MTV’s ‘White People’ Director Jose Antonio Vargas Believes ‘Diversity Is the …

23 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘White People’ explores gray areas in privilege and stereotypes.

“Let’s get uncomfortable together,” the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas tells a young crowd in White People, an MTV documentary that asks Americans to consider what it means to be white. In an episode of “The Middle” last season, Sue Heck (played by Eden Sher) couldn’t figure out why the guide on her college tour kept steering her to the school’s Native American programs.On Wednesday night, MTV will premiere a documentary called White People, which aims to explore what white people, especially millennial white people, think about being 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. Isn’t it funny how you can make a joke about white people, but if you use the term “black people,” you risk being called a racist before you finish your sentence?

Vargas has since devoted himself to starting difficult conversations about prejudice and privilege — not only with those who identify as people of colour, but also those who don’t. “In my own experience, whenever we talk about diversity … it’s usually people of colour, amongst ourselves. Its exploration of how young white people see themselves and their status in an increasingly diverse America is earnest and upbeat, going out of its way to avoid blame or bad feelings. This documentary is just one of the latest—but also one of the more high-profile—efforts to leave “colorblindness” behind and point out to white people that race is not just an issue for people of color, but an issue for everyone, one that bestows not just hardship, discrimination, and racism, but also privilege. Vargas is a good match for MTV because he privileges emotion over analysis, and he’s able to draw interesting and occasionally moving responses from his college-age subjects.

Produced, directed, and hosted by Vargas, who identifies himself as an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines, White People doesn’t place blame on anyone. In true MTV style, the film seeks out high-yield situations, visiting white teachers at a South Dakota reservation, for instance, or an Arizona woman who believes that being white kept her from getting college scholarships. And there are moments that recall the network’s baser reality shows, such as when a black college student breaks into tears while discussing the meanings of “ghetto,” or when Mr. Aisha Harris: I, too, think this is a great idea for a documentary—but unfortunately, it met my expectations of what a typical MTV doc (which, at 40 minutes, is really more like a TV special) will inevitably be like.

Not in the way “white” has been often defined, the ideal from which all the other races “diverge.” In fact, the term “white people” didn’t move around in the casual lexicon much until fairly recently, when it became something of a punch line, a reminder that Caucasian is, in fact, just another race whose members might want to know what it feels like to be defined instantly and solely by color. Vargas solemnly asks the Arizonan about her college aspirations, “How badly do you want this?” But, in general, his approach is as straightforward as the network’s style and the allotted time will allow.

He offers statistics that refute the notion that minority students receive a disproportionate share of scholarships (the opposite is true) and he elicits smart, sometimes tortured comments from both whites and nonwhites. Vargas visits several cities across the country (mostly in predominantly white, rural areas) and profiles white people in each of those cities, but we spend so little time with each of them, and the conversations are edited so heavily, that it always felt rushed. One college kid introduces his black college friends (he chose to go to the historically black Winston-Salem State University) to his white friends from home for the first time, and the dinner table talk felt so … juvenile? To do this, Vargas (who recently partnered with the Los Angeles Times to create a multimedia digital magazine exploring race and identity called #EmergingUS) speaks with folks who deal with their whiteness in a highly overt way, including: None of whom, I hasten to add, appear as “in extremis” as they seem when described.

A white student refers to discrimination as “what I’ve constantly been told my whole life that I cannot possibly ever relate to or understand.” On the evidence of “White People,” a rising generation of white Americans is more aware than ever of the realities of racism and is willing to talk about them. But another statistic the film presents may render that moot: Within 30 years, those whites will slide from majority to plurality in the American population.

It felt like something that would be meant for third graders to watch (I’m reminded of Linda Ellerbee and her Nick News TV show that I loved as a kid), and not something that would actually benefit young adults. Paskin: That moment stood out to be for another reason as well: just how blithely the white woman confessed to being racist occasionally (“it’s a bad part of you”), as if expecting points for honesty, and just how painfully it landed on the black women at the table. 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. A dinner in which Dakota brings his black friends from college to dinner with his white family is just as odd and uncomfortable as you would imagine, while the widely felt concern that whites don’t have the same scholarship opportunities as other races is debunked gently but firmly.

As the recent outrage over the use of the word “diversity” as shorthand for the inclusion of races other than Caucasian makes clear, it is time we stop thinking of white as the base to which other colors may or may not be added. The visits to various towns were, as you say, very basic and perfunctory—which was actually at odds with the conversations he seemed to be having in classrooms, conversations that framed those visits. Those classroom conversations were highly edited, but it did seem like some of the white people involved in them had a more complex understanding of race and the conversation around race. It’s a learning experience for Dakota, but, watching this woman cry, it’s hard not to resent Vargas for dragging a black woman into a potentially painful situation just so she can educate Dakota’s white friends. Watching a white woman describe her privilege as never having been institutionally oppressed is enough to make a feminist scream, and surely Dakota’s experience as a gay man tempers his experience of life as much as his whiteness.

And this woman on Twitter was genuinely hurt; her tweet to me was, “My white life matters.” And I tweeted back at her and I was like, “Of course it does.” Of course it does, but your life mattering has been a given. Harris: It was also very telling that the white girl went out of her way to say that she didn’t cross the street anymore—it was something that she USED to think, and she knows it was wrong. It was like a throwaway thought for her, and she didn’t seem to address the weight of those thoughts at all. (Or maybe she did, and it was edited out.

Again, this was quite the perfunctory special.) The same sort of thing occurred in what I thought was the most effective part of the documentary, the college student who was convinced that the reason she couldn’t afford her dream school was because she didn’t get any scholarships … because she’s white. Cabrera, of the Education Policy Studies and Practice University of Arizona, who points out that white people receive the most merit-based scholarships out of any other ethnicity, and relays that information to her, she seems reluctant to fully acknowledge she was wrong to think her whiteness was working against her.

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! He first introduces an Italian-American guy and his family, who he basically encourages, very nicely, to be as racist as they possibly could be on camera, a tack he takes in almost all of the other interviews as well.

The family, like everyone else, takes the bait, but barely, complaining a little about how all the Asians immigrants who have moved into the neighborhood don’t speak English. But there’s one genuine moment of surprise halfway through the movie, after Vargas attends a “white privilege workshop” at a college in Bellingham, Washington. This seems like coded, racist dog whistling, but anyone who knows about the history of immigration in this country knows what is coming next: the beat where it is pointed out that Italian-Americans were once the denigrated, non-white immigrant group, discriminated against because they didn’t speak English.

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? And what role does a European phenotype play in being able to assimilate?—to have a linear one, that ends with a little happy ending about the potential for progress. 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.

At first the woman feels cornered by the facts and says she feels like she is being “judged,” but in a follow-up interview she gets to backtrack, take in the statistics, and tell Vargas, “Maybe I am wrong.” She is definitely, definitely wrong. 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. Instead, we get this sort of cooked up family drama between him and his father, whom Vargas goads into admitting that he feels “attacked” by the idea of white privilege. This does make me wonder, though: Are our criticisms so pointed because we couldn’t possibly learn anything new from this, whereas others, like the dad, might?

These weren’t 7 and 8 year olds, the blue eyes-brown eyes experiment doesn’t cut it anymore, so why are we still attempting such placating, juvenile approaches with adults in 2015? When En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind”— “be colorblind, don’t be so shallow”—was cutting edge.) White People is very obviously trying to move white people past that approach— and even in progressive circles that can still be pretty controversial.

Harris: My final thought: Vargas’ troubling interviewing tactics aside, I think the stories and people he did choose to interview would have been served better in a mini-series format; one episode per person, over the course of a few days or weeks. This subject matter is way bigger than a 40-minute special, and I hope that if this does well enough ratings-wise, MTV will consider doing a more sprawling in-depth report with this same angle. And if we’re going to truly try to change how we address race in America, we have to, well, change how we address race in America: by devoting a significant amount of time to it at all, for starters.

Here you can write a commentary on the recording "MTV’s ‘White People’ Director Jose Antonio Vargas Believes ‘Diversity Is the …".

* Required fields
Twitter-news
Our partners
Follow us
Contact us
Our contacts

About this site