The Problem of White Grievance: A Defense of Critical Inquiry

“Reactionary attacks on academics are not new,” instructor Rebecca Journey says. “What’s new about the practice in the 21st century is the force multiplier of social media.”


Screenshot of Journey’s inbox.

By Rebecca Journey

Content Warning: This op-ed discusses or references racism, white supremacy, antisemitism, and threats of violence and sexual assault. It also contains screenshots of emails that reference these themes.

On the morning of November 2, an automated email from the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs appeared in my UChicago inbox, nudging me to complete a training module on harassment prevention. As it happened, this email arrived sandwiched between 23 others urging me among other things to come to Jesus, go into hiding, and “delete myself.” I could appreciate the irony, but as the day unfolded the invective got uglier. A quick search revealed its origin: A UChicago undergraduate, whom I’ve never met, had apparently attacked my seminar on whiteness on Twitter the afternoon prior. In a lengthy thread, the student accused my course, which had just opened for registration in winter quarter, of exemplifying “anti-white hatred.” One tweet dissected a screenshot of my course description, as if it served as evidence of my bigotry, that he had “exposed.” Another offered over 30k followers a screenshot of my faculty page, including my university email and headshot. This is the face, the student implied, of institutionalized “anti-white” racism:


On November 5, he tweeted an UPDATE:

Contrary to the student’s proclaimed “victory,” my class was not in fact cancelled. I made the call to move it to spring quarter precisely because of his cyber harassment campaign, which placed a target on my body and therefore on my classroom.

In this discussion I want to pull focus on where it belongs: on the torrent of abuse this harassment campaign has incited. I won’t spend time here characterizing the 146 and counting taunts and threats to my body, safety, and psyche that have flooded my inbox since November 2. Read some of them for yourself in select screenshots published here. I want to ask instead how an institution avowedly committed to free expression has come to condone its weaponization. So let me begin with a thought experiment.

Had the student reached out to me with concerns about my course, The Problem of Whiteness, I would have happily scheduled office hours to discuss them. During that meeting, I would have listened to his concerns and addressed them by elaborating far beyond the five sentences published in the course catalog. I would have clarified that the class is not about “anti-white hatred” or my personal “problem with white people.” Both of those statements are value judgments; judgements which get in the way of critical inquiry. I would have explained that critical inquiry involves the rigorous study of social problems—problems which exert a shaping force on history and society. Grappling with such problems and the questions that flow from them—even and especially sticky ones, like race—is essential to the pedagogical enterprise.

I would have then walked the student, as I would any student, through what decades of careful scholarship on race and racism in the U.S. have taught us: whiteness, like any racial identity, has no basis in biology. It is a scientific and cultural fiction; a “pigment of the imagination,” if you like. It is, however, as historian George Lipsitz writes, a social fact “created and continued with all-too-real consequences for the distribution of wealth, prestige, and opportunity.” As an unmarked norm against which difference is constructed, “whiteness is everywhere in U.S. culture,” Lipsitz observes, “but it is very hard to see.” The act of marking whiteness, then, is to locate it as a specific historical and ideological formation, and to ask what it does in the world. That’s the mission of the class.

During this notional discussion, I would have let the student know that there is a long scholarly literature on whiteness which he might find fascinating. As a primer, I would have steered him to the Peabody Award-nominated series Seeing White, a podcast produced by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, which I use as a teaching tool in my class. Then I would have introduced him to the wide-ranging literature, from the foundational works of W.E.B. Du Bois, Nella Larsen, and James Baldwin, to whom my course title pays tribute, as well as to the contemporary scholarship of Sara Ahmed, bell hooks, and Shannon Sullivan. I would have urged the student to approach these texts with a generous eye, to reflect on his own sense of grievance and victimization, and to consider other habits of mind, like intellectual curiosity and charity. I would have invited him to cultivate those habits in the seminar. I would have encouraged him to bring his ideas to the table, and to be open to the seminar as a space of spirited deliberation. In short, I would have done my job.

But this conversation never happened, because this student never reached out. He didn’t ask questions about my course description or request a copy of the syllabus. There was no thoughtful exchange of ideas during office hours. Clearly, this student is not interested in learning. As evidenced by his expertly packaged Twitter feed, he is interested in generating content for his MAGA media persona. In his bio, he positions himself as an amateur investigative reporter “exposing insanity” at the University of Chicago. White grievance—the notion that the true victims of institutionalized racism in the U.S. are white people—seems to be his main beat.

All of this leads me to conclude that this student has not been acting in good faith; that is, as a pupil expressing sincere concerns about a course offering. Rather, he has acted as a cynical opportunist chasing likes and shares. For this reason, I will refer to him as such in the remainder of this essay.

Because teaching fellows are junior scholars, we are institutionally precarious. To what extent this young opportunist understood this and saw me as an easy mark is for the reader to assess. What is knowable are the consequences of his actions (thus far).

When the opportunist found my course description in the winter term schedule, he seized a chance to go viral on social media by stoking racial resentment. In the “EXCLUSIVE” Twitter thread in which he deputized an indignant mob to attack me via email, he crafted just enough plausible deniability to dodge a lawsuit. Yet his followers clearly understood what they were being invited to do (harass a professor). As their emails and comments below show, they also understood the subtext of racial grievance in play:


“Thank you for sharing *****’s contact information. Peeps, you know what to do. Now get to it.”

“Just sent her an email…Suggest others do the same.”

“Keep going. Journey needs to be fired.”


“You should sign up and livestream it.”

“Yes. Put this across the internet.”


“Rebecca Journey is among the most dishonest, disgusting, degenerate, and deeply evil figures in public life.”

“People like Rebecca are rotten inside and that shows with the ugly outside.”

“Hell I got sick of people who look like her talk about ‘gender’ in like 1997.”


“Is she white or an actual ghost? Why are these people always pasty, rail thin white women? How many cats does she have?”

“She ain’t white. She’s fucking translucent.”

“She’s a ginger, they don’t have souls.”


“She’s Jewish though, right?”

“I’m guessing the teacher is a J.”

“Physiognomy never lies.”


This is not trolling. It is not cancellation. This is abuse. The opportunist did not simply “call [me] out.” He preyed on a private figure—a precariously employed postdoc—to further his own craven ambitions. He weaponized his free speech to stifle mine.

Reactionary attacks on academics are not new. What’s new about the practice in the 21st century is the force multiplier of social media. I am not even on Twitter, and yet I was targeted and terrorized through it. In just 280 characters or fewer, a user can mobilize a collective, decentralized attack and walk away, feigning ignorance. Righteousness, even. I was just “calling out” “anti-white racism.” Let the dregs of the internet do the work.



Putting aside for a moment the logical incoherence of this tactic (free speech for me; censorship for you), I want to focus on how it undermines the educational mission of the University.

The University of Chicago has long taken an absolutist stance on the principle of free expression. In the Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression commissioned in 2014, the authors affirm the University’s “profound commitment” to supporting “the freedom of all members of the community ‘to discuss any problem that presents itself.’” However, they write:

The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University.

Does a torrent of hate speech on Twitter constitute a discussion? Is placing a target on an instructor’s body and classroom compatible with the function of the University? These are the dystopian affordances of social media. The College is not a closed system.

Offering no public comment apart from a “note on course offerings” briefly posted on the Global Studies homepage, the University responded to the incident two weeks later in an internally circulated set of two emails. The administration has taken the position that the opportunist’s targeted harassment campaign does not violate University policy on free expression. At the time of writing, he has faced no disciplinary consequences for his conduct. This, despite harassing a fellow student earlier this year.

The University’s belated, tepid response to this incident reduces its stakes to an abstract question of academic freedom. It sanitizes the white rage, misogyny, and antisemitism that hundreds of speakers routed through the opportunist’s provocation. There is more to say here about the interplay of each of these dynamics in the spectacular demolition of a female junior scholar. There is also more to say about the extent to which the far right has normalized violence in American life. But I want to stop here and ask: Why has the University shirked its “profound commitment” to protect the pedagogical project?

What this ugly incident reveals is just how hollow these commitments actually are, and just how little the administration has reckoned with the power of technology to thwart them. It exposes this language as naïve. What would it mean to affirm those commitments today, to borrow philosopher Wendy Brown’s (2017) phrase, in the “apocalyptically populist” present?

Is going viral by doxing and harassing an instructor—particularly a structurally vulnerable one—a viable path to a media career? That is the message being telegraphed to others watching this play out. Bad faith actors will learn that they can hide behind the cover of free expression as they defame scholars and compromise classrooms.

The University has permitted the opportunist to terrorize an instructor, her students, and I would also argue our campus. Let me spell out the nature of that terror if it is not already clear. A teacher is not free to do her job if she is fearful that an armed white nationalist, activated by a provocateur, will track her down and shoot up her classroom. This is not hyperbole. This is America in 2022.

Membership in the University community requires acceptance of its educational mission. This opportunist has rejected that mission. Indeed, his conduct has placed it in harm’s way.