alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.

Why white nationalism is bigoted: A primer for congressional representatives

Why white nationalism is bigoted: A primer for congressional representatives
White nationalist/Shutterstock
White nationalist/Shutterstock

If you’ve been staying on top of the news lately, particularly if you’re a member of Iowa’s congressional caucus, you may be wondering how “White Nationalism” can possibly be racist.  “Who made this decision?” you may wonder, “I’m white and I love my nation, how does that make me a bigot?”  Well, I’m here to help you, the humble reader who also represents the good people of Iowa in the House of Representatives, by explaining to you why it’s not only racist now, but always has been.  Nothing changed, you’ll see, you’ve just been in denial about the meaning of the words you’ve been using this whole time.  Oh, feel free to share this with any of your similarly confused friends and colleagues via Facebook, twitter, or on your next visit to the West Wing.


So what’s wrong with being a white nationalist?

Well, for starters, “white” isn’t a race, it’s an exclusionary label.  “White” people are those we’ve deemed worthy of being part of the established power structure in America, and it has always been malleable.  In the absence of a caste system or noble class, “white” is what we invented to label those worthy of sitting at the top.  This is particularly evident when you examine who has and has not been considered a normal white person historically: there was a time when neither Greeks, nor Italians, nor Catholics were welcome under the label “white”.  For reference, Greece, Rome, and Catholicism are the three legs upon which all of Western Civilization was built (the same civilization most white nationalists so fervently defend and extol), so it’s patently absurd to pretend that “white” is a real group if it can be so arbitrarily changed and redefined to exclude the people who made “white" civilization possible.  Rather, as different European groups assimilated and became accepted, they changed from being perceived as filthy immigrants to proper white Americans (mainstream prejudice against Italians, Irish, Polish, and even Germans can be readily found if one goes far enough back in our history, despite the fact all of those nationalities would now be considered as white as the driven snow).

“White” and “Black” are modern constructs that are leftover from the years of our de facto caste system from slavery and Jim Crow.  White has grown into a catch-all term for anyone of pale skin and European ancestry (“Black" is similarly arbitrary for that matter, especially since skin color can be a terrible indicator of ancestry and heritage), but it’s not a very useful term because of how elastic it’s been over the years.  As clumsy as it might sound, “European-American” would be a more useful term since, as with Africa, you have thousands of different cultures contained within a single continent whose descendants have little in common aside from their ancestors moving or being moved here from there.

The next thing we have to establish is that "nationalism" in American history in particular is a dog whistle term; it seduces individuals using the same insidious "common sense" approach as other historically coded acts or terms of racism ("A literacy test to vote isn't racist, it's just about ensuring that voters can understand the ballots and what they're voting on!", that sort of argument that sounds reasonable and even positive, until you understand the underlying motivations and practical consequences).  You’ve probably been conflating “nationalism” with “patriotism”, which is your first mistake.

The difference between patriotism and nationalism is a question of dominance and assimilation: Patriotism is love of your country and its culture and history, a pride in what has been accomplished and stood for.  Nationalism is a belief in dominance: my country, my culture, FIRST, and foremost.  It's a belief that your national identity is "the way things ought to be", and this isn't limited to America exclusively: France had dozens of regional languages and dialects, minor ethnic groups, but Nationalist movements defined what it means to be "French", and that meant acting like the dominant culture group, speaking French (instead of, say, Catalan, or Occitan, or Corsican).  This pattern repeated throughout Europe when nationalism first saw nation-states emerge as singular entities that consolidated smaller related ethnic and regional groups into a singular whole.  One no longer was a Bavarian or a Hamburger first, one was a GERMAN.  One was not primarily Sicilian or Neapolitan or Tuscan, one was an ITALIAN.  Nationalism created a singular identity that enshrined a specific cultural outlook, language, history, mythology, etc. above all others.

Patriotism is being proud of your country; it's not telling you how to be American, nor telling you that America is superior, it's simply a love OF America and what it has done and been.  Patriotism is a feeling. Nationalism is telling people HOW to be part of it, it's by definition exclusionary and judgemental.  Nationalism is a philosophy, a belief system.

It's a rational step forward in terms of organizing (we had of course transitioned from tribal groups and clans bound by familial bonds, to local regional bonds, and so forth over history), and was important in allowing us to conceive of larger social groups than we had before, but this was still accomplished thanks to the attitude, at the time, that people of the Nation were "supposed" to be a certain way: you behaved, spoke, acted, THOUGHT like one of your countrymen.

So what’s wrong with being a nationalist? Nationalism is good, the President said so!  If we drop the “white” part, doesn’t that fix everything?

Well, we have to define what it means to be an American Nationalist.  America's historical “accepted" culture is the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant; as a people we have always expected our heroes and legends to be this way.  It's why our history has been whitewashed for so long, and its what you notice when you peer past all those feel-good words about "nation of immigrants" and "melting pot".  Sure, we're a nation of immigrants...but who leads us?  Who were our heroes?  Our celebrities?  Who are the mythical founding heroes, enshrined in our culture?  White, Christian, Men.  Sure, you could be an immigrant, a woman, a person of color...just as long as you "ACTED" like a True American: spoke correct English, dressed the right way, deified the right heroes, vilified the right enemies.  This attitude excludes the majority of Americans, and flies in the face of what we claim as founding principles that we have always valued and defended: the right to free speech, to freedom from oppression, the right to live your life and be yourself without fear of persecution.  You can’t divorce bigotry from America’s past, it’s a fundamental part of it.  That’s why it’s ALWAYS been a terrible thing to be: it was always about oppression, conformity, and othering the weak and vulnerable.  It’s antithetical to the principles this country was founded on and enshrined in its founding documents and mythology.

Now, of course, we have grown over time and become more accepting of multiculturalism, but that isn't what "nationalists" are wanting to enshrine.  Everything around this discussion shows it’s not a forward thinking, multicultural, post-racial America at the heart of the concept of American Nationalism, but an older, white-male dominated view of America.

Notice the language used when it’s discussed: Trump even said "it's an old word" when defending “nationalism".  He didn't claim to be wanting to cleanse it of its toxic history and make it something new we could all be proud of.  No, his call was to use it AS IT EXISTED and be proud of it: Be proud of being an American Nationalist as we have always known them, there's no shame in it.  It's just like "Make America Great Again", which is all about going back to an older time.  Great for whom?  It was only ever "great" for one specific group, and the only thing that's changed is that group is no longer entitled to cultural dominance over the others.  Nationalism encouraged that dominance, said it was proper, right, the "way it ought to be".

That's what makes it a dog whistle, and an inherently racist concept.  American "nationalists" aren't white supremacists, you might argue.  You just want everyone to be a WASP, and if they can't, to do their very best to act like one while acknowledging it's best TO be one.  It's demanding everyone buy in to one singular definition of what it means to be an American, which when you think about it couldn't be more opposed to the notion of a melting pot where all different sorts of people come together and define this nation by its differences, and celebrate those differences as intrinsic to what makes us special.

If, however, you’d like to build a world where everyone is equal, everyone has a chance to live and prosper, everyone is free of oppression and persecution, everyone has the tools and opportunities to chase their dreams and the space and freedom to live their lives the way they want to, the way that makes them happy, to love and be with whoever they choose; in short, if you truly do want to build an America dedicated to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”…

We on the left are happy to see you’ve finally decided to join us.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close