Opinion: When is a T-shirt not a T-shirt?

The Rorschach test is a famous psychological tool in which patients are shown a series of random inkblots and asked what they see.

The premise, which reveals people find different patterns and meaning in the same image, is an oddly accurate analogy for understanding white supremacy.

The 'It's okay to be white' T-shirt saga is the perfect example. This slogan provokes two distinct reactions: either 'this is an innocuous and truthful statement' or 'this is a racist dog whistle'.

How can people see the same thing so differently?

Three months after the notorious 'Unite the Right' rally in Charlottesville in 2017, which left one woman dead, dozens injured and the organisers disgraced, a post appeared on the internet messageboard 4chan – a haven for fascists and white supremacists.

The movement needed a new PR strategy, the poster explained. Carrying flaming torches and chanting "Jews will not replace us" was not a good look and likely drove away many potential recruits.

"We need to be smart and make the movement appealing to the average white person," they said.

"Leftists will recognise dog whistles and know we're crypto[fascists], but normies won't listen to them."

It's easy to dismiss anonymous comments on murky discussion boards, but in the wake of the Christchurch terror attack, it's also unwise. White supremacy is enjoying an internet-fuelled resurgence and websites like 4chan or 8chan, where the alleged Christchurch gunman posted his manifesto, are where followers discuss their goals and strategies. It pays to take them seriously.

But here's the problem: white supremacists don’t wear white hoods and burn crosses or parade in swastikas anymore - at least not in public. They look like everybody else, and they speak in codes hidden under layers of irony so that they sound like everybody else too.

White supremacists are always recruiting. The goal is to push their ideology and symbolism into mainstream culture. But in order to appeal to as many people as possible, they have to conceal their inherently violent beliefs behind a facade of ironic memes and plausible deniability.

Like the 'OK' hand gesture, the character of Pepe the Frog and the phrase "Subscribe to PewdiePie", the motto "It’s okay to be white" has become a touchstone meme for fascists and white supremacists like Lauren Southern, who sported a T-shirt bearing the slogan when she touched down in Brisbane last year. It's not a harmless message, but a signal.

The phrase was coined on 4chan with the sole intention of 'triggering the libs'. It asserts two things: that being of European descent is acceptable, and that oppressive socio-political forces are claiming the opposite.

The first assertion is, obviously, true. The second is not. Whiteness is not under threat, despite much fretting over birth rates and immigration and various other imaginary dangers conjured up by white supremacists. Increasingly diverse representation in media and government feels like a threat to some white people, but it's a knee-jerk emotional response rather than a rational one - and it is to this instinctive reaction the T-shirt is appealing.

What the slogan does not do is genuinely comfort members of the Western world's dominant racial group that they are, in fact, allowed to be white. Only a snowflake would need a T-shirt for that.

Lauren Southern wore the "It's okay to be white" T-shirt in Brisbane.
Lauren Southern wore the "It's okay to be white" T-shirt in Brisbane. Photo credit: AAP

This week I heard a radio host praise TradeMe for not taking down a listing selling the T-shirts, followed by his announcement he intended to buy the lot to further trigger the delusional libs who have a problem with them.

It's a cunning tactic as it makes anyone criticising the slogan look like the worst stereotypes of the left: hysterical, humourless crybabies looking for offence where there is none. Of course it's okay to be white, what kind of crazy cultural Marxist would have a problem with that?

Young people have always spoken in their own code, and irony is nothing new. But the winking and nudging method of communication among white supremacists has sinister real-world results: Christchurch, Pittsburgh, San Diego, the assassination of Jo Cox or any of the many recorded instances of fascist violence of the past few years.

Another radio host discussed the rape and death threats made against Green MP Golriz Ghahraman this week. "No one here is a white supremacist," he said, before going on to imply the abuse was small fry compared to Ghahraman's great crime of calling for stricter hate speech laws.

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman has called for stricter laws against hate speech.
Green MP Golriz Ghahraman has called for stricter laws against hate speech. Photo credit: Newshub

It's easy to say no one is a white supremacist when you're imagining someone sieg-heiling in a pointy white hood. But - and this is vital - the reality is that's no longer what white supremacists look like. They look like normal people, and when they open their mouths, they sound like normal people – unless we’re clued in enough to decipher what they’re really saying.  

Too many people don't understand that the internet is now our shared intellectual space. It is a Forum in the Ancient Roman sense, where ideas are born, debated, wither away or grow into something bigger. It's where children grow up now, no longer raised solely by their parents but by YouTubers, Instagram influencers, Twitch streamers, discussion board posters.

The world has changed, and New Zealand's Muslim community felt the consequences of that change more recently and painfully than anyone else in the world.

March 15 proved it's not enough to leave harmful beliefs festering unchallenged in the darkest corners of the internet. We have to wise up to the rhetorical tactics at play if we're to have any chance of stopping the steady drip of white supremacist propaganda into the mainstream.

We have to confront an ideology successfully using the internet as a recruitment tool, and in order to do that we have to understand it.

Sophie Bateman is a digital producer for Newshub.

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