“Lets make a show called "Black People" oh wait, that'd be racist.”
- YouTube user BullPuppy91
That’s just the first of a series of perturbed comments underneath the trailer for White People, a bizarre-looking documentary from MTV that feels like one of its many reality shows. A young, casually dressed Filipino-American approaches white people on the street, and tells them he’s making a documentary about “what it means to be young and white” as each of them reacts with various levels of laughter and discomfort. It seems almost like a prank at first, or at least some sort of poorly thought out social experiment, until of course the conversation starts to get really real, and really uncomfortable. See for yourself:
Perhaps there’s more to this experiment than the distinct MTV-style marketing will showcase, especially considering the young Filipino-American in question is Jose Antonio Vargas, a member of the Washington Post team that won a Putlizer Prize for their breaking coverage of the 2008 Virginia Tech shooting. Vargas is also an advocate for immigration reform - one of the most subtly race-coded issues facing American politics today - so he’s no stranger to institutions of power and privilege. It’s going to be quite fascinating to see where this film dares to go.
If you scroll through the comments under the trailer (or under any article or forum dealing with race), you’re likely to find a contingent of commenters claiming racial oppression of white people, usually when it comes to calling out racism. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of them pop in the movie itself. For people of colour, as well as white people more attuned to issues of oppression, it’s quite easy to identify and even laugh at the ‘white tears’ as they’re known, a specific kind of complaining that equates talking about race or calling out racism with racism itself. It confuses critique of whiteness as an institution of power with personal attacks on people for being white. That’s an ironic combination of things to confuse when it comes to insulating yourself from racism, and it appears White People is looking to get to the root of that disconnect through both introspection and dialogue, no matter how uncomfortable that might be.
And it’s an uncomfortable conversation to have, most certainly, but it’s a necessary one. Any sort of introspection about privilege can be extremely cognitively-dissonant, because it requires not only looking outside one’s own life experiences, but comparing them to the life experiences of other people, as well as admitting how one might be complicit in a system that oppresses them. Of course, the primary defense mechanism against such cognitive dissonance tends to be false equivalence, often working under the assumption that no imbalance of power exists to begin with.
When Justin Simien’s bold feature debut Dear White People started making waves last year, the first response from many of the aforementioned commenters was, “Well, what if we made a movie called Dear Black People, what then?” which was kind of a perfect response since it was already pre-addressed in the film’s trailer. But of course Simien’s film, thoughtful as it may have been, was never going to light a fire under the collective backside of complicity. The nature of privilege is so sinister that it contorts the opinion of the “other” into something not worth listening to in the first place. It wasn’t until men talked about Bill Cosby that people started listening to the women he had sexually assaulted, and it often isn’t until a popular white media figure like Jon Stewart starts talking about race that people begin to pay attention.
If you don’t want to take my word for it, here’s Jon Stewart addressing this exact phenomenon:
While it looks like it could be haphazard, this documentary is exactly the kind of piece that could light that fire I mentioned earlier. The likes of Jon Stewart and John Oliver talking about race most certainly gets the attention of people whose political views are already more or less aligned with them, but to others it can feel like finger-wagging worthy of similar dismissal. White People, on the other hand, seems like it not only focuses on white people discussing race, but white people introspecting about the nature of racism as a power structure as well as their place in it. Were it to follow through with that process - showing not only the uncomfortable beginning to the conversation, but the even more uncomfortable middle that often requires an entire shift in perspective, or perhaps the end of the conversation that involves coming to a better understanding of one’s own privilege - perhaps it’s something that could make an impact.
White People airs July 22nd on MTV.