MTV’s ‘White People’ documentary is coming to a classroom near you

23 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘It’s ignorant garbage': MTV under fire from viewers over ‘spoof’ video about racism and white privilegeLast 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. MTV is hoping to make people stand up and take notice of the problem of white privilege in the United States with their satirical new video – but not everyone is in on the joke.

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. 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. In a new commercial for the fictional company White Squad, a spoof spokesperson offers services designed to help people of color overcome issues of ‘white advantage’ by hiring a white person to represent them. 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.

Vargas as he travels the country speaking to young people about issues of race, particularly what it means to be white and experience white privilege. But while the tongue-in-cheek video and accompanying website direct viewers to the Look Different campaign – which was created to fight inequality of all kinds – some people who have watched the clip say that racism is nothing to joke about – or have completely missed that it was a joke at all. ‘Is your skin color holding you back?’ a voice asks as the man in the car shakes his head.

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.

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. A black woman working on a computer looks frustrated as the voice continues: ‘Are you tired of systemic prejudice ruining your day?’ Then, a white man in a polo comes on screen and announces: ‘I’d like to tell you about a new solution to racial inequality. 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. 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. 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.

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.

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. 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. That’s why our services come with 100 per cent advantage guarantee.’ ‘I had good grades, but I couldn’t get a scholarship,’ says one African American girl who is seen laboring over a textbook. ‘Then I called White Squad and I was decorating my dorm room in no time.’ The people behind the campaign even built a fully-function website for the faux-company, instructing customers on how to make an appointment – by calling 1-855-WHT-SQAD – and offering more information on each of its individual services.

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? 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. 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. 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.

While both the video and the White Squad website were created as satire, purposefully using humor to highlight a problem and point out the foolishness that such a problem exists, some people are unamused by the MTV enterprise. 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. The Huffington Post’s Black Voices wrote that the commercial is ‘painfully hilarious and all too real’, and one Twitter user called it both ‘funny’ and ‘informative’. Some of which make their presence felt there — the soundtrack insists on reminding everyone how they should be feeling — though at levels so low the MTV demographic probably won’t notice. “White People” clearly prides itself on being frank about things that too often fester. “A lot of people feel like that,” Vargas says several times in answer to white people reluctantly saying they feel discriminated against or are tired of being made to feel ashamed. “Why do you feel like that?” But if brevity forces the narrative to skim, it does not skirt. 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.

But other people on the social media platform expressed a concern that MTV could have used more tact. ‘You guys could have gotten your point across much better if you chose a different avenue,’ wrote one person who used the hashtag #disgusted, while others seemed to have missed the joke entirely, asking: ‘Is this real?’ and ‘It’s 2015. 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. 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. They tweeted: ‘Satirical or not you’re fueling the hate in one way or another, @mtv #Whitesquad #racialdivide’ The documentary itself has also received some public backlash, though it has yet to air.

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. They then all engage in a conversation about how the bursars of financial aid are fickle; how that fickleness is, indeed, an inherent quality of life; how it is easy to get angry, without knowing the whole story. Jose has said that that’s not what it is about, and Stephen Friedman, President of MTV, backed him up in a statement, explaining: ‘By shining a spotlight on whiteness, we hope White People will serve as a powerful conversation starter that encourages our audience to address racial bias through honest, judgment-free dialogue.’ 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.

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. 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. 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! 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. 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.

This means that Vargas chose not to have a really complex conversation from the start—what does an immigrant who feels fully assimilated and his fully assimilated children make of their new immigrant neighbors? 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 a way, I kind of imagine that that kid’s class could be of way more educational use than this doc—but of course, White People never lets us see what he’s actually teaching them. 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.

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