Swaths of Syrians have been displaced by the country’s five-year civil war. Even though only a tiny fraction of the estimated 4 million refugees fleeing the conflict have ended up in the United States, it’s added a new dimension to conversations about border security, terrorism, and undocumented immigrants’ effect on the U.S. economy.
There’s a racial component as well, and that resonated with filmmaker and activist Jose Antonio Vargas. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist was born in the Philippines, but moved to the United States when he was 12, and didn’t publicly reveal his immigration until a 2011 essay in The New York Times Magazine.
"I thought I just was throwing away my entire career when I did this," said Vargas. "I didn't think that my professional life would actually be much better and much fuller and now that I'm honest with myself and with everybody else."
Vargas and Race Matters host Merelyn Bell discuss his most recent projects about race, the United States and illegal immigrants including his MTV Special White People and his New York Times piece “My Life As An Undocumented Immigrant.” Vargas also talks about his attempt to get white Americans to define themselves by something other than their country of residence.
Race Matters is a co-production of World Literature Today and KGOU. KGOU and Race Matters rely on voluntary contributions from readers and listeners to further the mission of public service with internationally focused reporting for Oklahoma and beyond. To contribute to our efforts, make your donation online, or contact our Membership department.
On The Motivation For Making The Film White People
I can be a writer and a filmmaker anywhere in the world. I don’t need to be in the United States for that, but I made a choice to do that because I think it is my responsibility, my obligation, because of my privilege, to be here... I’m more than an undocumented person in the same way that I’m more than a gay person in a way. You know what I’m saying? So, that’s why transitioning, for example, to making a documentary and a series on what it means to be white in a country that’s getting less and less white, to me was a natural transition.
On The Connection Between American Identity And Immigration
"American" was always something I had to fight for. It was always something I had to earn and I think you talk to any immigrant and I think that’s what they would tell you. This is a really combustible conversation, because I find it really interesting when people think that being born here, that that’s the only thing that makes them American. I don’t think that’s what got this country to where it is now. What, you’re born here? Poof. You’re an American. Congratulations, right? That, that’s it? How about American ingenuity? How about industry? How about innovation? How about you know, maybe not following some rules? I was rereading for example, The Grapes of Wrath, and started to think about just, you know, this idea of the frontier, of you know, of the West as a frontier. Immigrants have always been the one that lead that.
On White Americans’ Place In The World
Now that white Americans are going to become, and have already become, a racialized other, I feel like in many ways, what’s at stake in American culture is unpacking what whiteness is and how it relates to everybody else. There was one scene in [“White People”] when a young woman talks about, well you know, being white is kind of like the default, it’s the norm and this didn’t make it into the final cut of the film, but, our exchange was something along the lines of what a burden that is. It doesn’t only hurt people who aren’t white, when white people say that they’re the norm and they’re the standard. It also hurts white people, right? The rest of the world is not white. Actually, whites are actually in the minority, globally. So, what does that do to the psyche to think that you’re the norm and you’re the standard when you’re not?
MERELYN BELL, HOST: I wanted to start by asking you, I know you talk about this in your film Documented, but why did you decide to reveal your undocumented status.
JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: For many reasons, but I have to say, I actually felt that it was, a part of it felt to me like a journalistic responsibility. At that time, and you can argue to this day, immigration doesn’t get the kind of contextual nuance coverage that it deserves, given how complex and serious the topic is. So, I saw the essay in the New York Times magazine, the cover of Time magazine, Documented, I saw all these things as journalistic efforts. Which is why it’s been very interesting being labeled an activist or an advocate, not that there’s anything wrong with that. You know, I mean, activism is a wonderful thing, but I feel as if every journalist is an activist of sort. So, I don’t think we should shy away from that kind of connotation, but at the same time question why people do that.
BELL: You’ve traveled around a lot, and that’s one of the features of the film is that since you’ve, you know, come out as an undocumented immigrant and even before then, I’m sure you’ve traveled a lot and I wondered what it’s like every time you go through security checkpoints at the airport. Are you worried about being pulled aside and detained?
VARGAS: I was detained for the first time by border patrol last summer. I mean, two summers ago. The summer of 2014. I had never been to the Texas border and I didn’t realize that I could fly in, but I couldn’t get out. So, in trying to get out, I, you know, at the TSA line, at the McAllen Airport, it wasn’t just the TSA people checking identification, it was also the border patrol people. So, that’s how I got apprehended and got detained. During detainment, I received my first immigration papers from the government, I actually have, I have to carry it everywhere I go, have it with me. It’s a warrant of arrest, basically a warrant that I have to carry wherever I go. So, for example tomorrow morning when I leave Oklahoma City, I have to show people my Filipino passport, which is my only ID, just as a picture ID, and then with that warrant going through TSA. So, it’s always a little bit nerve wracking. For me, it’s been such an interesting journey because I spent my entire teenage years and all of my twenties being scared of this whole thing and now that I’ve kind of let it go, it feels at once limiting and freeing.
BELL: You’re not worried anymore about being deported? It’s not a fear for you?
VARGAS: I mean, I had that fear from the very...since I was 17 I had that fear. So, once I kind of let it go and just say, "Okay, like what do you want to do?" I come out in 2012. When they didn’t deport me, I followed up with the Time magazine cover. All throughout I’m filming. In the film I called the Department of Homeland Security.
BELL: Right. I’m glad you mentioned that because I w-…
VARGAS: I mean, it’s not as if like, I’m kind of going through this as any reporter would. Like, I’m like, you know, go through all my sources, what am I missing? And then, I thought, it was either the government was going to make up its mind or I’d have to leave, but I’m in an incredibly privileged position to do what I’m doing and leaving now. You know, look, I can be a writer and a filmmaker anywhere in the world. I don’t need to be in the United States for that, but I made a choice to do that because I think it is my responsibility, my obligation, because of my privilege, to be here. But, my work can’t be...I’m more than being an... I’m more than an undocumented person in the same way that I’m more than a gay person in a way. You know what I’m saying? So, that’s why transitioning, for example, to making a documentary and a series on what it means to be white in a country that’s getting less and less white, to me was a natural transition.
BELL: I want to ask you about the Dream Act, because in the film, in Documented, you feature the dreamers, you know, some of your fellow activists…
BELL: …who are…
VARGAS: Well, they were the original activists. Like, they did it way...they’ve done it far longer than I have. I’m late to the game.
BELL: Yeah. I think you mentioned that. That they were, you know, a bit of an inspiration for you, too. That you’re not, you know, out there doing the things that they’re doing and felt sort of inspired to do the work that you’re doing by them? Is that fair to say?
VARGAS: No, I actually say and I, you see this is the film. I actually apologize to them in the film for being so late. And, as you can imagine, there’s some tension within this movement, because, wait a second, like, when I get arrested it’s breaking news on television. When I write a story, it gets on the cover of Time magazine. I can make a film and make it for MTV. Now, people like me are getting arrested and deported and detained every day. I have to say that the hardest thing in this process has been, you know...what can I say, I’m a catholic. The guilt. Like it’s, it kind of knowing that because of who I am, it’s so I ironic, you know? I remember when I outed myself, we had to issue a press release and I remember telling one of my colleagues that I didn’t want to put Pulitzer Prize in the press release because I don’t want it to seem as if, oh, you know, he has some award, so therefore he’s more worthy or you know, the model immigrant thing. The model minority thing that Asian people—I’m Filipino, I’m Asian—have to deal with all the time. So, I don’t want it to seem like, it’s the good immigrant. "Oh, you know, he speaks English, he’s good. Let’s let him in, but not the other ones, right?" And so, I guess this is my training as a journalist, I’m just always so aware of all of these things in my head and the guilt was really kind of hard to carry around for two, three years.
BELL: There’s a scene in the movie that I wanted to ask you about in particular, that I was so struck by. You’re in Iowa at a town hall meeting for the Romney campaign and encounter a couple, who, and a lot of people, you know you’re standing there holding a sign, talking about being undocumented…
VARGAS: And that was the first time that I had ever held a sign. As a journalist, you were told that you can’t rally, you can’t protest, you can’t hold signs. The moment I put that sign up, I remember thinking, oh man. Like, there’s no going back from this.
BELL: So, you’re standing there, you encounter this couple, and they tell you, "...oh well, our daughter-in-law, you know, she got a Visa by talking to Senator Grassley," referring to Senator Grassley from uh, Iowa, "...have you spoken to, talk to Grassley?"
VARGAS: "Have you spoken to Grassley? Talk to Grassley."
BELL: "Why have you not talked to him, yet?" And it really struck me that there seems to be this disconnect, that’s highlighted in the film, Documented, that we’re talking about, between the actual experience of undocumented immigrants like yourself and what people think is an easy pathway to residency and citizenship that you’re just not pursuing.
VARGAS: As if, you know, as if I’m so lazy that I don’t want to go to an office, fill out a form and just get in line.
BELL: Right. Yeah.
VARGAS: How dare I just not do that?
BELL: Well, and Romney even said, I think, aloud, you know, "...we just want people to get in line with everybody else and do it the legal way," but what you pointed out in the film was that there is no line.
VARGAS: What is the responsibility of journalists to inform people about basic facts, such as what you just described? Can you imagine? How many times do we hear about immigration every day? Donald Trump says something about immigration, it’s breaking news, yet simple facts like there is no line, right?
BELL: Right. Do you feel like the media is…
BELL: …largely to blame for that disconnect?
VARGAS: Absolutely, and you know, and look. It’s easy. Blaming the media is easy, right? That’s the easiest thing to do and as someone who is a part of the media I'm cognizant of that, but, with this issue in particular, it’s been a real failure. I mean, even when you compare the coverage of the Syrian refugees with the Central American refugees, from two summers ago, right? It’s been fascinating and of course, you know, look, I mean, I can’t believe that the United States, which is, what, whose economy is six times bigger than Germany, whose labor force is three times bigger than Germany, is only accepting 10,000 refugees while Germany accepts, what, 800,000? I just think it’s been fascinating watching and reading about the coverage of the Syrian refugees versus the Central American quote, unquote, illegal aliens and illegal immigrants. These were children. We talk about the root of what’s happening in Syria and why the United States should help. Well, what is the root of what was happening and what is happening in Central America? I’m sorry, what did NAFTA do to the Mexican economy? Who funded the wars in El Salvador and Honduras? You know, these are the questions that we don’t talk about. The root causes of migration is one of the biggest human rights stories of a globalized, interconnected 21st century. And if we can’t even get this Mexico thing right in the United States, how are we going to get that bigger story right?
BELL: Are we any closer, in your estimation, to creating that line, even? Much less a pathway to citizenship, but just creating the line that people need or want to get into?
VARGAS: Well, actually, I think we’re further away. I think speaker Boehner resigning was a real nail in the coffin. People in DC have been telling me, looks it’s going to be until 2020 until you get something. You know, I have to be honest with you about this, like I really didn’t prepare for this long limbo. And maybe that’s very naïve of me to say. I just thought, okay I do this and then maybe I do it for a year, maybe I do it for two years, and then I can go on. Right? I thought I had given up, I thought I just was throwing away my entire career when I did this. I didn’t think that my professional life would actually be much better and much fuller and now that I’m honest with myself and with everybody else. That’s been probably the biggest surprise.
BELL: Well, it’s allowed you to do other things, too, that honesty and openness. You’re not just a journalist now, but you’ve also started this non-profit, Define American. Can you tell us a little bit about your organization?
VARGAS: I can’t talk about Define American without kind of contextualizing the LGBT rights movement. I still get whiplash thinking about where we were ten years ago and what Senator Inhofe was, in Oklahoma, was always a big name whenever LGBT rights came up in Washington, D.C. when I was a reporter at the Washington Post. Can you imagine where LGBT rights would be and the Supreme Court decision last summer without culture shifting? The culture of how we understood the rights and the humanity of our gay brothers, sisters, neighbors, coworkers, that had to shift first, before the politics shifted. I would make the same argument for immigrant rights. So long as people think we’re a bunch of illegal aliens, so long as we don’t ask broader, deeper questions about root causes of migration, so long as people don’t understand the family dynamics at play, so long as we don’t look at these people as people, nothing is going to change. So, Define American as all about changing the culture in which we understand immigration and immigrants in this country. So, we’re a non-profit media and culture organization using all forms of media to elevate the immigration conversation. Now, mind you, we didn’t call it "Define Immigrant", right? It’s called Define American because that’s what’s at stake.
BELL: How do you define "American?"
VARGAS: "American" was always something I had to fight for. It was always something I had to earn and I think you talk to any immigrant and I think that’s what they would tell you. This is a really combustible conversation, because I find it really interesting when people think that being born here, that that’s the only thing that makes them American. I don’t think that’s what got this country to where it is now. What, you’re born here? Poof. You’re an American. Congratulations, right? That, that’s it? How about American ingenuity? How about industry? How about innovation? How about you know, maybe not following some rules? I was rereading for example, The Grapes of Wrath, and started to think about just, you know, this idea of the frontier, of you know, of the West as a frontier. Immigrants have always been the one that lead that. Back then there were white European immigrants, but then again, I remember asking myself this, "...when did people become white?" When did that happen? When did the Latvians and the Irish and the Germans and you know...weren’t they Germans and Irish and Latvians when they got here? Did they have to be white so that they couldn’t be black? Is that what happened? So, that’s how I’m trying to connect all this work together. And between Define American and this other thing I’m about to launch, I’m kind of…
BELL: Yeah, talk to us about that.
VARGAS: I’m at full capacity.
BELL: Let’s talk about that a little bit.
VARGAS: I never thought I’d be an entrepreneur. I thought, when I was growing up, you know, I thought my ambition was to be a long form writer at the New Yorker. I figured Malcolm Gladwell can’t write all of those things. So, like, why don’t I be like the "B", "C" level Malcolm Gladwell? I never thought that I would actually have a film career. I mean, although, growing up, that’s kind of what I first gravitated towards. So, EmergingUS is kind of a combination of everything I’ve been doing; writing, filming, asking these hard, uncomfortable questions that people don’t necessarily want to answer. And so, if you go to EmergingUS.com, it’s a new digital magazine that is all about the emerging American identity and what that means. One of the sections, actually in the magazine is called White People, which is named after also, the documentary, MTV film, White People, and it’s about what does it mean for white Americans to be an emerging racial minority, which is already the reality in many parts of the country. Whenever we talk about diversity in this country, diversity, conversations about diversity seem to be relegated to people of color. Like, when we talk about diversity, we talk about it amongst people of color and we don’t invite white people into the conversation, I think that’s a mistake. I think because of where we are right now, I think many white people like they can’t really speak up or they can’t really say what they want to say, because they might like, you know, step on a land mine and be called racist. So, that’s why the film for me was, I call it an appetizer. The White People documentary to me is kind of an appetizer as to like how do we create a space where white Americans feel like they can honestly talk about race without being instantly judged?
BELL: This is Race Matters. I’m Merelyn Bell. If you’re just joining us, I’m speaking with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, filmmaker, and activist, Jose Antonio Vargas. We’ve been talking about Jose’s work as an immigration activist since he came out as an undocumented immigrant. Jose, you already sort of lead us into the next subject I want to talk about, so let’s switch gears and talk about your latest project and documentary, White People. So, White People appeared on MTV a few months ago and in the film, the basic premise is that you’ve traveled around that country asking young people about what it means to be white and leading conversations with them about a whole host of race related issues. So, I wonder if you can tell us why you chose to talk specifically to young white people about race.
VARGAS: One of the triggers was doing an event at the University of Georgia in Athens. This was in the fall of 2011. I had just come out in the New York Times magazine and I’m waiting for somebody to call me and tell me that I have to leave. So, I start giving speeches. So, I go to the University of Georgia and after the lecture, during the Q&A, this young man got up and started kind of having this, we had this, kind of intense exchange because he said he’s a republican and he thinks I should be deported blah blah blah blah blah. So, I said to him, “Well hey, where are you from?" Because I always get asked. Immigrants always get asked and people of color always get asked, "Where are you from?" And sometimes people are like, where are you from, from, right? So, I am like let me turn the tables around and you know, where are you from? And he was like, "I’m American." "No, no, no. Where are you from?" And he looked at me and he says, "I’m white." "But white is not a country," I said. "Like, where are you from?" And he looked stunned at that question and that was the moment that he got soft, right? Because he was kind of getting at me really hard and then his brow like furrowed and he goes, “Oh I don’t know. I don’t know where I’m from." To not know and to not have to know, well first of all, what a blessing and what a curse. And so I said to him well, you know, "Maybe you should go find out. Are you Irish, are you Scottish, are you German? How did your ancestors get here? Was it through Ellis Island? When they had to actually give a proof of identification? When they had to go through a literacy test? Was it through that or was it before that when they can just come and take land, right?" "Oh, I don’t know let me get back to you." Okay. So, that’s when I started thinking, right now, when people think of immigration, they think it’s a Latino issue, they think it’s a Mexican issue, they think it’s a border issue. They don’t even know that out of the 11.3 undocumented immigrants, a full 1.3 million are Asian. The fastest growing undocumented population are actually not Latinos, it’s Asians. They don’t even know that. We don’t even talk about undocumented Irish people, or German people, we don’t talk about undocumented Haitians, Caribbeans, black people. So, for me White People was a way to get to talk about immigration from the context in which we see race. Which was really hard for people to handle, but when the trailer was released, Rush Limbaugh was kind of all over it and I think he got like two million views within a span of five days because people were just so offended that a film would be called White People. I have to say, by the way, I’ve gotten a lot of death threats in the past four years because of what I do. It wasn’t, it has not been as intense as it’s been since White People came out because I think that’s the unquestionable part, right? Like, that is something that should not be questioned. Like, white is a given. Like, how dare you question it and make us feel bad about it, which is so interesting to me because when you see the film, that’s not it at all. People thought it was shaming them, making them feel guilty. I thought the reaction to it, actually was much more fascinating than what was even in the film. It’s a 41 minute film. Thankfully, MTV agreed to make it free on YouTube, so any teacher, for me that’s been the biggest success, so many teachers are using it. Because they can actually put it in sections, so the film is a project of Define American. So, there’s one section in the film, I don’t know if you remember, the last part of the film is in Brooklyn and Bensonhurst, that used to be a predominantly Italian town that is now becoming more Asian and I wanted to specifically end it there. So, again, so we can connect immigration and race together and kind of unpack what that meant.
BELL: I felt, watching the film, that young white people that you talked to actually seemed fairly comfortable opening up to you, but I wondered, like you said before, if there wasn’t a reaction from people of how dare you, you be the person going in two different communities and asking these questions as a non-white person. Did you get that response while making the film or afterwards?
VARGAS: I have to say, like I think my best skill, is I can get anybody to talk to me. And I actually think that’s what the MTV president, Stephen Friedman, because apparently Stephen said to me that he’s been wanting to make this kind of film for a decade, but just hasn’t found the right person to do it with. Because you know, it’s such a fine line. You don’t want to be didactic. You really want to be able to cross a bridge that is built on empathy, right? There was a lot of warming up that had to happen. Like some of those scenes were, like, hours and hours, right? To get people comfortable to actually talk about it. To talk about what whiteness even is. So, that took some work and of course, it was edited.
BELL: But why do you think that it is so difficult for people, but white people in particular, to talk about issues related to race?
VARGAS: Because they don’t see themselves as a race. That’s what I found that was really fascinating to me. And mind you, my racial consciousness began in 8th grade when Mr. Zaner, our English teacher, who also teaches History, gave us a sign to our book, our middle school book club, the Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. That’s when, kind of, my racial consciousness got started. And then Toni Morrison led to James Baldwin and then it was over. James Baldwin came freshman year in high school after 8th grade and all of the sudden, it was almost like a whole new world was opened up in front of me. And, I think, in this country, because white people have always been in the majority, it is not something to be questioned. It is the standard, it is the default. Everybody else has to be explained and unpacked and examined. Right, when all the studies, the bell curve, right? Are black people really can, are black people, can they be as smart as white people, right? What about those Asian people? Why are they doing so well? What about those Latinos? Like, why can’t they just not drop out of high school? But, now that white Americans are going to become, and have already become, a racialized other, I feel like in many ways, what’s at stake in American culture is unpacking what whiteness is and how it relates to everybody else. There was one scene in the film when a young woman talks about, well you know, being white is kind of like the default, it’s the norm and this didn’t make it into the final cut of the film, but, our exchange was something along the lines of what a burden that is. It doesn’t only hurt people who aren’t white, when white people say that they’re the norm and they’re the standard. It also hurts white people, right? The rest of the world is not white. Actually, whites are actually in the minority, globally. So, what does that do to the psyche to think that you’re the norm and you’re the standard when you’re not?
BELL: One of the other general critiques I’ve read about the film…
VARGAS: There was a lot.
BELL: A lot…
VARGAS: Oh my God. Actually, I have not read all of them because it was too much.
BELL: I didn’t want to bring it up, but there were quite a few, yes. And…
VARGAS: What was your favorite?
BELL: Well. Okay, so my favorite was something that I actually read on Slate by a journalist named Aisha Harris.
VARGAS: Oh, that was the one that I was most...I read that one. I was, it was one of those things where uh, go ahead, keep talking.
VARGAS: And I’ll get to it.
BELL: Okay. So, she says, and I’m going to quote here, because I think that this is at the heart of a lot of critiques from people, and what she said was quote: "These weren’t seven and eight year olds. So, why are we still attempting such placating, juvenile approaches with adults in 2015?" But then, by her own admission, in the beginning of that statement she said, maybe this is, and this is paraphrasing, maybe this is frustrating to me because I’m not the audience for this. I already know a lot of these things, so I wondered how you felt about that type of critique where people are already woke to these issues feel like why, why are we pulling people along. This is third grade stuff. Why would we do this?
VARGAS: I have to say, by the way, I, this is my, that was my third film and you know, I’m a writer so I’m used to being edited and critiqued and all that. One of the greatest advice that I ever got was I listened to Maya Angelou give a speech once and she said, "You can’t pick it up if you can’t put it down." Meaning, if you read of piece of criticism saying you’re the best ever, if you’re going to believe that, then you have to believe something that says you’re the worst ever. It’s either you don’t pick it up at all, you don’t believe it, so that means, you don’t pick, you don’t take it down, you don’t put it down. You know I don’t really kind of pay attention to too much of that, but in reading the criticisms, such as they were, it was so interesting how insular many of the criticisms were, meaning that, journalists themselves live in bubbles. I wonder, you know, I’ve never met, is it Aisha?
VARGAS: I can’t wait to meet her
BELL: Aisha Harris.
VARGAS: Because I’d want to know, has she gone to like, Arkansas and has she gone to Iowa and talked to a bunch of white people about race? In the same way that as an undocumented person, I make it a point to talk to as many Tea Party people as possible to understand where they’re coming from, right? I would argue that people of color are as much in a bubble as white people are in a bubble. And the question now, for us, is where’s the ground? How do we connect people, right? I thought some of the comments to me that were so interesting on social media was, some people were saying this is the first time I’ve ever seen white people think. Because actually that for me was the biggest success of the film. In that 41 minutes, right? From the Native American reservation, to the historically black college, you actually witness people go through thinking. When that woman says, oh, maybe I’m wrong about scholarships. Do people actually admit being wrong on television? Like, so look, I am very proud of that 41 minute appetizer and I can’t wait to get to the entrée.
BELL: Jose Antonio Vargas, thank you so much for being here with us, today.
VARGAS: Thank you so much for having me.