Last night MTV’s much anticipated documentary, White People, aired. I had the privilege of seeing it last week. (Thanks to my co-worker Koty who did an interview with the Pulitzer-prize winning documentary creator, which you can read here.)
When the trailer came out a few weeks ago, many people wouldn’t even give it a chance. The sense from some was, “White people don’t need to be talking about their feelings [with regard to race and racism].” I watched the documentary and I think there’s more to it than that. I have my own critiques of the experiment, the players involved, and the way it was conducted, and presented. But I think overall, the documentary is necessary, if not important, in today’s cultural climate.
To give those who haven’t seen the documentary an understanding of what it was all about – Jose Antonio Vargas, the creator – discusses White privilege with groups of mainly White people. (People of Color are also part of the discussion but much of the dialogue was focused and centered on White people.) For some of those people, he goes deep into their personal experiences of what it means to be White, how they perceive race, and how race and the consequences of race, have affected their lives.
In the documentary, there are some pretty standard examples of White privilege – such as when a young lady doesn’t get the scholarship she wants to go to school, and perceives that the People of Color who received such scholarships did so, “in her place,” and because of their color. Having dealt with that myth in the classroom with my students before, it is often a straightforward case of informing people of the numbers of the availability of scholarships at large, and “who” actually receives them – all of which debunks their perceptions. The documentary did that beautifully.
But then to drive home the point – I often remind White people that no one is “entitled” to a scholarship, or a place in a university, for that matter. And many times the legacy of academic institutions, which like all other institutions, historically disadvantaged People of Color, still continues today. And it is your White privilege in the first place that allows you to believe you are “deserving” of such a thing. And that if you don’t get it, a Person of Color “took” it away from you. As I watched the documentary, I often felt a lack of the point being really driven home. Perhaps that is just a difference in style and manner, perhaps not. Still, White people talking about Whiteness is significant. In the interview that Vargas did, he stresses this. And I couldn’t agree more.
One of my favourite pieces of scholarship on Whiteness is Shome (1996) The rhetorical strategies of whiteness in City of Joy. In it, she analyzes how one of the strategies of Whiteness is its invisibility; an invisibility that still assumes the necessity and importance of its presence. That’s the thing about being White in America – you probably don’t think about it very often. But everybody else – People of Color – do. And they think about it juxtaposed to their racial experience. White people need to talk about being White not only to understand racial identity and the experience that is attached to that – but to understand how privilege and Whiteness – the construct – harms those they exist next to, consciously and unconsciously.
Certainly, there are those who rightly critique that this dialogue in the way it was conducted, may have the propensity to center White people’s voices in conversations about racism and race. But I would counter that by saying if the subject matter is one that involves a critical outlook on constructs of Whiteness, and White privilege is one of the outcomes of Whiteness, then the conversation benefits racial dialogues at large.
Of course the least surprising group of critics have been many White people who refuse to see the sociopolitical importance of reflecting on and confronting Whiteness. This group, ironically of course, is largely why this documentary is necessary. For many of the previously mentioned reasons, but also because one of the most disturbing features of this generation’s approach to sociopolitical and identity discourse is that pointing out difference is bad, and even divisive. But when differences essentially result in distinct social realities experienced by people because of those differences, the unequal status quo continues.
To me, and in my academic work, and in my experience in the real world, one thing that protects Whiteness and that sustains racist institutions is not imperfect racial conversations, but a lack of conversations entirely – silence. White People isn’t perfect but it is important. And if it begins to dismantle the silence of Whiteness for a generation, if only for a cultural moment in time, and for those who experience it – it may not be a great hallmark in the fight for racial justice. But perhaps it is yet another small win in the long and hard fight.