11 Things White People Need To Realize About Race

23 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Can MTV fix race relations?.

When I see news of a black boy being shot dead by police on a playground because he was holding a plastic gun; or a black woman being pushed to the ground with a knee at her neck, then ending up dead while in police custody, I’m not wondering whether a white girl in Arizona feels discriminated against because she thinks all the college scholarship money goes to brown people – which, by the way, is statistically untrue.MTV’s controversial documentary on white privilege was only broadcast last night but it has already accomplished the director’s aim of making people “uncomfortable”.Last night, MTV premiered a documentary from its inhouse “Look Different” campaign and nonprofit Define American called, provocatively, “White People.” The film, just an hour long, is hosted by Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who is himself not white—he is Filipino-American, as he explains in the first few minutes.

What I wonder is how a nation of complicit white Americans can live with themselves in the current climate of terrorism against black people in a structurally racist system. The documentary, White People, aims to start a dialogue about race and perception of racism by placing white Americans in communities where they are the minority. His mission with “White People” is to understand whiteness—and though many of his subjects laugh when he asks them about their white experience, the premise is entirely earnest. The limits of a so-called colorblind philosophy — the discussions it skirts, the barriers it creates — was the a-ha conclusion of a 2014 study, commissioned by MTV, about millennials and bias.

It asks them and its viewing audience to consider what it really means to be Caucasian in a country where the average person’s friends are more than 91 per cent white. When MTV released the official trailer earlier this month, complete with shots of white people wiping their tears away, conservatives proclaimed, “MTV Documentary Shames White Youth,” while liberals rolled their eyes and joked, “Watch White People Cry About White Privilege.” All of this should come as no surprise.

He visits and holds workshops with students in Bellingham, Washington, Rapid City, South Dakota, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina; he discusses culture clash in Bensonhurst and college scholarships at Grand Canyon State University. The film aired on Wednesday night as part of MTV’s Look Different campaign, intended to promote racially and socially inclusive behaviour – because we can’t seem to manage this on our own. And throughout he encourages his participants of all races to be as honest as possible; to not worry about giving offense, or sparing anyone’s feelings.

The journalist identifies himself as an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines, inviting frank discussion about the issue by saying to a young group “let’s get uncomfortable” before starting discussions. “I remember as a kid flipping through GQ, Esquire, and never seeing an Asian face like mine. There’s something elegant about the MTV documentary’s restraint; in its focus on young people and on open conversation, it sketches out an idea of how race relations might progressively improve. But we don’t include you in the conversation.” I would argue, first, that we actually don’t talk that much about race in this country – we perpetuate the social construct of race by insisting that it is inherent and real.

That is quite different from having a conversation about race, which would mean an active, rigorous exchange of thoughts and ideas about how to dismantle its toxic and murderous byproduct, racism. Vargas is trying to draw out a strain of white resentment usually only voiced by anonymous commenters, right-wing ideologues, and mass murderers—that of the dominant racial identity in America losing its privilege, and therefore, in some ways, its identity. The network has issues of its own; this week, Nicki Minaj loudly complained about the Video Music Awards nominations, suggesting (with good reason) that if she were thin and white, her “Anaconda” video would be up for a bigger prize. The arc of observing white privilege, through pointing it out, and ending in all parties accepting that privilege is a maddening one that takes incredible care and patience to execute.

Vargas travels around the country, convenes people in living rooms and auditoriums, asks them to speak dark inner truths, then furrows his brow dramatically when someone says something problematic. The furrowing happens often — MTV pioneered reality TV, where manufactured conflict is required — which is part of the reason the conservative media has whipped itself into a frenzy over the film’s purported “white shaming.” It’s an overblown charge, but worth addressing more explicitly than MTV dares.

In an early section of the film Dakota, a white gay man from the rural South who opted to go to a nearby HBCU because it was affordable and an easy commute, brings home his black friends (Brittanee and Jazzmine) to meet his family. The movie only hints at the way a term like “white privilege” — descriptive as it is, rooted in academia — breezes past the economic uncertainty that fuels so much social tension. Traveling to predominantly white, rural areas in Washington, South Dakota, North Carolina, and Arizona, he chats with young white people whose life experiences make them ideal subjects for illustrating larger points about race, though they don’t always offer the most complex perspectives on the topic. Her mother tells Vargas she believes this is a new kind of racism, a “reverse discrimination”; and even Katy’s young friend (a woman of color) is moved to criticize this unfair distribution of educational funds.

The camera pans to Brittanee and Jazzmine, who had both earlier expressed excitement about meeting their friend’s family, but now realize that they have unwittingly laid themselves bare for a public flogging. To Vargas’ credit, he takes Katy’s concern very seriously—enough that he goes to GCSU and sits down with a representative from the university, bringing Katy’s concern to him.

In the small town of Tobaccoville, North Carolina, Vargas meets Dakota, a gay man who grew up in a lily-white neighborhood but chose to attend the historically black college Winston-Salem State University. Dakota interrupts with an observation that white people will remark on how “black people can get real ghetto real fast”, and adds that he, too, can get real ghetto real fast. In Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, he urges second- and third-generation Italians to see the similarities between their ancestors and the wary, insular Chinese immigrants who have moved into the neighborhood — and vice versa.

It’s an honest confession, though not one that would win her any points, and it’s a strange conversation to feature as an example of this generation’s feelings about race. Dakota comforts her in a hallway, the cameras cut and then we’re back at the dinner table, where Brittanee explains that in her experience the word has always been used in a derogatory way. Then he, and the other students, have to all process the feelings of the white person in the room; Katy’s response is almost laughably rote, one that we have heard many times, in many forms: “I feel like you guys are attacking me right now.” Katy’s metaphoric hand is held for the next few minutes, as Vargas assures her that many other people feel the way she does, and that it’s just hard when you don’t get a thing you want, to accept that it’s your fault.

The segment closes with Brittanee telling no one in particular, but Miranda implicitly, to “put yourself in other people’s shoes before you say something”. At the Crazy House school in Wanblee, South Dakota, where the students are all Native American and the faculty are mostly white, Vargas asks the teachers what it’s like to work near the site of a famous Lakota slaughter. “We’ve never had to internalize what white people have done in America, but here, you can’t escape that,” says one white teacher. The film is sprinkled with data from a 2014 MTV survey of 14-to-24-year-olds that maintains that white members of this demographic largely adhere to a colorblind mentality. Vargas and “White People” does well to pursue those lines of thinking—if only because those assumptions and rationales really exist, for a lot of people—but if there is a lesson here, it is that breaking the simple logic of white supremacy is an arduous process.

If it takes this many people of color to change the mind of one teenage girl with fabulous hair, what will it take to make Donald Trump feel empathy? “White People,” being an MTV product, is naturally skewed toward the concerns of young people—and that inherently means maintaining some optimism, as it focuses intensely on the future. One black woman says she doesn’t think there are any disadvantages, while a white man says: “That’s like asking a rich person ‘Tell me how hard it is being rich’.” Asked how it feels to talk to a person of a different race, one white woman says: “I could care less what someone’s race is. On one hand, that’s incredibly aggravating—must we center whiteness even in our narratives of racism?—but on the other hand, there’s some practical logic there. In Scottsdale, Arizona, he meets Katy, a young white woman who believes she can’t get a college scholarship because all the scholarships are awarded “for race.” “It kind of feels like I’m being discriminated against,” she says, uttering the film’s most incendiary words. And that’s what needs to happen more than anything else – even more than the big needle-moving national “conversation” all of us in the struggle fantasise about, led by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the president, and Ava DuVernay.

White people need to feel uncomfortable, and black people, people of colour, need to see them sit in that discomfort – not the white tears model, but the paradigm shift variety. It’s the kind of discomfort Toni Morrison invoked in a conversation with talkshow host Charlie Rose, in which she asked: “If I take your race away and there you are all strung out and all you’ve got is your little self. If anything, Vargas works hard to prevent Katy from looking like a villain. “You’re not the only one who feels this way,” he tells her when she starts to feel guilty. He knows that’s not an excuse, but he’s an expert when it comes to empathy, which is why he’s so good at helping people like Katy open their minds. When Vargas goes to Bensonhurt, Brooklyn, where the culture is quickly changing from Italian-American to Asian, he’s primed with the big epiphany that the Asian population actually has a lot in common with the Italian-American population!

Outside the classroom, Vargas turns to a few students of color who are hanging out on campus and asks: Is it okay to have a white person teaching other white people about race? Another woman agrees: “They don’t feel like they’re being attacked.” This is exactly what Vargas is best at himself: creating a space where people don’t feel like they’re being attacked.

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