“White People” Is A Strange, Overly-Cautious Primer On Whiteness That We Probably Didn’t Need

Walk into a room of white people and ask them them what whiteness means to them. Challenge them on this point — really drive it home. You want a definition. You want to know what whiteness means, no holds barred. Chances are they haven’t even thought about it, because they’ve been afforded the privilege to do so their whole lives. Chances are they’re unwilling to discuss this openly. Chances are they’re afraid to speak their mind.

This exercise is the premise of an MTV documentary premiering tonight. “White People” was conceived by Pulitzer-prize winning author and journalist Jose Antonio Vargas and its ambitions are big. Get ready to delve deep into the mind of the white millennial. The doc is an uncomfortable look at white privilege and race from the ground floor.

The towns Vargas chooses to survey are small and seem specifically chosen for their excessive whiteness. Tobaccoville, NC is a town that’s 95 percent white. Phoenix, AZ and Bellingham, WA are two other cities with similar demographics. In Tobaccoville, we meet Dakota, a gay Southerner who drives a truck, wears camo unironically and attends an HBCU (Historically Black College/University). He has black friends from school and white friends from home, who come together for a dinner during which the etymology of the word “ghetto” comes up in conversation. Someone ends up crying.

In Phoenix, there’s Katy, an honors student who believes that her inability to get a scholarship to college is due to the fact that she’s white. There are tears there, too. There are uncomfortable pauses. There are also facts: Vargas gently points out that white students are 40 percent more likely to receive scholarships than people of color, which comes as a surprise to Katy. There’s also a bit with Lucas, a college student who puts on white privilege workshops. His mother and stepfather, two self-described conservatives, attend a session at Vargas’s urging. They remain unmoved.

The locations and situations that Vargas focused on were spaces in which the white people in question were facing the new sensation of being the other. Perhaps this was an attempt to try and engineer the feeling of discrimination based on skin color and physical appearance. If so, it doesn’t quite work. There is very little you can do to recreate that sensation. The most interesting was the case of Sam, a teacher on a Oglala Lakota reservation in South Dakota. Along with her other teachers, she’s the only white person for miles. There’s even a word in Lakota that they use to describe white people — wasichu.  It means “he who takes the best meat,” another word for “a greedy white person. just a synonym for a white person.” It is the word the Lakota use to describe white people. It is their default. Watching the teachers wrap their brains around this fact while sitting on a couch eating pasta is fascinating.

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This all sounds like a joke — a Key and Peele sketch at its most Onion-like — but Vargas treats his subjects with kid gloves. Race is tricky stuff to talk about, and this documentary is aiming to chip away at the defensive armor that people have built up, encouraging them to be open with their thoughts and feelings about what has been a sensitive subject for this nation’s entire history.

I wasn’t sure what to do with the people featured in the documentary. The display of white fragility and ego, coupled with a dash of white tears, makes for uncomfortable viewing, a reddening of the cheeks and a twisting of the stomach, accompanied with a quick eye roll. It’s not clear what we’re supposed to do with this information, if you can call it that, and Vargas doesn’t seem entirely sure himself.

White people are rarely asked to think critically about their whiteness. They are the preferred default. They have been the majority for a long time. Turning the lens on their own identity and the meaning of what it is to be white is a neat trick, but it doesn’t achieve any clear goal. There’s nothing particularly new or enlightening in what the interview subjects are saying.  What’s the point of bringing your invisible backpack of privilege out if you’re not going to actually do the work and unpack it? As our fearless weekend editor Katrin put it, “The world is kind of a white documentary.” She’s not wrong.

Do we really need a new way to let white people talk about the privilege of being white? Vargas spends most of his time making the same face one makes at their utilities bill every month, all furrowed brow and pursed lips. He pushes these young adults to speak honestly about their feelings. Haltingly, they do so, in fits and starts. Is giving white people more agency to explore their whiteness necessary, especially if it fails to accomplish anything?

The experience of watching the documentary is like taking your pants off after a big, long meal — relief coupled with gastrointestinal distress. What seems like it could be a valid proposition from the start is actually a ham-fisted attempt at getting people to actually talk about and acknowledge differences. To recognize that there are differences is important work — it speaks against the traditional notion of America as a melting pot and leans more towards the America-is-a-chopped-salad theory. To focus with laser-like intensity on those differences, to draw them out and to harp on them, however, is entirely different.

It’s the latter that makes “White People” such a strange thing to watch. You start to wonder if Vargas himself knows what his intentions are. By glossing over the surface, just teasing out the bits of emotion clinging like barnacles to the deepest, darkest places of these people’s minds, he does a disservice to what could’ve been a no-holds barred, honest and possibly helpful conversation about race and privilege. We could certainly use one of those.

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I decided to play Jose Antonio Vargas with my coworkers, because I work on a staff full of white women that pride themselves on being diverse in opinion, if not in actual appearance. I posed the question in our group chat room and braced myself. What followed was a lively 20 minutes of “several people are typing” notifications in Slack and a lot of tentatively-offered opinions, as if a balloon was popped and slowly leaking air.

Talking about whiteness with white people is a new and unusual experience for me. I’ve never talked to white people about what their whiteness means to them. I’m not white, therefore I have never felt the real desire to discuss the impact of whiteness and privilege on the lives of white people. There is no information in there for me that actually would have any impact on my life. It’s not useless — everyone’s opinion matters — but there is no there there for me. But that doesn’t mean those critical conversations about whiteness are useless for white people to have amongst themselves. In fact, they’re necessary. The question is, do we really need to give those conversations a huge platform, like the one MTV afforded “White People”? I’m not so sure.

“White People” premieres on MTV tonight, July 22nd at 8PM EST.