Beto O’Rourke speaks at a rally in Los Angeles, Calif., April 27, 2019. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)It seems that being thought Hispanic is an advantage, not a disadvantage.
A great deal of controversy has continued the past few days over Robert Francis O’Rourke’s longtime use of a nickname given to him at birth (albeit temporarily jettisoned while in prep school) — especially in the wake of his recent sensational and unfounded charges that Donald Trump is directly responsible for the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and that white supremacy defines America, past and present, and explains Trump’s culpability.
The point of the amused contention is not that O’Rourke was given such a nickname at or near birth. Rather, the controversy is over his continued use of the sobriquet for cynical political advantage in a somewhat related manner to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s longtime false cultural appropriation of a Native American identity for careerist purposes. After all, we live in a progressive era in which “cultural appropriation” is a mortal sin and non-minority university students are routinely chastised for wearing clothing or hairstyles associated with minority groups or appearing in dramas playing the roles of characters of a different ethnic background.
According to the Dallas Morning News, a quite prescient senior O’Rourke once explained why he had given the shortened form of the Spanish “Roberto” to his son as a nickname. And he seemed to imply that such naming was for political reasons in addition to avoiding confusing young Robert with his maternal grandfather of the same first name:
In the backdrop of the city’s multicultural community, his father, Pat O’Rourke, a consummate politician, once explained why he nicknamed his son Beto: Nicknames are common in Mexico and along the border, and if he ever ran for office in El Paso, the odds of being elected in this mostly Mexican-American city were far greater with a name like Beto than Robert Francis O’Rourke.
While congressman and would-be Senator Beto apparently found the Hispanic nickname advantageous in some ways in local and statewide Texas races (ironically, sometimes in contests opposed to those of authentic Latino ancestries), his continued use of Beto suggests that he thinks it also resonates, at the least, an empathy for assumed marginalized peoples, and at the most offers some confusion to less well-informed voters over whether he is in fact Latino himself.
Add in the fact that Beto is also a child of both inherited and maritally acquired wealth and what he would call “white privilege” that likely kept him as a sometimes reckless youth out of jail on one occasion for a serious crime. Thus, in a bizarre way, the misleading nickname offers some concrete authenticity to his chronic resentment of the very privilege he has for so long enjoyed.
Certainly, a number of Hispanic politicians and opinion writers have chided Beto for cynically giving incomplete impressions to voters — that he might be ethnically as well as linguistically Latino. Again, one could cite cruder efforts at gaining some sort of political or careerist traction in the minority misrepresentations of Senator Warren, Ward Churchill, or Rachel Dolezal. Warren, after all, who makes the same sort of serial allegations of dominant and endemic white supremacy that Beto does, did not choose to assume a false Finnish or Irish identity to propel her legal and academic career, although, given her appearance, it would have been an easier distortion.
But why his nickname is again in the news and additionally matters is because Beto himself is on record recently of damning Trump as a white nationalist and a racist who is responsible for the El Paso shootings. According to Beto, Trump apparently seeks to resonate with kindred white supremacists. Beto additionally goes further in damning the United States as essentially governed by ideas of white supremacy both now and in its past.
But again, Beto is no longer running a local congressional or even a Texas-wide race. He has far transcended the clairvoyant predictions of his father that the nickname would come in handy in the anticipated borderland politics of southern Texas.
Rather, Beto seems to think that the current and continued Hispanicizing of his nomenclature (remember, at times Beto has dropped his nickname) will pay dividends in a national race. Yet according to his own logic, it should not, given his prior denunciations that America is incurably racist.
Given that all politicians entertain a degree of cynicism and opportunism, if we truly lived in a culture of white supremacy, we would more likely see candidates fabricating European dog-whistle names and identities than the sad efforts of a Churchill, Dolezal, O’Rourke, or Warren. And in fact, in a far different America of the past, many minority celebrities and politicians did assume Anglicized names on their unfortunately all-too-accurate assumption that too many white racists would ostracize them for their minority status.
Yet the opposite linguistic dynamic has been in play for some time. A young and politically ambitious Obama brilliantly understood that political reality when, in a twist to authenticity, he ceased going by his teenage nickname Barry and reverted to his actual birth name, Barack.
In terms of linguistic contortions or just simply adaptations, the force of compound names, accent marks, and ethnic sobriquets is to suggest perceived difference from, not homogeneity with, the majority population — to the extent that, in a racially intermarried and assimilated population, anyone’s ethnic heritage is clear.
In other words, O’Rourke’s use of Beto seems ipso facto to suggest that he privately believes in general that Americans of all backgrounds (including a supposed 70 percent white electorate) either do not care whether a candidate is so-called white or, more likely, are intrigued by or admire those who are not — again, sort of refuting Beto’s entire premise of an intolerant and all-powerful white-supremacist society.
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