MTV’s “White People” isn’t half as provocative as you think
(Which is why it’s so radical and subversive)
There's a new favorite pastime for the Internet content complex -- a grotesquely efficient mutation of the "hot take" and the "thinkpiece” -- that takes shape when a writer feigns white-hot outrage at a film or television show without even seeing the work in question.
Dr. Stacey Patton, writing at the Washington Post, crafted the ur-text of this movement when she labeled feminist comedian Amy Schumer as a racist, suggesting that her jokes were as harmful to reasoned discourse as Donald Trump and as destructive to society as Charleston killer Dylann Roof – all without ever seeing an episode of her television series or a single clip of her standup. Last month, Joni Edelman wrote at a blog called Ravishly said that the new Pixar film, Inside Out, is a failure at "well, everything," without taking two hours out of her busy schedule writing terrible Internet columns to sit down and watch the damned movie. You almost have to admire her Trump-like dedication to brain-dead trollery.
We're witnessing a similar phenomenon with Jose Antonio Vargas' new film, "White People." Judging by the appalled reactions to the 40-minute MTV documentary -- particularly among commentators from an insecure and easily-offended faction of the American Right -- I half-expected the film to be a no-holds-barred assault on white heritage and culture, like Birth of a Nation in reverse.
“WHITE IS THE NEW BAD: MTV PROMOTES WHITE GUILT,” an alarmingly all-caps Fox News headline reads. In a now-deleted tweet, popular Christian youth speaker Ryan Wesley Smith called the film, “The most racially-dividing thing I’ve ever seen.”
I say "half"-expected, because we at Pando are very familiar with Vargas' work and persona, having hosted the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer at two events over the past year, Pandoland and Don't Be Awful. And so we know him to be one of the sanest and most measured commentators on race relations in America. Indeed, after watching White People, it's clear that Vargas’ most vociferous opponents on the Right either didn’t bother to watch the film, or are so deplorably committed to pushing their “war on whites” narrative that they might as well have not watched it.
In truth, the most provocative thing about the documentary may be its title. To some critics, like Slate’s Willa Paskin and Aisha Harris, that’s a detriment to the film. In a review titled “Why White People Should Not Watch the MTV Documentary White People,” Paskin and Harris criticize Vargas for being too easy on whitey.
But in my mind, to witness the heated reaction from many armchair sociologists on the Right - many of whom I suspect were too preoccupied with their own agendas to sit down and watch it - for Vargas to even broach the topic of white privilege on a major cable network is an act of subversion, regardless of how even-handed his approach.
In White People – which you can watch for free on MTV.com right now -- Vargas speaks to a few dozen young Americans from a variety of races and backgrounds. He then drills down his focus onto a handful of whites whose experiences range from universal to extraordinarily unique. One interviewee is a gay white student at a historically-black institution in North Carolina. Another is an 18-year-old white woman who felt she was discriminated against when applying for college scholarships - a feeling shared by many of her peers, despite statistics that show whites are 40 percent more likely to receive scholarships than people of color.
Vargas also talks to the predominantly white teaching staff in a town in South Dakota where all but 14 residents are Native American. One young white man from Lynden, Washington – a small town described, for better or worse, as being “like a 50s movie” -- started a white privilege workshop at his college. His reasons for doing so surround having very conservative parents, as if the workshop was a way to cope with – or even repent for – his conservative parents. And finally, Vargas speaks to a second-generation Italian American in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn who has witnessed firsthand the demographics of his neighborhood shift dramatically from white to Chinese-American.
Toward each of these subjects, even the Fox News acolyte father of the young Washingtonian -- who, like many conservative commentators, seems to characterize any nuanced attempt to discuss race as an attack on his white heritage -- Vargas is extraordinarily sympathetic. His ambition is not to demonize or embarrass the film’s most close-minded participants, but to include them in the conversation, alleviating the very real pressure felt by white Americans to stay quiet on issues of race. To be sure, white people – straight white men, in particular – have dominated the conversation around just about everything, including race, for the better part of our nation’s history. But, to Vargas, that doesn’t mean that an individual should ever be bullied into silence when sharing an experience of hardship that is attributed, correctly or not, to racial dynamics.
“We talk about race in this country a lot, but we don’t include you,” Vargas tells a group of white youths, echoing sentiments he shared at Pandoland.
“If we are really going to talk about race in this country, we can’t have that conversation and not talk to white people about it,” Vargas told Pando’s Sarah Lacy onstage.
Despite headlines to the contrary - and to the chagrin of authors like Slate’s Paskin and Harris - Vargas is far more interested in opening up lines of communication than he is with challenging those who believe that accusations of “white privilege” are overblown, or that discrimination against whites is as bad or worse than discrimination against other races – a sentiment I was surprised to learn is shared by almost one-half of all white Americans.
The exception to this comes when speaking to Katy, the Arizona woman who, despite graduating in the top ten percent of her class with a 3.8 GPA, did not receive a scholarship to a school she was accepted to, but which she could not afford to attend. Both she and her mother are convinced that Katy was a victim of racial discrimination in not receiving a scholarship.
Vargas feels comfortable challenging her, but only because he is armed with statistics that run counter to her experience: Whites in fact receive 69 percent of private scholarships, but make up only 62 percent of all applicants. When faced with this statistic, Katy says she feels as if she’s being attacked. For all the talk by many on the Right about the ultra-sensitivity of non-whites in regard to issues of race, it’s clear that there’s plenty of sensitivity to go around among all races.
The documentary ends on a hopeful note, as Vargas shares dinner with a pair of first-generation Italian immigrants in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and their 22-year-old son. The family expresses concern over their perception that the Chinese immigrants, who have arrived in droves to their neighborhood over the past two decades, do not learn English or say, “hello,” on the street, thus threatening the fabric of the community in the minds of the neighborhood’s less recent transplants.
But, Vargas argues, are they so different from the Italian family’s patriarch, who moved to America 40 years without knowing English? With every wave of immigrants, from Italians to Irish to Jews, both newcomers and the existing residents face challenges as the demographics of a community shift. But every time, these challenges are met and the community is preserved, albeit with different faces, dialects, and skin-tones, thanks to the youths who know nowhere else as their home. Young Asians bring home Italian pastries to their parents and grandparents. Young Italians do the same with Chinese cuisine. The only difference in 2015 is that the discussion of these tensions have infiltrated the popular consciousness, and hopefully these transitions will be made smoother because of it.
There will always be people who look at efforts like Vargas’ and invoke terms like “reverse racism” and “white guilt” to score political points. And there will always be individuals from all races, like Katy, who cope with very real hardships by blaming often-imaginary racial pressures. But by facilitating truly safe spaces, where whites and non-whites alike can listen to each other’s concerns, Vargas seeks to promote camaraderie, not competition, between the races, in the realization that we all want the same thing: the means to support ourselves and our families, and a community we can call home.
That might not be as provocative as observers on both sides of the political aisle -- in their efforts to galvanize their bases, score political points and electoral seats, and attract pageviews -- had hoped. But in a country that’s become enormously polarized and where extreme political rhetoric is often the norm, Vargas’ measured, reasoned, and empathetic approach is radical in its own right.