The new documentary White People opens with the journalist Jose Antonio Vargas approaching white people on the street and telling them he’s “doing a film for MTV on what it means to be young and white.” Each person giggles a bit. To them, the premise, on its face, seems funny.
But it was groans, not giggles, that greeted the news in November that MTV had put out a casting call that asked questions like “Are you being made to feel guilty because you’re white?” and “Are you having a problem with race on social media?” It sounded like a Breitbart.com reporter fishing for a follow-up to the Shirley Sherrod story—an attempt to make it seem as though white people were victims of an increasingly diverse nation, even as headlines keep reminding Americans that race divisions still harm the same people that they have always harmed in this country.
In the days before White People aired, though, professional critics started airing a different kind of disapproval of the project. The consensus seems largely to be that, in the words of Willa Paskin at Slate, the film’s “a little too remedial with and gentle on, well, white people.” The headline for Ken Tucker’s Yahoo review read, sarcastically, “Race Privilege Exists, MTV Discovers.”
Still yet another reaction unfolded when the documentary’s title started trending on Twitter and Facebook last night, with some users accusing MTV of “race baiting” and “whiteshaming.” “Wow,” wrote Ryan Wesley Smith, a 17-year-old Christian speechmaker with 120,000 followers. “Just watched @MTV's #WhitePeople docu. The most racially dividing thing I've ever seen. Really disheartening.”
The spectrum of responses speaks to the difficult but admirable task that Vargas and MTV’s Look Different campaign have undertaken. In some parts of America, “white privilege” and “race is a construct” are catechisms; in other parts, they’re seen as huckersterish buzzwords; in most, perhaps, they’re totally unfamiliar concepts. Popular works of art and entertainment directly addressing racial issues have rightfully focused on minority struggles, which means the notion that whiteness itself can and should be held up for scrutiny is usually only implied. White People makes that idea explicit, telling white people that to understand inequality they need to understand the ways that they’ve unwittingly benefited from it. Aired alongside the likes of Teen Mom and Teen Wolf , it should hit a broad swath of young people who really might stand to learn something.
As one of the folks interviewed in the film says, whiteness is too often seen as “the default”—how can a 40-minute documentary even begin to start deconstructing something so big? White People attempts the challenge with a creative hodgepodge of approaches, all rendered in MTV’s tried-and-true—and, to me and I expect most adults, extremely grating—style of transparently manipulative editing and more manipulative music. Running throughout the program are scenes of town-hall discussions in places like Rapid City, South Dakota; Bellingham, Washington; and Phoenix. Vargas lobs gentle but provocative questions at the largely white attendees, many of whom, it turns out, do possess some racial consciousness. One of the participant offers a particularly brutal assessment of what white privilege means: “You don’t have to show people that you’re one of the”—airquotes now—“‘good ones.’”
But the best parts of the program try to debunk common, defiant responses white people have when told that they’re privileged. A segment revolves around the notion—certainly front of mind for the MTV demographic—that white people are missing out on scholarships because of affirmative action in financial aid. Vargas zeroes in on a white teenage girl named Katie in Scottsdale, Arizona who can’t afford the college of her choice, and for a moment you worry that the documentary is going to validate claims of “reverse racism.” But then Vargas brings in statistics saying that white people receive scholarships at a disproportionately higher rate compared to people of color. During a group discussion, a multiracial teenager points out that he, like Katie, wasn’t awarded any scholarships. “I’m starting to feel like a victim,” Katie says, echoing the sentiments of many white people when made to talk about race—but what the documentary’s actually showing is that she isn’t one.
At one point, Vargas visits the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst, a formerly Italian enclave that has seen an influx of Chinese immigrants. A young white man canvasses the neighborhood to collect signatures to hold a block party, but is turned away by folks who don’t speak English. At dinner, that man’s father says it upsets him that the Asian newcomers in town aren’t very friendly. But Vargas, as well as some locals interviewed on screen, point out that the language barrier is a natural part of the immigrant experience. The Italian Americans acknowledge this; the dinner-table dad himself, it turns out, moved to America at age 5 and had a hard time adjusting. Racial healing? Not quite. But it’s a dose of perspective that perhaps not everyone watching might have come to on their own.
The most moving segment comes early on, when a white gay man from the South who’s attending a historically black college sits down for dinner with a racially mixed group of friends. He starts talking about how he can act “ghetto” just like black girls, and you can see that what he thought was a harmless comment—the exact same kind of comment you often hear from white people who consider themselves enlightened, especially white gay men—is actually hurtful. One of the girls bursts into tears, saying that “ghetto” has often been used to make fun of her. The soundtrack goes tender; hugs are had.
The special’s insistence on making sure that each example of racial misunderstanding is resolved into a moment of reconciliation probably dilutes the message—conversation doesn’t, in fact, heal all wounds in the real world. And the documentary conspicuously relegates the vast history of violence associated with white dominance to a very quick primer during a visit to an Indian reservation. Vargas and his producers likely chose to pull their punches in hopes of keeping the audience as broad as possible, and to placate skeptics who might accuse the show of attacking white people. Judging from some of the reaction that’s unfolded on social media, a lot of those skeptics were never going to be converted anyways. But with its combination of basic fact-giving and straightforward emotional appeal on a subject that white people are usually allowed to be oblivious about, there’s reason to hope that at least some viewers got the message.
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