Inevitably, as February rolls around and people across the country celebrate Black history month, online and real-life trolls alike ask the question, “Why isn’t there a white history month?” The standard—and correct—response is that white American history is celebrated every month of every year in every textbook splayed across children’s school desks.
White history, whiteness, and white culture in America has bestowed unearned benefits to white people—the gigantic elephant in the history classroom is white privilege.
MTV’s new documentary White People is a 42-minute film following Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas as he travels across the U.S. to engage college-aged white people in conversations about what it means to be a white person in America. A handful of people of color are sprinkled throughout to offer “perspective.”
At the outset, Vargas says to a group of people, “We talk about race in this country a lot. But we don’t include you in the conversation. It’s only us. We talk, usually about you, about white people. I’m interested in how you feel.”
Opening the film by saying that people of color have been talking about white folks since forever, Vargas immediately frames the conversation that places whiteness as its own entity and not merely “the default,” as one participant remarked. As a person of color, it was surprising to see how completely uncomfortable white people are when just discussing whiteness, privilege, and race.
Feeling uncomfortable is an inadequate and frustrating reason to ignore racial injustice and in such deep contrast to the lived experiences for so many people of color, particularly Black and brown folks, who face a disproportionate amount of violence at the hands of the state. Criticism of the film has ranged from noting that it didn’t get uncomfortable enough, to saying it was too simplistic and heavily edited to really delve into whiteness and racism in America, to acknowledging that even if this documentary felt like “White People 101” it is necessary because large populations of white Americans really just don’t think about what it means to be white.
Protecting white fragility has kept many white people from acknowledging privilege—which is a small first step to understanding how white supremacy isn’t just damaging to communities of color but also to the white people who benefit from it. David Shih, a professor and anti-racist educator, points this out in his piece, “What Happened to White Privilege”:
“This is the reason why white allies should advocate against white supremacy: because it destroys their own humanity at the same time it destroys that of people of color, just in different ways and to different degrees. If white privilege comes in an invisible knapsack, then a white supremacy consciousness wrecks you from the inside; it is anti-possessive, something you should want to get rid of as much as you are able and never give to others. It is something far worse than a cancer because it can destroy the lives of people you don’t even know.
White privilege is nothing more than applied white supremacy for white people. Applied white supremacy for people of color is called racism.”
In between his conversations with small groups, Vargas visits white people in mostly rural areas to talk about their specific situations. There’s the young gay white man who grew up in a majority white town in the South and makes his first Black friends when he attends a historically Black university, and the mini-drama that ensues when he introduces them to his white friends. Vargas travels to South Dakota to speak with white teachers at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where they are often confronted with reminders of the horrific legacy of white colonizers. In Scotsdale, Arizona, a white student named Katy tells her story about not being able to attend her dream university because she thinks that people of color snatched up all of her scholarships. And finally, a Brooklyn Italian-American family who initially felt wary to the influx of Asian immigrants to their neighborhood concede that this new foreign-born community resembles how Italians first arrived in New York City.
These are a lot of stories and conflicts to resolve in less than an hour. Armed with statistics (like how three-quarters of young white people say they’re color-blind and how white students are 40 percent more likely to receive a merit-based scholarship over a student of color, all things considered), Vargas opens dialogues in hopes of creating a greater conversation about how color-blindness erases people to quiet the notion of discrimination against white students applying for scholarships. In the end, it’s all talk about, well, talking.
Hua Hsu’s review from the New Yorker notes that while the film is remarkable for existing in the first place, he advises against keeping the discussion conversational:
But the show, emblematic of one version of our “conversation on race,” presumes that the solution is conversational. The problem with dwelling on the sullen vibes or narcissistic guilt spirals of white people is that feelings can change with relative ease. The scenes of American injustice that we see on a regular basis are not failures of people being insufficiently nice to one another. They are about the legacies and structures that hem in our choices, that define the circumference of our imaginations, that trigger our personal gut reaction to the very word “dream.” They are about those whom the truth cannot set free. We can control and harness our feelings. I have no idea how to destroy and rebuild our institutions.
Racial justice in America can’t stop with the mere acknowledgement of whiteness, or even of white privilege. If we’re going to talk about this, let’s not walk on eggshells. The conversation needs to move the idea of “white supremacists” away from fringe groups with white hoods and to look at how white supremacist policies and legislation permeate our daily lives.
The documentary is available at mtv.com and below: