Understanding Multiracial Whiteness And Trump Supporters

Jan 24, 2021
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The chairman of the hate group The Proud Boys identifies as Afro-Cuban. One of the organizers of the pro-Trump extremist group Stop the Steal is Black and Arab. Christina Beltran is a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. And she uses the term multiracial whiteness to explain why some groups who are disdained by white supremacists embrace white power movements. And she joins us now to explain. Welcome to the program.

CRISTINA BELTRAN: Great. Thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what do you mean by multiracial whiteness?

BELTRAN: So there's been a whole lot of people thinking and theorizing about white supremacy. And all of these scholars share a view that I share, that whiteness is not the same thing as white people and that whiteness is actually better understood as a political project that has emerged historically, and that is dynamic and that is always changing. And so whiteness as an ideology is rooted in America's history of white supremacy - right? - which has to do with the legacy of slavery or Indigenous dispossession or Jim Crow. And I think it's important to realize just how long in this country legal discrimination was not simply culturally acceptable but legally authorized. And so we've only been practicing a more consistent form of legal equality for a relatively short time since the 1960s. So Americans have often learned how to create their own sense of belonging through violence and through the exclusion of certain groups and populations.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what you're saying, essentially, is that people of other races and ethnicities want to benefit from white privilege by supporting it.

BELTRAN: Right.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So we should note that you wrote an op-ed recently in The Washington Post about this, and it stirred up a heated debate on social media. (laughter).

BELTRAN: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to read what you wrote in part. (Reading) For voters who see the very act of acknowledging one's racial identity as itself racist, the politics of multiracial whiteness reinforces their desired approach to colorblind individualism.

Can you explain what you mean?

BELTRAN: Sure. I think that one of the things that's interesting about the politics of multicultural conservatism, for example, is that multicultural conservatism - which is the kind of conservative politics of reaching out to other racial minorities practiced by folks like Jack Kemp or George W. Bush - was an effort to recognize the specific histories and backgrounds of particular racial populations and to say that they could be part of the GOP. And I think that one of the things that's interesting is that there's a segment of people of color who don't necessarily want to be recognized at all. They don't want to be recognized for their racial distinctiveness - right? - that for them, the very act of sort of identifying them as Latino, as African American - that they themselves have a certain discomfort with that very logic. They want to be understood as simply Americans outside of those kinds of identity categories.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And surely, you can't be saying that every person who doesn't want to be all in with identity politics is somehow supporting white supremacy.

BELTRAN: No, not at all. And I think this is one of the things that was sort of interesting about the difficulty sometimes in trying to kind of explain what whiteness is as an ideology. People vote for candidates for all kinds of reasons. But certainly, there is, I think, a certain kind of critique of identity politics that actually makes the fact of not doing identity politics very attractive to a certain kind of conservative.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, that is the argument among some conservatives - many conservatives, actually - that identity politics is divisive, that, ultimately, what it does is it segments the population according to their various identities and is actually not unifying. And this is a country that is indeed very divided.

BELTRAN: Yeah. And I think that one of the big political divides we face right now is people who find the very act of talking about those histories of racial exclusion as divisive because the act of talking about it and acknowledging it produces a kind of defensiveness or anger - and even discussing it, the idea that unity should be practiced from sort of not engaging with our history, not - sort of celebrating the best stuff and not really acknowledging that we have a complicated, beautiful, tragic, inspiring inheritance that we have to understand to go forward.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why do you think looking at our current politics through this lens would help the deep divisions of our current moment?

BELTRAN: What I actually find helpful about theorizing and talking about whiteness as understanding that the politics of whiteness is distinct from white people is I think it actually opens up and expands our political possibilities going forward because we're not actually trapped in our identities or our demographics. It means that white citizens can - and many are - rejecting the politics of whiteness and working with communities of color to forge a multiracial democracy. But we have to understand this complicated and tragic and also beautiful shared inheritance we have. If we want to build something new together, we have to understand where we've come from.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Cristina Beltran is a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. Her new book is called "Cruelty As Citizenship: How Migrant Suffering Sustains White Democracy." Thank you very much.

BELTRAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.