‘White People’ Director Jose Antonio Vargas

23 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘It’s ignorant garbage': MTV under fire from viewers over ‘spoof’ video about racism and white privilegeMTV 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.

New York – One of the challenges for makers of the MTV documentary White People was getting folks to talk about race when they didn’t feel the issue concerned them — like those quoted as saying they consider white the “default race” or “normal”. 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. The documentary was made by Jose Antonio Vargas, who among other things, is a Pulitzer-winning reporter for the Washington Post who came out as an undocumented immigrant in a powerful 2011 piece in the New York Times Magazine.

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 found a white man who attends a traditionally black college, teachers on a South Dakota reservation where resentment toward whites is palpable, a young Brooklyn man bewildered by the Asian immigrants on his block, a white man who teaches a college course on white privilege. “The only thing I fear is not having these conversations,” Vargas said. “What I fear is the silence, the indifference, the ignorance. We can no longer have a conversation about race and diversity without having white people in it.” Racial issues are timely, topping the news during the past several months with the “black lives matter” campaign in response to police shootings and the debate over the Confederate flag. MTV President Stephen Friedman said he’s wanted to look at how whites perceive themselves for several years, but it wasn’t until he met Vargas that he felt he’d found the right person to do it.

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. 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. We’ve assembled a team of reassuring white people, each with unique areas of effectiveness,’ he goes on, gesturing to an office full of white people behind desks helping non-white customers. 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.

Vargas’s documentary is an addition to an atmosphere where discussions of race are seemingly inescapable — he’s certainly not the first person to focus on whiteness. 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. 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? 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.

Vargas talks to a white student with a 3.8 grade point average in high school who now goes to a community college; she and her mother are convinced that racial minorities get the edge in college scholarships and admissions. “I feel like I’m being discriminated against,” she said. 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. A white Italian-American from Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighbourhood is angered by many of the Asians who moved into his neighbourhood not wanting to help with a block party until it was pointed out that how his ancestors were looked down upon generations earlier. Lucas says he never talked about race with his parents growing up, something that’s fairly typical for white millennials, according to MTV’s research.

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. Each stop on the journey could easily sustain its own episode — especially when padded with shots of Vargas meeting larger groups — if the genre weren’t so reliant on overly orchestrated encounters, manipulative production and absurd histrionics. 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. 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. 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. 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. Violence is embedded in America, but it is not close to the totality of America. … The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility and ever more perfect democracy cherishes the future more than the past. 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. 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.

And people get very testy when asked to see themselves as more than an individual, and that’s when white privilege comes in and ‘oh, I don’t want to be stigmatized, I didn’t do it,’ this defensiveness comes up because people are much more comfortable thinking of themselves as individuals.” Despite their similar themes, there’s a gulf between “White People” and Painter’s bestselling “History of White People,” and it is intentional. At just under 41 minutes, “White People” is short, and because it aims to talk with high-school and college-age millennials rather than at them, it’s not loaded with verbiage from the academic and social justice spheres. I mean, it would be fascinating to think about what his German grandfather would make of all of this given the discrimination that the German people faced when they first got to this country. 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. With “White People,” Vargas is asking white Americans to sit with their country’s many faults, to process facts instead of feelings, to consider the corrupting force of racism not just as a relic of the distant past, but the real and pervasive legacies of America’s peculiar institution, and the comforts they enjoy because of it. “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage,” Coates writes in “Between the World and Me.” Like James Baldwin before him, Coates is soon moving to Paris for a year, where he said he is simply seen as American before he is seen as black. By choosing to “reveal” this piece of historical information later, Vargas gets to construct a feel-good narrative: it turns out the Italian-American family is entirely aware that they were once the immigrant group, and that the patriarch himself is an immigrant, who arrived in America when he was five, not speaking any English either. 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.

He holds a mirror up to whiteness and to America, with the hope for an honest assessment of its flaws, for acknowledgement that it’s relied on a scaffolding of the subjugation of black and brown people, denial, hypocrisy, and even self-delusion to keep it erect. “White People” asks if it’s possible for the whole edifice to remain standing once whiteness itself has been deconstructed. 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. Do white people really need this kind of hand-holding? “What I really want you to understand is you are not the only person who feels this way,” Vargas reassures her.

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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