Backlash slams ‘Un-Fair’ anti-racism campaign in Twin PortsA campaign designed to bring people together and inspire a community discussion about the effects of racism has produced some strong reactions in the Twin Ports and beyond — including what Mayor Don Ness called "threats" and "hateful messages" from around the world.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
A campaign designed to bring people together and inspire a community discussion about the effects of racism has produced some strong reactions in the Twin Ports and beyond — including what Mayor Don Ness called "threats" and "hateful messages" from around the world.
Locally, several people say they are offended by the Un-Fair Campaign, less than one week after it was launched to draw attention to racial inequalities in Duluth and Superior. The campaign uses billboards and other ads and events to say that racism is still a problem in the community.
Phil Pierson, a 31-year-old Duluth resident, was so put off by the initiative and its slogan — “It’s hard to see racism when you’re white” — that he and like-minded friends created a Facebook page Monday morning called: “Stop racist unfair campaign.” By day’s end, about 150 members joined.
“The issue of racism is real, but it doesn’t pertain only to whites. A campaign directed only to white people is by definition racist,” Pierson said.
But Ellen O’Neill, executive director of the Duluth YWCA, which is one of 15 local partners involved in the initiative, said their message has been misinterpreted.
“The campaign is not to point fingers and say all white people are racist. It’s to get people to look at how we live in a monoculture where white people get advantages, and people who don’t have white skin don’t get those same advantages,” she said.
Criticism of the campaign came not only from locals but from afar.
In a Facebook post Sunday, Duluth Mayor Don Ness wrote: “White supremacists from all over the world are sending me threats and some of the most hateful messages I’ve ever read. The racism I’ve seen this weekend is all the proof I need that we need good people to step up.
“No, the unfair campaign is not calling all white people racists. It’s saying white folk need to be part of the solution. And I’m not backing down from that. Will you join me?”
Ness said the message of the Un-Fair Campaign had been twisted beyond recognition by a handful of people, including some who claimed he was promoting white genocide.
Pierson pointed out that plenty of less radical critics have weighed in against the campaign as well.
“I’ve asked people to contact the partners and express their disgust,” he said. “It’s not just white supremacists attacking this campaign.”
Ness acknowledged the Un-Fair Campaign has rubbed some people the wrong way.
“A fair number of people in the community dislike the campaign’s message. They feel threatened or as though we’re blaming them,” he observed.
“I’ve tried to stress that this campaign is not calling all white people racists. The message is that racism exists, and all people, including white people, need to be part of the solution,” Ness said.
Nevertheless, Ann Reyelts, 31, of Duluth considers the campaign poorly conceived.
“To assume that it’s hard for whites to understand racism is insulting to my intelligence,” she said. “I get what they’re trying to say, but I don’t think that’s the way to go about it.”
Chuck Horton, 45, of Duluth said he also took offense at the campaign.
“It’s absolutely insulting if it’s accusing white people of being so insensitive that we can’t see anything around us. It’s accusing us of being stupid,” he said.
That’s not the intent, said Sheryl Boman, a member of the Duluth Human Rights Commission, one of the partners in the Un-Fair Campaign.
“We’re not saying white people are ignorant, but there are people who are unconscious about some of the advantages white people have,” Boman said. She noted that she hadn’t recognized some of the disparities until she began working with battered women.
“We’re not saying white people are prejudiced or bigots. But in parts of the U.S. where white is the norm, people of color have barriers that white people don’t have,” Boman said.
Ness expressed his hopes of improving community-wide awareness of the effects of racism.
“As white people in a community like Duluth, where 90 percent of the population is white, it’s easy for many of us to go through a day or even a year and to not have to think about racism as an issue,” he said.
Boman said much of the resistance to the campaign was anticipated.
“We recognized there would be people who would be upset about the campaign,” she said. “We knew it would be a hard but necessary conversation for the community to have.”
Carl Crawford, 46, a member of the African American Men’s Group in Duluth, said he’s not surprised the campaign has generated some blowback either, especially given his experience trying to memorialize the site of a lynching in the community.
“When we started to push for the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, we received some negative feedback, too. But what happens is love wins,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s worth walking through a fire to get to the other side.”