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. 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. Slate TV Critic Willa Paskin and Slate staff writer Aisha Harris discussed whether this documentary really accomplished what it set out to do.
Willa Paskin: Hi Aisha, I am looking forward to talking with you about White People. 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. To tip my hand a little, I think this is a pretty great idea for a documentary that was a little too remedial with and gentle on, well, white people. Let’s dive in: What did you think?
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. That is to say: admirable in its goals, but disappointing in its execution. 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? I think that’s the word. 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.
Vargas asked the white friends to talk about what they thought of black people, and vice versa—what’s supposed to be this revelatory moment (white girl says “I used to cross the street if I saw a black person coming toward me,” black girl starts crying because she doesn’t like being referred to as “ghetto”) feels completely useless in 2015. I would hope we’d be way beyond just having these kinds of basic conversations and instead getting more confrontational and thoughtful.
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. Vargas, throughout the documentary, is basically trying to teach white people that whiteness is not, in fact, like the air or the water but a race too, and to do so he … inadvertently drags two black women into breaking bread with someone who casually confesses to being racist and then forces them to contend with their much more well-developed feelings about racism. This conversation did feel remedial, but at the same time, when one of the black women left the table, having burst into tears about how casually the white women were using the term ghetto, it just became so obvious how much more substance and heat and pain there was there for her than the white people she was basically there to help educate. It was a shallow conversation, sure, that suddenly veered way real, and White People couldn’t really keep up.
More generally, Vargas approached the material as though he imagined he were speaking to white people who had thought about race almost not at all. 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 made me wonder if the documentary might not have been better as just a taped town hall meeting. Do you think that the very basic nature of the doc might make it effective as a teaching tool, or do you think it was too simpleminded even for that?
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. When Vargas speaks with Nolan L. 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. Her non-white friend was sitting right there, and said he also hadn’t received a lot of scholarships, and she still hemmed and hawed. If there’s anything these sorts of scenes reiterate, it’s that, as you say, race just doesn’t carry the same emotional gravitas for white people as it does non-white people.
This is not something I would encourage anyone to show in school or as an educational tool in general. I can point to a different documentary that does a much better job of taking on this same general idea: Tim Wise’s White Like Me. The format is different; Wise spends less time interviewing young people one-on-one about what it means to be white, and instead focuses more on his own personal journey toward recognizing white privilege and the historical layout of all the systemic racism that still exists today in housing, education, etc. But the fundamental idea—turning the focus of dealing with race from people of color and putting it on white people instead—is the same as Vargas’.
It’s not a long documentary, either, but it has a clearer focus and educational goal.
One thing I found interesting is that it wasn’t until the very end that Vargas visited a “diverse” place—Bensonhurst, Brooklyn—where there are a lot more people of color, and where ostensibly you would expect people to be more liberal. Maybe it’s my East Coast/Brooklyn bias, but I think talking to white people in areas where there actually are a lot of people of color they could potentially interact with is more interesting and in some ways more important—because that’s where understanding bias seems to be the most difficult. What did you think of that Italian family he interviewed?
Paskin: I think that bit in Bensonhurst was a perfect example of how the simplicity of the approach undermined the project. Vargas is so keen not to overwhelm his audience that he ends up treating it like it’s dumb: one must go very gently with the white people! 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. 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. 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. 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.
Even in the part of the documentary that you mentioned, in which Vargas gives a white woman the statistics on scholarships, and how they favor white people, he goes very gently. 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. Why, exactly, is this reassuring?
To me, the most interesting segment was about the white guy who is leading a “white privilege workshop” for other white people. Vargas asks some people of color if they think that’s a problem, a white guy teaching white people about being white: It seems very much like he is fishing for them to say “yes!” They say no. As much as a class like that sounds absurd, like an outtake from a movie like PCU, the class itself seemed … not so bad? Or, in any event, a much more sophisticated entrée into the idea of white privilege than this TV show.
Harris: Well, that’s what Tim Wise’s doc essentially is—a white guy teaching other white people about white privilege. But unlike Vargas, he doesn’t do it in a hand-holding kind of way, as you say. 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. 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. As with the Italian family, he puts words in the dad’s mouth, and thus keeps us from getting what could’ve been a more honest answer.
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? I’ll be the first to admit that this documentary is definitely not meant for me—nothing was revelatory, and most people of color will have heard pretty much every line or statistic uttered in the special. Vargas does briefly touch on the fact that many young white people take on this silly “colorblind” approach (“I don’t see race”), so maybe this film will touch a nerve with those same folks. But another part of me just can’t give this a pass. I'm long past tired of having “conversations about race,” mostly because they always tend to begin and end this way. 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?
Paskin: The “colorblind” approach was the “right way” to talk about race not that long ago: through at least my time in high school, in the 1990s. (The 1990s! 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. If White People is a kind of gateway drug for any deeper thinking on the subject, from anyone who watches it, I think Vargas would consider it a success.
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. It’s not that a 6-hour mini-series would definitely shift white people’s attitudes significantly more than a 40-minute special, but it could. 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.