White Identity Isn’t The Same As White Nationalism

The country (including me) is thinking and talking a lot about race recently. Reading this article in The Atlantic, about the work of Professor Ashley Jardina of Duke, gave me new nuance to my perspective.

In her book, White Identity Politics, Jardina draws a distinction between those who self-identify as white but hold no animus against other races, and those who do.

In other words, there is a difference between a “white identifier” and a “white nationalist.”

Far too often, in the debates we have, and I include myself in this, I think that opponents of racism have conflated white identifiers and white nationalists.

While white identifiers do tend to support some of Donald Trump’s policies, such as restricting immigration, they seem to be disgusted by the statements he makes that seem to indicate an anti-minority bias.

Objectively, I don’t think we should view white identification negatively. After all, I don’t view black identification, or Asian-American identification negatively. You can be racially self-aware without being a racist.

And during the Trump era, while Trump’s rhetoric has fired up the white nationalist types, who are prejudiced against other races, it has repelled at least some white identifiers, according to Jardina:

“There is some evidence that despite his efforts, Trump has turned away some of his initial supporters. I’ve found that after the 2016 election, there was a 10-percentage-point drop in the number of white people who identify as white. I’m working on a study now with some colleagues that tries to understand why we’ve seen this drop. What we’ve found thus far is that the drop has largely been motivated by dislike or disgust toward Donald Trump. There’s also some evidence that Trump is partly responsible for a reduction in levels of racial prejudice among some whites.”

Jardina’s work illustrates how the real world is complicated and messy; on the one hand, many feel that Trump has increased overt racism in this country because prejudiced individuals seem more willing to share their beliefs in the public sphere. On the other hand, some white identifiers seem to respond to that same environment by shedding their pro-white identity.

The practical lesson for me, and which I will try to implement in the future, is to remember that white identity is different from white nationalism. Far too often, I see people react to any white identification as if it were a mark of racism. Jardina’s research suggests that in that situation, you should probe further, to understand whether or not the person holds animus towards other races.

The difficult part is that white identification can sometimes lead a person to support or oppose many (but not all) of the same policies as a white nationalist, but the distinction still matters, because it indicates whether or not it’s possible to modify their perspective with examples or other evidence.

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