We need to think. This is what's missing from us, energetically speaking...
We can't out-fight them, but we can out-think them. -
John Trudell

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Whiteness Project Covers the Same Old Ground.

The Whiteness Project is created by documentary filmmaker Whitney Dow and with the support of POV/PBS.  His stated goal from the website is to interview a 1,000 white people about, "Their relationship to, and their understanding of, their own whiteness."  Work done around whiteness is much needed but I do not think this project hits the mark and I do not think it will be useful.  

The first installment is 24 interviews with white people in Buffalo, New York.  The second installment features 24 interviews with millennials in Dallas, Texas. Both segments follow the same format, with each interview lasting around 90 seconds and heavily edited. You do not hear any questions posed to them.  After each segment a statistic flashes on the screen stating a reality about whiteness and white supremacy such as: what percentage of white people support reparations, have non white friends and so forth.  I watched all the interviews in their entirety and you can also watch them and read more about the project here. 

First they are mostly painful to watch as almost every person interviewed puts forward racist comments mostly about so called “blacks”. They are almost funny in that shake your head at ignorance kind of way as when the young woman who inexplicably has her hair rolled in cans laments not knowing when she can talk about kool-aid or fried chicken because apparently in her mind these words are offensive to “black people”. Or the white woman who is convinced every “black man” she says hello to wants her because she is a voluptuous woman and has a convertible. You have the whole litany of comments: “I don’t see color.  It’s not my fault.  I didn’t hurt anyone. Everyone is prejudiced.”  and on and on.  

Despite the stated goal in both segments only three or four people out of twenty-four actually talk much about whiteness, name racism or white privilege as being the reality.  There are three people in the interviews that are white and also black or Latina/o and are wrestling with that.  Because of the highly edited format there is no space for the handful of participants that actually bring up real issues to delve deeper. This project is being lauded for finally dealing with whiteness but it actually reenforces the same problem that talking about whiteness runs into time and time again; white people don't want or don’t know how to do it.  So many fall back on ignorant opinions about a generic notion of "black people" and repeat the untrue mantra about who benefits from affirmative action.  The only acknowledgment of whiteness in most of the interviews is to state the belief that as a white person we receive no benefits from being white. 

The kind of comments I highlighted above are far from revelatory and are all well trod ground for white people. There is no shortage of venues on the internet and in media where these views can already be heard. Giving them yet another platform does not add anything of use to the conversation. I wish at the very least the filmmaker had set a ground rule for himself and participants that they were only allowed to speak about their own experience being white and were not given air time to express opinions about other imagined people.   

I question the usefulness and point of the whole project.  How will a thousand soundbites from white people really move the conversation forward?  As a white person I have taken part in a lot of sloppy actions and conversations where the notion that talking about “race” (race not whiteness is how it is usually termed) is better than not talking about it.  Without clarity of thought, without clarity of motive and intent just doing something, anything about race or whiteness usually produces more alienation, confusion and often just more straight up racism. 

The filmmaker states on his website that he started this project after being asked by an audience member about his own racial identity and his first response was, "I don't have one."  I wish he had pursued that troubling realization more before launching this project.  From the aesthetic choices of the stark white background to the heavily edited interviews there is something deeply white about this whole experience. A blankness, without context, without history, without anything grounding you to this complex world but your own opinions and fears about other imagined people.  Pure whiteness right there, but to what end?

Although far from the majority there are actually many white people who have given it some real thought and made it their life's work to confront white supremacy. Not every white person dealing with whiteness and white supremacy thinks the same or has the same approach or is successful at their work.  Mr. Dow could have been in conversation with many white people that are doing that work.  I could personally name upwards of twenty-five people he could contact.  With them he could have explored the ups and downs, the mistakes and triumphs of that work.  Mr. Dow could have put whiteness in contexts with the reasons whiteness exists: white supremacy, colonization, patriarchy, slavery and capitalism. Mr. Dow could have acknowledged and wrestled with the complexity of centering a project on whiteness because most white people need this work but for many people of color they are tired, bored, done with how whiteness is already centered and needs to be uncentered. 

A project like that could ask big questions, hard questions about why does white supremacy continue even in the face of so much talk about race and racism.  Instead it covers the same old ground that leads us right back to whiteness still with no answers, no clarity, no actions to transform ourselves and to join the struggle to truly heal and transform our world.