MTV’s White People Asks White Millennials About Race in America, Gets Mixed …

24 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

MTV’s ‘White People’ documentary sparks a complicated conversation, but avoids harsh truths.

When the documentary’s trailer first dropped, it raised numerous questions. 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.

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.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. 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. 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.

While many supported the programme, others expressed a discomfort – or vehement denial – of the claims and representations of white people and racism shown as #WhitePeople trended on the social network. 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. In previous interviews, Vargas has explicitly stated that the ideal audience for this 40-minute documentary — which debuted Wednesday on MTV and is now available on YouTube in its entirety — is young white Millennials. (That automatically rules out this journalist.) After watching his work, it’s easy to see why. 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. It’s an interesting, albeit simple opening that forces these white kids to try and define themselves the way nonwhite people are forced to almost every day. 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. In one section of the documentary, Vargas visits the Crazy Horse High School in South Dakota, which has a 100% Lakota student body … but all the teachers are white. 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. Of course, their time is split pretty evenly to include the experiences of their white teachers because this is still a documentary about white folks.

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. Considering how often Native Americans are grossly overlooked in broader conversations of diversity, it was imperative for Vargas to include their voices here.

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.

Vargas urges Dakota to bring two of his black college friends home to meet his white high school friends, and over dinner, one white woman admits that she used to cross the street if she saw a black person coming toward her. 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. 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. One young woman in particular, Katy, tells Vargas that scholarships are discriminatory and often go to people of color, which is why she can’t afford to go to Grand Canyon University.

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. In general, the film glosses over a number of harsh topics, particularly issues inherently caused by white supremacy — such as gentrification, disproportionate incarceration rates and police brutality.

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. It’s also interesting when that specific conversation is actually started by a white person — like Lucas, a 22-year-old white man who leads white privilege workshops in Washington, but struggles to bring around his ultra conservative parents. 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. Instead, he simply offers statistics that dispute her claim: White students are actually 40 percent more likely than students of color to get scholarships. 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. 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!

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. In the documentary’s best moments, he moderates a series of town hall-style discussions focused on answering tough questions like “What does white privilege mean to you?” and “How do you feel talking with a person of a different race?” The answers are mostly smart and nuanced and honest in a way that also makes for great television.

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