While there’s been a lot of ongoing talk about race and privilege in the United States over the past year, one of the most interesting projects discussing that topic has to be the documentary White People, which aired on MTV on July 22. White People takes a different approach to the question of race and privilege by–unlike many efforts, which frequently involve confronting people with someone else’s definition of privilege–actually talking to groups of white and multiracial students to get their thoughts on the subject.
While the documentary may have been planned in good faith, and contains some really compelling content, the end result ultimately missed the mark and feels somewhat dissatisfying.
Produced by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, the documentary was marketed by MTV as a movie that lets people “get uncomfortable together” on issues of race. The accompanying website contains the following description:
What does it mean to be white? MTV’s “White People” is a groundbreaking documentary on race that aims to answer that question from the viewpoint of young white people living in America today. The film follows Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and filmmaker, Jose Antonio Vargas, as he travels across the country to get this complicated conversation started. “White People” asks what’s fair when it comes to affirmative action, if colorblindness is a good thing, what privilege really means, and what it’s like to become the “white minority” in your neighborhood.
The documentary follows a series of white individuals who have some sort of unique experience in dealing with questions of race and privilege. Each vignette is designed to examine a unique racial or cultural issue in American life, broaching roughly five topics: how white communities view minority groups and their cultures, how minority groups view white people and white culture, how race affects education and affirmative action programs, how different generations of families view race and privilege issues, and how growing numbers of immigrants and minority groups in the country are changing America’s social landscape.
Individually, each piece of the documentary was a very interesting experience. Vargas was able to display each situation in what came off as an authentic and fair portrayal of its own context. Even though the conversations were obviously set up, the responses and reactions of the participants were clearly genuine and unscripted.
Vargas was also very good at utilizing research and statistics to frame and address the issues at play. One of the best examples of this, surprisingly, was in the film’s discussion of affirmative action. When one young woman was confronted with statistical information indicating that white people still have a 40% greater likelihood of receiving college scholarships, despite her own anecdotal evidence to the contrary, she experienced a seemingly genuine change in her awareness of other people’s circumstances.
While the individual stories offered some level of redeeming and educational content, however, the framing of each story came off as forced. In addition to the individual stories, Vargas directed and filmed several discussion groups on college campuses around the country. Clips from those panels and discussions with their participants were used to transition into and out of each story segment, and came off as artistic-but-jumbled sections of word vomit. The different students popped up at random, either to offer their own unique insights or to communicate the awkwardness that some panel member was feeling. They almost always had comments that were included to instill whatever Vargas wanted the viewer to take away from the accompanying story, and that strategy became increasingly apparent as things moved forward.
The context of White People also leaves something to be desired, at least from a conservative perspective. MTV’s website directs viewers to resources that let them “learn more about race” and “use privilege for good.” The resources for “learning more about race” are curated by MTV’s “Look Different” campaign, which describes itself as an effort to “help you erase the hidden racial, gender, and anti-LGBT bias all around us.” MTV has partnered with groups like CAIR, GLAAD, and La Raza–as well as other, arguably less polarizing groups–to facilitate its “Look Different” campaign. The recommendations MTV makes for “using privilege for good” involve, in part, joining progressive activist groups and fighting on issues like “voter discrimination.”
In other words, while Vargas may not have intended for his work to politicize the issues related to privilege, MTV and its partners certainly are suggesting that his work should have political ramifications.
That politicization is symptomatic of the hugely problematic way that privilege conversations are frequently handled in American discourse. As I wrote over a year ago, the problem with public discussions on privilege is that they frequently stray from the neutral and academic realm–where they can absolutely serve as tools we can use to investigate social problems–into the political, where “weaponized” privilege can be used to try and force people to accept certain political conclusions. While the bulk of White People doesn’t try do that, the bad framing clips and the accompanying content provided by “Look Different” are absolutely geared to push the documentary’s viewers toward certain political positions and activities after watching the film. Conservatives should take note of this strategic lesson that White Privilege offers: until conservatives actually cultivate their own intellectual voices to engage on social topics like privilege, they will have to make do with the content–and the accompanying agendas–that liberal sources put before them.
Ultimately, White People offers a unique take on race and privilege that comes so close to being a neutral presentation of the issues at play, but sadly fails to hit that high mark.