How exactly would you define white heritage?
This is the question Ronald Pheils, the man who is organizing a student group that aims to “celebrate white culture and heritage” at the University of Toledo, is attempting to answer.
“There is no ‘white heritage.’ There is no one thing we can point to,” Pheils said.
Despite that lack of concrete common heritage, the group is seeking to unite around cultural celebration and defense against accusations of racism.
“We don’t believe any race is superior to any other … we aren’t all white radicals,” Pheils said.
For now, the group has operated under the name “White Student Union,” a name that harkens back to decades of controversy and racial tension across the U.S.
WSU groups are not new. They have formed on campuses like OSU, Penn State and Michigan State.
In December, a UT White Student Union page appeared on Facebook, sparking controversy. They have since deleted that page, but the group is still organizing and working to form a recognized UT student organization.
According to Pheils, the group wants to form based on the premise that there is not a space for white students to celebrate their culture and heritage. As a matter of free speech, Pheils believes it is important to organize. Pheils also said that since there is space for other minorities to meet and celebrate their culture and identity, there should also be space for white people to do the same.
He shares this opinion with dozens on college campuses across the U.S., as official and unofficial White Student Union groups begin to appear on a dozen other campus across the U.S. Pheils is the unofficial president of the group at UT and was one of the administrators on the UT WSU Facebook page.
“There are white student unions on other campuses. Unfortunately some of them have gone to the extreme,” Pheils said, emphasizing that it is important to distance themselves from the radicals.
Pheils said many of these groups resort to Facebook organizing because it is easy to remain anonymous via the social media’s “Page” function. The creator of the UT WSU Facebook page used that anonymity. Pheils did not create the group, but joined one created by an anonymous Facebook user going under the pseudonym of Themistocles Pierre.
The reason Pierre said he wishes to remain anonymous is to protect himself from threats of violence.
“Too many people already think they know who I am,” he wrote via Facebook. “I’ve heard so many threats of violence, you wouldn’t believe. If I can even be connected to a friend, or friend of a friend, I might be in danger. And naturally, I don’t want to put myself or others in danger.”
That fear of danger is what Pheils said is part of the reason why there have been problems with WSU’s becoming an official UT student group. They have not turned in an application to become an official group yet, according to Kaye Patten-Wallace, the senior vice president for student affairs.
“If they meet the criteria to become a recognized student organization, they would have the same rights and privileges of any other recognized student organization,” she wrote in an email interview.
According to Willie McKether, special assistant to the president for diversity, any group is able to organize as long as they do not spread hate and intolerance, which is what Pheils said was a concern brought to him from Dean of Students Tamika Mitchell.
Pheils and Pierre both said they do not condone hateful speech, racism or racial violence. They actually want to distance themselves from organizations that promote racism, like the KKK.
Despite these beliefs, both individuals said they fear being labeled a racist because of the color of their skin. Pheils and Pierre cited the Jan. 24 incident with Rayshawn Watkins as what they perceived to be an example of falsely labeling whites as racist by jumping to conclusions too quickly.
Pheils said he can acknowledge the historical perspective of racism, and he understands that white privilege exists, but he said things are starting to shift.
“It’s almost starting to turn now, now [whites are] starting to be persecuted,” Pheils said. “Now we are starting to be perceived as the bad people if we do have an opinion. I’m the last person that would be a racist, you know. I was honestly one of the biggest Ben Carson supporters out there, I was still a Condoleezza Rice fan.”
The “persecution” Pheils mentions includes being left out of the ongoing conversation on race, and even being targeted by it. This is why Pierre said many white student union groups have begun.
“White Student Unions, and other pro-white activism, is the natural consequence, and logical extension, of identity politics,” Pierre wrote.
Pierre questions the notion that, if other cultures and races are allowed to have pride in their identity, then why is it wrong for whites?
“I don’t want people thinking that pride equals hate,” Pierre wrote. “I don’t hate anyone. In fact, I agree with some of what I’ve heard from Black Lives Matter protesters. We should all have pride in our identity, without hating anyone.”
What Pheils said he does not want is white heritage to be labeled as automatically racist. “What we don’t want is the incident that happened in a fraternity house several months ago to automatically be pointed [sic] as the white guy is the bad guy,” Pheils said.
Pheils said that if the student group actually organizes next year will probably go by the name “European Student Union” as an effort to distance themselves from the perception of being hate group.
Regardless of the efforts to organize as a group solely dedicated to European culture and heritage, Lance Price, president of UT’s Black Student Union, said he still does not understand the group’s claim.
“I fail to see the need in having a ‘White Student Union,’” Lance Price wrote in an email interview. “We attend a university where white students are already the majority.”
In a speech to the university two weeks ago, President Gaber presented the racial demographic of campus, which showed that whites make up more than 50 percent of the student population.
Price said he would encourage the White Student Union to reach out to other campus cultural organizations to increase dialogue, but “if the ‘White Student Union’ continues to take the path they are currently on, I doubt we’ll be welcoming them with open arms.”
Pheils said he would rather work with BSU and the Latino Student Union, rather than fight with them.
“I don’t want to create a war with BSU or LSU,” he said. “I have great friends and great leaders from the past that have been presidents of those groups, and I have talked to them and they thought it was a great idea, if we stay on the path of an open dialogue.”
However, Price said he thinks that forming a WSU “misses the point” about white privilege, while Pierre said he thinks skin color has less to do with privilege.
“There is a disconnect between theory and practice, if I am supposedly privileged, or not, based merely on skin color,” Pierre wrote. “When someone assumes you are privileged, without knowing your personal circumstances, it shows that they don’t care about you as a person. They don’t want to hear my story. They don’t care. They’ve already made up their mind, without needing to know anything about me.”
Pheils said this is the crucial problem they hope to address, to avoid being labeled and grouped as privileged or as racists. He said that these labels target and hurt overall relations and that they make all white people out to be against other races.
“Really, the biggest thing is we are not anti-anybody, we are not,” Pheils said.