White-on-White Activism: MTV’s #WhitePeople Is A Must-See…For White People

On Monday night, I attended an advance screening of MTV’s latest documentary, White People, that is sure to spark much conversation and debate once it debuts this Wednesday. Directed by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, the doc explores whiteness and white privilege through the lens of those who suffer most from it: white people.

After hearing about the project, I was a bit hesitant for obvious reasons. I cringe at the mention of “reverse discrimination” and stay ready to blast anyone who prioritizes white tears over Black suffering. But I was pleased to see that instead of endorsing the supposed woes of whiteness, this film seeks to expose the absurdity of such claims.

Given that the film was made for MTV, I was willing to forgive the rapid cuts and melodramatic score, but there were a few moments that raised my blood pressure. In true MTV fashion, the film danced along the surface of race relations and failed to address some of the most pressing issues, like structural racism or the fact that an unarmed Black person is killed every 21 hours by a cop or vigilante. The film also failed to explore how whiteness was created and is sustained by anti-Blackness, an omission that threatens to invalidate the entire film.

Since the construct of whiteness is completely dependent upon Blackness, it seems like a given for the film to include the true origins of race, and thus, racism in America. I’m still baffled as to why this fundamental factor was not included, but when Jose was asked about it, he responded by saying that this film is just the beginning of a much larger discourse he plans to facilitate through his new platform, #EmergingUS. Only time will tell how he and the team tackle issues of anti-Blackness, but once I realized that this film was never meant to be the end all-be all, I was able to accept it for what it is: a white-centered intro course on race in America.

For the last year, I have been pondering the need for white people to talk to fellow white people about race and white privilege. I’ve watched people of color exhaust themselves through daily Twitter discussions, workshops, and direct actions, only to be met with blank stares, massive misunderstandings, and resistance from white liberals and conservatives alike. But as we continue to fight white supremacy in our varied and unique ways, it is imperative that white people are addressed head on, lest we continue to preach to the choir.

While the film itself is not revolutionary, as Jose admitted at the premiere, the model of white-on-white activism presented within it is something we should all be paying attention to. By interviewing well-meaning (and sometimes problematic) white people about their whiteness and broadcasting it to an audience of young, self-proclaimed colorblind white millennials, MTV is onto something. Though the film didn’t tackle everything, as no film can, it scratched the surface in a meaningful way that could change the way white people talk about themselves and others. By opening the door and inviting white folks to the table, Jose Vargas has provided this demographic with a model of how to engage their peers, which is monumental given the fact that many white Americans have neither a desire nor a framework to discuss issues of race.

As we all know, there is still much work to be done. Black women and men are still being killed at abysmal rates and the prospect of hope still seems far-fetched. While White People may not possess the power to undo centuries of systemic oppression and state violence, it is sure to help some white people confront their whiteness, which is a step in the right direction.

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Tell your white friends to tune in to #WhitePeople tonight at 8/7 central and let the dialogue begin!

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