On Wednesday, the network behind Teen Mom 2 will broadcast one of the most challenging, important documentaries that has ever debuted on a major mainstream network. White People is the brainchild of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and activist Jose Antonio Vargas. The in-depth, unscripted portrayal of white millenials was produced in partnership with MTV, which has historically been a haven for white kids from Kurt Cobain diehards to One Directioners. The film promises to deliver real, unvarnished narratives of whiteness to an audience of young white millenials, hurt feelings and white fragility be damned. No, you’re not being Punk’d—White People is real, and it smells like teen spirit, radical social commentary, and a hint of white tears.
White People is part of a larger MTV campaign called Look Different. Launched in April 2014, Look Different seeks to “illuminate biases on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation.” The Look Different website encourages the MTV demographic, instead of wasting away their hours absentmindedly sniffing glue or playing Call of Duty, to peruse real stories from their peers, or take a gander at the “Different Day” calculator, which aims to reveal the various privileges (male, straight, white, etc.) of its participants. While these features are all very well-meaning and potentially enlightening, web-bound teens tend to be more attracted to Club Penguin than Peggy McIntosh. To capture the attention of the ADD generation, MTV adeptly proceeded to tap into the clickbait market with the viral video “White Squad,” a satirical ad for a company that extends white privilege to people of color.
Head of MTV Public Affairs Ronnie Cho (formerly of The Daily Beast) explained that the public affairs team at MTV, which has previously led campaigns from HIV/AIDs awareness to Rock the Vote, was “pleased” with the strong reactions elicited by the provocative campaign. “Millenials really respond to satire, to humor as a way of communicating serious issues. Responses [to “White Squad”] were fascinating, ranging from ‘wow this could be really helpful’ to ‘WTF’ and ‘is this racist towards white people?’ Clearly, people have a lot of different views.” According to Cho, MTV feels it has a social responsibility to provoke these conversations, and they’re not afraid of “going there,” considering it their responsibility “to acknowledge the controversies of the time, and use our platform to challenge the status quo and change actions and behaviors.”
While quick to acknowledge young people as the engine behind social change and awareness, Cho notes, “This is a generation that maybe were raised with noble aspirations to be color blind—but that might not be very helpful if we ignore difference. The color of our skin does matter, and impacts how the world interacts with us.”
And while MTV is aware that many of their young, white viewers might feel uncomfortable with an anti-racial bias campaign (and the painful self-reflection that will hopefully come with it), they’re not in the business of handing out white privilege trigger warnings or smelling salts. Even from the short trailer that MTV released to hype the project, it’s clear that this is something different. As Vargas tactfully questions and prods, the documentary’s vaguely uncomfortable white teens shed their tough exteriors, revealing their most tender white feelings, pride, resentment, and anxieties. The material is raw, and the discomfort isn’t just onscreen, as you struggle to find the “right” reaction. You’re torn between pitying the subjects for their ignorance and sincerity, or wanting to slap them in the face to make them realize the gross system of racial inequality that bankrolls their ability to “kind of get this feeling like things belong to you.” One common reaction to the trailer (and to the mere existence of a mass-marketed documentary called White People) is outrage—and not just from Confederate flag apologists. In fact, while believers in reverse racism (otherwise known as racists) comprise one critical camp, other dissenters pitched their tents on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum, criticizing MTV for highlighting white voices and validating white feelings, in lieu of highlighting perpetually underserved and underrepresented narratives of color.
I personally struggled, at points, to make it through a documentary in which white people cried, squirmed, and smiled, while expounding at length on their thoughts and feelings about being white in America. At points throughout the piece I resented MTV for giving a platform to people like Katy, the white community college student who was erroneously convinced that her inability to land a scholarship was a #WhitePeopleProblem. As Vargas explained to Katy and her friends that, in fact, white students are 40 percent more likely to receive merit-based funding, I wondered what exactly the point of all of this was. While I was happy to see Jose drop some knowledge (with an admirable amount of empathy and restraint), I felt like I was drowning in an MTV-logoed bucket of white tears.
Vargas, an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines who has worked tirelessly as a journalist, activist, and documentary filmmaker, is no stranger to hate mail. “I think the fact that I’m here, illegally, without papers and made this film really puts people over the edge—people saying, ‘Why are you making me feel guilty?’” But Vargas is eager to answer to why and how his film is addressing the race question in shades of white. “I think it would have been much easier to make a film that points fingers and places blame. It would’ve been easier to make a didactic film. I think it’s harder to make it this way. I want to reach people who might otherwise not want to read it or see it. I think this is a struggle for documentary filmmakers in general.”
“It was hard, but this was goal from the very beginning with MTV: ‘How do we create a space that’s judgment-free, that allows these young white people to say how they feel?’” continued Vargas. “The moment you hear ‘white fragility’ or ‘white privilege,’ people think of a very intellectual, academic thing. They think of the academic work that surrounds this kind of study—but how do you make that accessible? How do you say ‘white privilege’ without having someone just roll their eyes and say, ‘Stop making me feel guilty, slavery’s over, I didn’t do that to the Native Americans?’ That’s why it was important to me that we made the film the way that we did. We’re not letting them get away with anything, I’m constantly questioning and probing, but it’s about holding people accountable without letting them shut down.”
Vargas references Katy, the young white woman he spoke with who believes that people of color are hogging all of the scholarships. Vargas genuinely appreciates the way that Katy was able to open up and be honest about her feelings—it allowed for an authentic documentary experience, and also gave him the opportunity to redress a misconception that many young people hold.
“We wanted to make a film that creates a space where we can hear people,” said Vargas. “I traffic in empathy. That’s what I do. To me, the reaction just proves how necessary this documentary is. Talking about race is hard enough—the moment you start racializing white people, that’s really hard for people. Many white people are so not used to seeing themselves as a race, as a race to be questioned and dissected and explored. Think about Soledad O’Brien specials on being black in America, Asian in America…we’re thought of as the other. But to people of color in America, white people are the other. We’re standing there going, ‘Do you know what you’re saying…do you see yourself…do you know what’s going on?’”
Despite its empathetic treatment of its young white subjects, White People does not validate its cast’s feelings, especially when they’re factually inaccurate. Vargas does not treat racism or racial ignorance lightly. Discussing the Black Lives Matter movement, he notes how so many white people took to social media to rebrand the hashtag as “All Lives Matter,” despite the fact that #BlackLivesMatter is a response to a criminal justice system created by white people for white people. In light of painfully common incidents like these, one can read White People not just as an anthropological study, but as a step towards re-education—a move against the brand of sheer ignorance that gave rise to the all lives matter counter-reaction.
White people often don’t feel a pressing need to talk about race, because they don’t experience it as racism and oppression, and therefore hardly experience it at all. Checking privilege is an act of self-policing for white Americans; comparatively, black Americans are routinely over-checked by the literal police. It’s no wonder then that white Americans can easily dodge these crucial dialogues. Vargas explains, “I feel like in conversations about race, this perspective has been missing. Four out of five young white people feel uncomfortable talking about race. We’re supposed to be living in a post-racial society, yet we don’t want to talk about it. This is a ‘color-blind’ generation that believes in equality, but doesn’t want to admit that people are not treated equally. What a paradox! There’s so much there.”
White People covers a lily-white spectrum: white teachers at a predominately Native American school; a white, gay man attending a historically black Southern college; a young white Italian who is visibly uncomfortable with the rise of the Asian-American immigrant population in his native Bensonhurst, N.Y.; and a volunteer who teaches white privilege workshops at his college. While these voices include conservatives and liberals, ignorants, intolerants, and the semi-enlightened, they have a shared humanity that is highlighted by Vargas’s thorough questions and empathetic style. “I’m not here to make fun of you. This is not a parody…we could have easily made a film that was just a parody or a mockumentary, that just mocked people, but that’s not who I am as a filmmaker.”
While White People takes on difficult terrain, Vargas is quick to admit that this is just one tiny piece of the puzzle. In addition to urging young white people to examine their own whiteness—how it’s constructed, how it works, and why it matters—Vargas dreams of interracial conversations beyond the superficial and routine. He perceives that people of color have a lot to say to white people, and feel free to express their opinions and feelings to their non-white friends. But Vargas insists “we have to have those conversations in front of and with white people.” In turn, “I would rather young white people say what they really feel and what they really think…As far as I’m concerned, this conversation is just a start. We cannot have a conversation about race in America without including white people in that conversation, especially young white people in America.”
Putting more white people on TV might not sound like a recipe for redressing race relations in America, but White People is a fascinating look at race constructed, discussed, and deconstructed by a famously un-self-critical demographic. Behind the hype and controversy is a documentary with radical DNA and a well-meaning, well-timed mission. Trust me, you’ve never seen anything quite like it.