Jose Antonio Vargas on White People, Trump and Bernie Sanders’ Black Lives Matter Problem

The undocumented documentarian discusses why white Americans—including presidential candidates—have trouble talking about race.

Karen Gwee

In August 1993, a 12-year-old boy from the Philippines got on a plane to the United States in search of a better life. Eighteen years later, he would become famous for never going back. 

'I'm from the Maya Angelou school of humanism: There is more that connects us than divides us.'

Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 as part of a team covering the Virginia Tech massacre for the Washington Post. In 2011, he made his undocumented status public in a groundbreaking New York Times Magazine essay, becoming the most visible face of a population typically relegated to the shadows. In 2013 he produced and directed Documented, a documentary about his experience. He then founded and now heads the immigrant-rights nonprofit Define American.

On July 22, MTV premiered Vargas’s latest work: the documentary White People, which he hosted and directed. The 41-minute film attracted both praise and controversy for its gentle yet frank approach to discussing privilege with white American youth. 

At the online activist conference Netroots Nation in July, Vargas found himself in the eye of a storm when the town hall discussions he was moderating with presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders were disrupted by Black Lives Matter protesters. 

Vargas spoke to In These Times about Americans’ aversion to talking about race, the moral crisis of immigration in the United States and his take on the candidates’ responses to the Black Lives Matter action.

What do you think of all the discussion surrounding White People?

The reaction to it shows how insular we are in terms of how we look at race and the bubbles we all live in. We talk to people who will agree with us. I’ve been driving around the country for the past four years to facilitate a conversation about immigration, meeting and talking to Tea Party members, talking to conservatives and Republicans. Unless we do that, where are we really going to go?

People were divided over the approach of the documentary. Why did you make it the way you did?

I could’ve easily made a film that was much more didactic, like the history of racial discrimination in this country from the view of white people. But I wanted to make a film that could speak to young white people. It was important for me to give them the space to actually talk. I was thinking, How do I engage with young white people who don’t even understand that they themselves are a race, and that it comes with benefits?” But also to do it in a way that isn’t finger-pointing or blaming.

Were you aware of the possibility of microaggressions (unintended discrimination at the personal level) when you were having conversations with the subjects of White People?

Having traveled the country, visiting 45 states in the past four years, I can tell you most Americans don’t know what microaggression is, in the same way that white people don’t think about white privilege. Within certain academic circles, people know what white privilege is. But to talk about white privilege in Ohio, in Arkansas, in Alabama? For me this film does that job of introducing what people think to be an amorphous term, and making it very real, without even using the term. 

Do you think the academic bent of social justice discussion and popular labels are more divisive than helpful?

I have been in highly, highly charged political situations in which everything revolves around these boxes and these labels, like microaggression,” white privilege,” intersectionality.” Most people don’t know what those terms are! We assume that people know these things and we get this holier-than-thou attitude, like, I know more than you, I’m more caring than you, because I know the correct language.” No! That for me has been the most humbling thing of the past four years traveling around this country, realizing just how disconnected we are.

I’m from the Maya Angelou school of humanism: There is more that connects us than divides us. In my work, I try to find those connective tissues, try to insist on the humanity of these stories that connect us to each other, while at the same time recognizing what the differences are. You can’t change something you can’t face. So much of the racial conversation in this country we have not been able to face.

You appeared on CNN talking about Donald Trump and misinformation on immigration that politicians and reporters throw around. How big of a problem is it?

It’s huge. If you think the tax code is complicated, try studying the immigration code. It’s a complex issue that we boil down to simple talking points. That is partly why we haven’t been able to move forward, because people think they know what the issue is already. Donald Trump talks about the border and doesn’t even contextualize with the fact that nearly 40 percent of the people who are here illegally didn’t cross that border — they overstayed their visa. Since 2007, the number of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. has dropped by 1 million. The lowest rate of illegal migration from Mexico to the United States is happening right now. Donald Trump doesn’t want to mention it, because it would defeat his purpose — but why can’t the media focus on it? Isn’t that our job?

What other immigration issues are most important?

That people don’t think it’s a moral crisis that tests the very conscience of our republic. We’re too busy politicizing it to really understand what’s at stake and what the damage has been: more than 2 million people deported in seven years, countless families separated from each other, arrested and detained. We also fail to ask the broader questions that must be asked: What do U.S. foreign policy and trade agreements have to do with migration patterns? Who funded those wars in Central America? Who started the drug war? When NAFTA was created, what were its consequences?

How much potential do the White House and Congress have to provide real solutions to this crisis?

We are where we are now because of the failure of policy and the failure of politics in this country. As someone who’s gay and as someone who lived through that cultural shift that happened during Will & Grace and Ellen DeGeneres being on the cover of Time and hosting her own talk show, I’d argue that the culture around LGBT rights had to shift before the politics did. I don’t think we can change the way people talk about immigrants and immigration until we change the culture in which we think about immigrants and immigration. 

At Netroots Nation, you handed the microphone to Tia Oso, the national coordinator of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, during the conversation you were moderating with Martin O’Malley. Why?

We have a history of protest in this country. So when people were asking me, Why did you give the microphone? Why did you give the space?” my answer to that is, How could I not? What would you have done if you were up there?” As a gay, undocumented Filipino, I was not about to deny black women the space to talk.

What did you make of O’Malley and Sanders’s responses to the protesters?

I thought O’Malley did better than Sanders, and Sanders in particular was a little tone deaf. He thought he could go in there and give the same stump speeches he’s been giving all across the country. News of Sandra Bland’s death broke days before Netroots Nation. For many black people in this country, that was a very urgent, personal, direct thing. And Sanders and O’Malley were up there giving talking points. The humanity and the urgency of it was lost.

How important do you think similar actions will be in pushing candidates to address racial justice?

Protests are necessary. But many tools are necessary. There are some immigration activists who say, Why doesn’t Jose get arrested in front of the White House? Why doesn’t he do more direct action?” That’s not my activism. I think everything helps.

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Karen Gwee is a Summer 2015 editorial intern at In These Times. She is a rising junior studying journalism and English at Northwestern University, and she tweets at @karen_gwee.
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