On Tuesday November 8th, 2016, the United States entered another period of openly overt American nativist nationalism, when a quarter of American citizens (mostly white men and women but some people of color as well) elected Donald Trump as their new President; this is the Era of Trumpism. For the record, this period of American nationalism steeped in extreme racism, sexism, and phobias of the ‘other’ is not new to US history but a continuation of the constant struggle for freedom within our state. Even ten days after the United States election, there had been over 800 reports of violent altercations, sexual harassment, and physical assault directed towards Muslims, people of color, LGBTQ people, and women by Trump supporters. President-elect Donald Trump’s scapegoating and fear mongering has emboldened the once “silent majority” to speak up, act out, and harm other people.
What strikes me as one of the most disturbing factors in this election is the small but existent number of people of color that voted for Trump. According to reports, 8% of black people, 30% of latinx people, and 19% of Asians voted for Trump. How could a small group of marginalized people vote against their own interest for a demagogue that is racist and a sexist? Somehow, Trump has convinced these people of color who voted for him that he will include them in his plan to “Make America Great Again,” that they will benefit from his policies. Unfortunately, they are completely missing the fact that most conservatives are organized in explicitly keeping people of color out of the political narrative.
One of the main reasons many immigrants of color come to the United States is based on the logic that this country is the land of opportunity, that we can strive for greatness if we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and work our asses off to climb the social ladder. Immigrants are socialized into American ideologies of success and hard work as they simultaneously see that most people who have achieved wealth, status, and power are white.
So why wouldn’t immigrants want that life? The United States of America has systematically worked to individualize these folks and make them into a hard-working machine. Many immigrants of color assume that whiteness is associated with racial superiority, which is a product of the centuries of violence inflicted by white people on people of color. As a result, many immigrants of color also assume that whiteness is linked to social mobility and assume that whiteness is linked to financial stability.
However, we cannot deny that the United States is powered by a system of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy; we are systematically socialized to believe that whiteness is inextricably linked to these false assumptions of social mobility and financial stability. Compared with the small number of rich white Americans, there are more poor white Americans, often overlooked by neoliberal policies. The capitalist system does not make rich men of the majority but rather thrives on the continual exploitable labor of the mass of people, whether they are black, white, Asian, men, or women. Poor whites make up a major portion of the United States and many do not understand that their real enemy is the ruling elites. They continually get the rhetoric from demagogues that the ‘criminal’ other (black, immigrant, person of color) is taking their fair share of the American wealth. Taking this into account, white supremacy is not a system that is beneficial in the long run for anyone, yet it gives many the psychological ego of superiority and entitlement to hold the rest of the United States hostage.
Assimilation isn’t the Answer
When I speak about striving for whiteness, I cannot deny that whiteness has been achieved by marginalized classes before; during the 1840’s, Irish immigrants came to the US by the thousands. They fled the Potato famine and they too, were treated as ‘other’ and second-class citizens for some generations. However, they were able to move up the social caste system that is race and became associated within the white class because they strived for whiteness by exploiting black people. During this period in history, there were massive migrations of different peoples and many Irish immigrants and African Americans rushed to find work in the cities that thrived with industry; there was competition and racial tensions between poor blacks and whites. The Irish did not just take advantage of the black population while they rose to political power but they also brutalized them during the race riots period in the Rust Belt (McWhirter, Cameron, Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America (NY: Henry Holt, 2011).
Now, we are at the dawn of another era where more second and third generation people of color are at the precipice of a choice: choosing whiteness or rejecting it. This is especially apparent within Asian and Latinx populations. A recent New York Times article states, “an estimated net 1.2 million Americans of the 35 million Americans identified in 2000 as of 'Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin,' as the census form puts it, changed their race from 'some other race' to 'white' between 2000 and 2010 censuses, according to research…reported by Pew Research.”
In an essay by Eric Liu entitled “Notes of a Native Speaker”, Liu lists materialistic reasons such as who he knows, what he wears, and what he buys to defend why he could be labeled as white. Liu then writes, “I never asked to be white. I am not literally white. That is, I do not have white skin or white ancestors. I have yellow skin and yellow ancestors, hundreds of generations of them. But like so many other Asian Americans of the second generation, I find myself now the bearer of a strange new status: white, by acclamation.” Though Liu’s essay is dated by three decades, his sentiments still ring true for many people of color that lay in that murky region of whiteness and other; they struggle to hold onto the possibility of becoming white because they believe that they can achieve it by assimilation.
This assimilation plays a part in terms of the violence, both subtle to extreme, people of color carry out against each other. Think of the number of times you’ve heard people of color make racist remarks towards other people of color, the times you’ve heard some Asian person say the n-word, the times you’ve heard a latinx person say the c-word or some other racist comment. White supremacy has created an environment that encourages us to publicly hate and distrust each other. When people of color (black, brown, yellow, red, whatever) feed into the racist ideologies that mainstream media and white supremacists epouse, we do nothing but uphold that white supremacist system that also oppresses us.
One example is the case of Peter Liang, an Asian-American police officer in Brooklyn that was on patrol with his rookie partner at the Louis Pink House. Liang with his gun drawn, opened the door to the stairwell of the housing project and discharged his gun into the stairwell. This discharged bullet ricocheted and shot right into the chest of Akai Gurley. Officer Liang called his union representative before he even made the call for medics. Gurley died from his gunshot wounds because Liang didn’t come to Gurley’s aid. All of this happened only months before NYPD choked Eric Garner to death and Officer Darren Wilson shot young Michael Brown in the back. Liang was indicted, one of the very few police officers to even be indicted for the killing of unarmed black men.
What is crucial to note about this case is that while Liang was in court, many Asian Americans protesters rallied for Liang, stating that he deserved special privileges like his fellow white police officers and that Liang had made a grave mistake in killing Gurley. John Liu, one of Liang’s supporters, claimed that he was only trying to do the right thing and that it was “not about criminal justice in the rest of the country, it was not about the NYPD, it was just about Liang.” Yet Liu does not acknowledge that white supremacy and antiblackness is playing a big part in this case. In an article in the New York Times, Jay Caspian Kang made a poignant comment about the racial conditions of the whole Liang/Gurley case, "The protesters who took to the streets...are trying, in their way, to create a new political language for Asian-Americans, but this language comes without any edifying history- no amount of nuance or qualification or appeal to Martin Luther King Jr. will change the fact that the first massive, nationwide Asian-American protest in years was held in defense of a police officer who shot and killed an innocent black man."
There are some who aren’t shy or subtle about upholding white supremacy; Tila Tequila is an example of this. She is a public figure and a reality television personality that proudly shows her allegiance to Donald Trump in her Facebook profile picture by sporting his name on her hat. She has also been spotted posing in front of the camera at an Alt-Right National Policy Institute conference doing a Nazi salute. Her Twitter bio reads “Alt-Reich queen! Literally Hitler!” Some say she’s a troll and that may be the case but the fact that would she would even entertain this white supremacist imagery for her audience is deeply disturbing because Ms. Tequila is a person of color.
Tila Tequila’s real name is Tila Nguyen and she is a Vietnamese American refugee that rose to D-list stardom in the 2000s. The question that we should be asking is not “how can a Vietnamese American refugee become a self-described neo-Nazi?” but “who is listening and concurring with her bombastic message?” She has a fan base of 3,000,000 Tila Tequila fans and I think her neo-Nazi media personality is partially what she truly believes and partially, she is playing to her white male fan base; the latter is the most dangerous aspect of a public figure such as Tila Nguyen upholding white supremacist ideologies, because she is deliberately activating younger impressionable men to lean towards white supremacist ideologies.
The problem with Striving for Whiteness
When people of color strive for whiteness, they are selling out to a system that has brutalized, maimed, raped, and murdered countless bodies of color to uphold white supremacy. They are selling out to a system of white supremacy that does nothing to protect them from the violence that can and will be used against them in this dawn of American totalitarianism. When people of color strive for whiteness, they are perpetually bleaching out their culture while they uphold this dangerous system that commodifies and homogenizes mass groups of people for political gains and profits. People of color striving for whiteness are acting against their own interest, especially with a President-elect that does not even include them when he speaks about “American people.”
As we enter this dark period of American life, we must acknowledge that we have elected Trump to office because we’ve been ruled by dangerous, false, and frail ideologies. Our American myth has been one that dictates that we are a free nation and that we are a democratic nation, yet our bloody history proves otherwise. American history has whitewashed the histories of many different struggles of marginalized people that came here hoping for freedom, justice, and equality. In this day and age of Trumpism, we people of color cannot strive for whiteness because choosing whiteness means actively silencing ourselves, other people of color in the struggle for justice, and the bodies of the past that have fought for us to be here.