On Tuesday, MTV aired a documentary called White People aimed to tackle what it means to be white, or rather a millennial white person in 2015. But what the film really did was explain whiteness as a racial and beneficial construct called white privilege, to those who probably don’t like to admit they’re enjoying it.
There’s a common saying these days in the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, John Crawford, Renisha McBride, Akai Gurley, Eric Garner and now Sandra Bland; “What are people of color going to do now?” It’s a kneejerk media question to whatever racially violent, incendiary thing that’s most recently threatened our very humanity. But, that question isn’t for people of color to answer. It’s for white people and more specifically white millennials, because they are young enough to shape society moving forward. Their parents had the chance, and you see what contemporary America looks like, right? Progress has been made but there’s still a long way to go, as seen by the blood in our streets.
In White People, director Jose Antonio Vargas, a Filipino man with a Spanish name (because the Philippines were colonized by the Spanish) who produced Documented, crisscrossed the country asking whites in different states what their race and place in society means. Sometimes these town halls were only filled with whites (aside from Vargas) and in others the discussions included people of color. Vargas told New York Magazine’s E. Alex Jung in an interview that he mixed up the groups because it’s easy to tweet or Facebook about race. “What’s harder is to actually get in front of somebody, and in a polite, open way, talk about it. And listen. What we did in the film was ask questions and listen.”
Some white people in the town halls did seem to express honest feelings, like, “You kind of get the feeling that everything belongs to you” when asked what it’s like being white. Another woman said, “If I bring up any race issue with my parents, they feel like I’m demonizing them,” while another said when minorities succeed, “white men feel like something’s being taken away from them.” “I’m oblivious to issues of race that involve non-white people” said another young man.
Vargas also drilled down finding white people with specific and interesting experiences. There was a white honor roll student in Arizona who blamed her lack of college scholarships on minorities, white school teachers working at Crazy Horse High School in South Dakota among all Native American students, a white southern gay male enrolled at the black college of Winston-Salem University in North Carolina, a white guy in the formerly predominantly Italian New York City neighborhood Bensonhurst which is now more Chinese, and a white college student at Washington’s Whatcom Community College teaching classes about white privilege (though his parents love Bill O’Reilly).
Each person had a story to tell. For some, it was when they realized their skin color meant more than they’d taken the time to research and internalize. For others it was the realization they were playing a victim rather than actually being one. Katy, the honor roll student who assumed she’d get numerous scholarships depicted the latter as she blamed her predicament on students of color grabbing all the free money. Statistically, there are a smaller number of scholarships offered to solely people of color, in contrast to white students who received 69 percent of private scholarships and are 40 percent more likely to do so. When asked why Katy’s feelings didn’t match the facts, one town hall attendee said “Maybe because they expected to get all the scholarships.” When Vargas told Katy herself the facts in a room with three of her friends, one of whom was biracial, she first said she felt victimized because “you seem to be understanding, but then the numbers. I feel like you guys are attacking me now.” When her biracial friend revealed he hadn’t gotten any scholarship dollars either because the economy itself is just tough, she loosened up. Then Katy admitted that because of her parents—her mother said “White folks aren’t getting the same opportunities, it’s reverse discrimination in that way”—and other whites she’s around, she took their discontent as fact rather than what it was: feelings.
Ultimately Vargas’ documentary scratched the surface on the conversations white people need to have with themselves and other whites to change this country’s love affair with whiteness and white privilege. Because White People aired on MTV, a channel which has unceremoniously and methodically pushed itself out of the cultural conversation with tone-deaf programming, this documentary started behind the eight ball. Still, just as some outlets known for foolishness give smart perspective at times and Vargas squeezed through the fuckshit to talk to white millennials about themselves and the country we all want to live in moving forward. Even a broken clock is right twice a day but here’s hoping the success of White People will get MTV to change their battery.
Contact the author at Hillary@jezebel.com.
Image via MTV.