This past Friday, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and immigration reform activist Jose Antonio Vargas visited Haverford as this semester’s featured speaker. Vargas, who revealed his undocumented status in a 2011 essay in the New York Times Magazine, discussed his recent efforts to raise awareness of immigration issues and his new film Documented.
At a dinner prior to his speech, Vargas posed a question to the 20 students in attendance: how do you define white? Vargas, whose next film will focus on “whiteness in post-Obama America,” has spent a great deal of time reflecting on that topic.
Kenzie Thorp ‘15 was the first to answer, bringing up the idea that “white isn’t a race that people connect to themselves” in the same that members of other races do. Thorp, who describes herself as being raised in the “white, working class” city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, said that she often felt like an outsider at Haverford.
“The typical white student at Haverford doesn’t embody my story,” Thorp said. “I definitely feel like an other here.”
Hannah Zieve ‘14 shared her experience of student teaching an African American history class to a “mixed class” in response to Vargas questioning whether Judaism is a race.
“I’m white, and that’s all that matters to them,” Zieve said. “They don’t see Judaism as a separate race.”
Lilly Lavner, Coordinator of Student Activities and Leadership, who was born in South Korea and adopted by white parents, offered her own definition of whiteness in America.
“White is a construct that I am a result of,” Lavner said.
A broader discussion of race at Haverford also took place. Lavner talked about how Asian students who attend multicultural events on campus mention to her how the discussions “always come back to being black or white,” while to be Asian is to be “neutral.”
“Sometimes as Asian people we make a choice — are we going to go black or white?” Vargas said in response. “The first thing I did [upon discovering his immigration status] was get rid of my accent — I got to talk like Charlie Rose or Dr. Dre.”
Vargas also shared his opinions on Asian identity in the United States, making reference to the stereotype of Asian people as the “model minority.”
“I find the Asian identity in this country the most invisible, the most asexual – not thought of as a sexual being,” Vargas said. “Some of my white male friends make jokes about dating Asian women as a prize [but] when have you heard someone say ‘look at that hot Asian guy’?”
Amidst the discussion, Vargas reminded the students that it was important to unpack these ideas of racial identity, culture, and stereotypes “in a way that doesn’t condescend.”
“It’s easy to call someone a racist,” Vargas said. “Understanding where people are coming from and where the fear is coming from is very important.”