The Soapbox: “The Whiteness Project” Is A Pageantry Of White Ignorance

In case you are unaware, there is something called “The Whiteness Project.” Per the website, the project, from documentary director Whitney Dow, is “a multiplatform investigation into how Americans who identify as ‘white’ experience their ethnicity.” The first installment, titled “Inside the White Caucasian Box,” was released a few days ago and is an assemblage of interviews of 24 Buffalo, New York, residents who identify as “White.” To further explain the aims of the project, the website provides an “Artistic Statement” that poses some of the poignant questions that are explored in the interviews:

While many media projects have investigated the history, culture, and experiences of various American ethnic minorities, there has been much less examination of how white Americans think about and experience their whiteness and how white culture shapes our society. Most people take for granted that there is a “white” race in America, but rarely is the concept of whiteness itself investigated. What does it mean to be a “white”? Can it be genetically defined? Is it a cultural construct? A state of mind? How does one come to be deemed “white” in America and what privileges does being perceived as white bestow?

Before I begin, it most assuredly should be acknowledged that there is a need to discuss, define and even explore what precisely “White” is and why people of that label infrequently recognize its implications. Safe spaces must be created where such discussions can blossom into productive, enlightening engagements that can drive the race conversation forward. After all, it is the dominance and pervasiveness of Whiteness — the normalization of “White” as society’s standard and everything else as the “other” — that allows White people to view themselves absent of race, while blindly participating in and perpetuating a very racialized society. Indeed, the first step to a more equal society requires White people to examine not only their own, but society’s “Whiteness.”

However, The Whiteness Project completely failed to do that — well, to do so productively, anyways. What it did manage to do was portray what minority people already know about White people in general: they are absolutely clueless about race. And that cluelessness is not innocuous, in the least. It is extremely prejudice, ignorant, hurtful and — well — privileged.

Each interviewee is framed in a well-lit mid shot in front of an all White background, where he or she expounds on their beliefs about race and racism.

One woman discussed the vulnerability she experienced because Black men constantly seek invitations to her curvaceous body:

“They [Black men] seem to gravitate that way to me and its just not comfortable. Do I call it prejudice that I don’t like that? I guess it is.”

Another 20-something woman, who wore aluminum cans in her tresses as if they were hair rollers, had these thoughtful insights:

“I really don’t have a lot of Black friends but I do have a lot of gay friends and that’s kind of a similar construct. And when I first started hanging out with them I would be conscious of if I ever said the word gay … The same thing can be said for any type of, like fried chicken and Kool-Aid, I mean come on, you can’t even talk about fried chicken and Kool-Aid without wondering somebody is gonna get offended? It’s always like walking on egg shells isn’t it?”

These interview gems are then followed by text slates with statistics that display just how widespread these ignorant, short-sighted and racist beliefs are:

  • More than 40 percent of white Americans say “many” or “almost all” black men are violent.
  • 75 percent of white Americans say they come in contact with “a few” or “no” black people on a regular basis.
  • 60 percent of working-class white Americans believe discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against minorities.

This attempt to further discussions surrounding race failed so incredibly, that it most certainly must be satire. Or the individual credited with the effort must be trying to make a mockery of the White population. Or, even more damning, he is so oblivious to the implications of the prejudicial sentiments espoused throughout the interviews, that he managed to trick himself into believing White honesty, in and of itself, somehow productively adds to racial discourse, even when rife with blatant racism.

It does not.

What it means to be White goes unexamined not because White people do not have a platform to explore it, but because White ownership/dominance of just about every platform goes unexplored. White history is “American history.” Movies with a majority White cast are simply Hollywood blockbusters. Television shows without a single  minority face on set are family sitcoms. In any instance where a minority group is the dominant face of any particular platform, it is then tainted with a minority label or minority status.

This is not a happenstance occurrence nor is it organic. White people have used minority labels to justify their dominance and create “inferior” cultural subgroups and spaces for minority people to occupy in America since the country’s inception. From the most obvious, blatant examples riddled in the reality of Manifest Destiny and Jim Crow to the dismissal of jazz, rock and hip-hop as Black music (until it was later appropriated by White entertainers like Elvis Presley or, most recently, Iggy Azalea), the intentional denigration and separation of minority bodies, cultures and voices from White, majority ones, was a longstanding tool of White supremacy and now cyclically replicates itself.

In other words, Whiteness was intentionally standardized and made superior. That is called White supremacy. And White supremacy has long provided the base and foundation upon which White America has built its empire, legacy and culture.

For a very long time, it was much more openly broadcast in displays of “American patriotism” where the star-spangled, red, white and blue flag was flown above segregated schools and public buildings, behind vehemently racist politicians, right beside confederate flags and a gun-toting, “nigger” hating populous. It was hushed and quieted only in the face of opposition: The Civil Rights Movement, which made public displays of such “White power” politically improper. That was merely five or six decades ago.

Whitney Dow’s disregard for this history and its present effects on race relations is betrayed by his own faulty logic: “America, despite its history (or perhaps because of it), has been a leader in confronting issues of race,” he explained in his statement. Despite the fact that the African-Americans and minorities who spearheaded the Civil Rights Movement and sacrificed their dignity, safety and even lives, are still yet to be awarded the privilege to be referred to as simply “American,” somehow he “views confronting issues of race” as a proud “American” — i.e. White — virtue? It is then, no surprise, that a White man who participates in the appropriation of Black and minority hardship (which forced White America to confront its race problems and redefine racial boundaries) can only produce a limited conversation.

While Dow, according to his words, “rejects” the term “White privilege” and its implications, his project became an exercise and display of precisely that. There can be no productive White, race-oriented discussions, absent of intentional examination of White privilege and position. Otherwise it simply becomes a pageantry of White ignorance.

If any silver lining can be traced, “The Whiteness Project” is a rudimentary but hopefully first of many attempts to demystify discussions of race by delegitimizing White claims to racial absence. It also serves as an indication of American racial political progress — or the lack thereof — since the Civil Rights Movement, and the distance left untraveled on the road to racial equality in America.

To quote Whitney Dow, one final time:

“I believe that the country is not just ready for a discussion on whiteness, but is hungry for it. My experiences working on this project have repeatedly shown me that when white people honestly engage on this topic, it is incredibly freeing for everyone, regardless of ethnicity, and makes discussions about race more productive, ultimately helping to advance a culture of true equality.”

I too believe this country is hungry for discussions on Whiteness. However, in the absence of honesty — without White acknowledgement of its cultural history, appropriation and privilege — such conversations are not incredibly freeing for everyone, regardless of their ethnicity. They merely serve to reinforce and display White prejudicial attitudes and privilege — which is actually extremely hurtful and demoralizing for people of color in the continued fight for social equity. Any progress that can be gained from this project will be because of those individuals who take the time to point that out.