“White People” probably won’t change anyone’s mind on race, identity and what …

23 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

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

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. 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.

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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

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. 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.

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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

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!

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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