aren’t all white.
But they are real. And two of this amiable trio of young men are most definitely students at UBC.
The UBC WSU Facebook page was among dozens of such pages created last month, purporting to represent students at universities across North America. The first was directed at University of Illinois students, and appears to have been created on November 18 in response to the Black Lives Matter movement that has swept across US university campuses.
A handful cropped up naming themselves for Canadian universities including Western University, McMaster, The University of Toronto, the University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University. The U Vic page was promptly deleted. Pages named for the others survive, but with only a few dozen “likes” each.
But the UBC WSU page stands as an oddity among its Canadian counterparts: relatively popular (with 900-plus likes), and insistently inclusive, strange as that may seem. It says it welcomes “allies” of other ethnicities (unlike other pages which have boasted of an all-white membership), and includes the familiar BC caveat that it “acknowledges that we are organising and producing content on the unceded, traditional, and ancestral territories of the Coast Salish peoples”.
For want of better terminology, it’s quite politically correct.
So what gives? Are the founders sincere in their stated goal of providing “a safe space for white students to air their true feelings”, and promoting a vision “in which every ethnic group has the right to organise and represent themselves and their interests”? Or is it just a piece of racist undergraduate nonsense? Is it a troll, or an outright hoax, as has been suggested by everyone from Snopes to the CBC?
Yes, 'Rajesh' is South Asian
Our meeting comes after a lengthy period of haggling, and carries the sort of ground rules you might expect from NSA whistleblowers. After agreeing “not to publish or reveal to anyone any information that could be used to identify us including, but not limited to, our names, physical descriptions, academic information such as major/program/classes, nor specific ethnic/family background (apart from broad race e.g. ‘white/Caucasian’, ‘european-origin’, ‘south Asian’)”, the interview is set.
I’m half expecting to be stood up, but I arrive five minutes early to find them waiting quietly.
“Rajesh” is South Asian. I’d had my doubts when this fact was reported by the right-leaning Breitbart website. Asked how he reconciles his ethnicity with his “white” identification, Rajesh says: “I’ve grown up around white people. I value white culture. I’m somewhat assimilated into it, though I have other sources of identity. But I think it’s an injustice ...the stigmatisation of whiteness.”
I wait for the snicker – an expectation borne of my own prejudices, I suppose - but it never comes. Rajesh is dead serious.
“I think [this stigmatisation] prevents us from having honest conversations about things that are important,” he adds. “It comes from a discomfort among white people about anything related to race.”
Rajesh and “Mark” both show UBC student cards that identify them by their full names and show them to be undergraduates in their early twenties, with home addresses in greater Vancouver. The third founder at the table, “Hayden”, isn’t a student and hasn’t brought along any ID.
By their account, the WSU had seven or eight founders in total, of whom Mark and Rajesh are the only current UBC students; both are now among the WSU Facebook page’s five administrators. “We mostly met online,” says Rajesh, though they decline to identify the specific online forums in question, other than social media.
But they deny that the page came about as a result of direction from outside Vancouver, and they say the founders all know each other in the real world.
I point to a November 21 blog entry on the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website (click here at your own risk), that instructs followers to set up WSU pages, but the trio is dismissive of the connection. The timing is coincidental, they say. Hayden describes the Daily Stormer posting as “opportunist”. “They took it in a completely other direction. We’ve seen other [WSU] pages that are associated with them. It’s just crude. It’s very vulgar,” he says.
Nevertheless, according to Rajesh, it was the opprobrium heaped upon other WSU pages that helped encourage the establishment of the UBC WSU (which has no official affiliation to the university). “Just seeing the responses, how the media was responding to them, how the university administrators were responding to them…simply by starting a Facebook page,” he says, shaking his head in disgust.
Racist comments have appeared on their page (“of course” says Mark) as well as over-the-top responses from the WSU’s many critics, but they say they have been rigorous in deleting overt bigotry. They admit that they been contacted by outright white supremacists (Rajesh: “From within the university community, no. From outside, yes.”) but say they aren’t white supremacists themselves.
Rajesh says there are clear ground rules about what the page stands for and “what sort of views we did not want to provide a voice for and we didn’t want to be associated with…we message people and tell them that it’s unacceptable, and we ban people too”.
The fine line between trolls and provocateurs
The goal of the page, they say, is not racist, but instead to provide a positive forum for discussion about white identity. They say they want whiteness to be treated with the same respect as other ethnicities.
Says Mark: “Part of the reason that everyone has been insisting ‘oh, this is a troll’, was that there is this idea that universities, especially in a place like Vancouver, hold certain views and do not go outside of a certain ideological blend. And I think people almost cannot comprehend that there might be students who hold these kinds of views, that actually want to discuss these things.”
Yet the trio take undeniable delight in their work, and when I suggest that there is an air of pranksterism to the whole exercise, they concur - to a point. “Why did we say we were inspired by Berkeley [the famously liberal Californian campus]?” Rajesh asks. “It amused us…You just start a Facebook page [and you have] the halls of power denouncing you. And that’s what we saw. There was this disproportionate response. So we were intentionally, I would say, being provocative, when we started it. But I would say that our intent has shifted, once we’ve seen that this is a forum to actually discuss issues that we care about.”
But isn’t there a fine line between being intellectual provocateurs and simple trolls?
“The troll is simply about the response,” says Mark. “The provocation is a great way to start the conversation. But we actually continued the conversation. That’s the main thing.”
Later, he adds: “We trolled so hard we became real”.
Mark says the page now provides the “thrill” of being able to conduct conversations “that we have been trying to have for a long time”; he talks about his frustration at attending social studies classes in which teachers and students discuss the “inherent violence” that exists in whiteness. “[But] when you’re a student who doesn’t agree with that? I would love to challenge that [in class], but if I do, then I know what’s going to happen.”
They claim that the group has ethnic Chinese supporters, and Rajesh insists the WSU is not designed to mock the idea of ethnic identity. “We think that identity is an important thing. We’re not saying that everybody who is descended from Europeans has to think of themselves as ‘white’. We’re saying that we think that is a useful lens.”
Mark argues that the concept of “whiteness” as an identity already exists in the popular mind and in the media, but in a vaguely pejorative or tongue-in-cheek fashion - for instance, when Vancouverites talk about “hipsters and gentrification…‘oh, it’s these white people with their granola and their localism’.”
Instead, says Rajesh, “we want positive white identity”
Of their supposed ethnic Chinese supporters Rajesh says he gets “the impression … that they can discuss race frankly”. “To come from China or from a Chinese family, and to come to UBC and see that race is not discussed, except in a very political, ideological way – [that] I think, is very absurd to them.
“They can see that hypocrisy very clearly. And that’s why they are reaching out to us.”
Asked to estimate how many of their 900 Facebook likers are genuine UBC students interested in participating in a White Students Union, they agree it’s probably only “in the tens”.
So, hoax or not? Trolls or sincere provocateurs? After 80 minutes of conversation I’m still not entirely sure.
Either way, they won’t be putting a public face to their ideas any time soon. All three worry intensely that their families or friends will find out what they have been up to.
Before we part, I ask for a photo. We eventually settle on literal show of arms on the table top. Mark suggests that the fair-skinned Hayden move his arm front and centre. “Hey, you’re the whitest,” Mark cracks. And they all laugh.
The Hongcouver blog is devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver. All story ideas and comments are welcome. Connect with me by email [email protected] or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70.