“Let’s get uncomfortable together,” the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas tells a young crowd in White People, an MTV documentary that asks Americans to consider what it means to be white.
White People was making people uncomfortable long before they’d even seen the film. When MTV released the official trailer earlier this month, complete with shots of white people wiping their tears away, conservatives proclaimed, “MTV Documentary Shames White Youth,” while liberals rolled their eyes and joked, “Watch White People Cry About White Privilege.”
All of this should come as no surprise. The film’s title is designed to make people mad. But the actual documentary is neither as controversial nor as ambitious as it sounds. What’s surprising is how uncomfortable it doesn’t make you.
Produced, directed, and hosted by Vargas, who identifies himself as an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines, White People doesn’t place blame on anyone. It doesn’t attempt to solve racism. White privilege is too big a topic to even summarize, much less conquer, in 40 minutes. Vargas is just trying to start a conversation that will continue beyond the film’s short run time. And that modest goal is actually an important one. According to the film, four out of five young white people say they feel uncomfortable discussing racial issues.
Vargas does a pretty good job of getting them to talk. Traveling to predominantly white, rural areas in Washington, South Dakota, North Carolina, and Arizona, he chats with young white people whose life experiences make them ideal subjects for illustrating larger points about race, though they don’t always offer the most complex perspectives on the topic. The most awkward moment comes early in the film. In the small town of Tobaccoville, North Carolina, Vargas meets Dakota, a gay man who grew up in a lily-white neighborhood but chose to attend the historically black college Winston-Salem State University. Vargas urges Dakota to bring two of his black college friends home to meet his white high school friends, and over dinner, one white woman admits that she used to cross the street if she saw a black person coming toward her. It’s an honest confession, though not one that would win her any points, and it’s a strange conversation to feature as an example of this generation’s feelings about race. These are college kids, after all. Why aren’t they talking about something more culturally relevant — say, police brutality, or the appropriation of black music by white artists? Why is White People showcasing the exact kind of conversation that their parents might’ve had?
Worse yet, when Dakota claims he’s just as “ghetto” as any black person, one of his black friends breaks down in tears, explaining why that word is hurtful. It’s a learning experience for Dakota, but, watching this woman cry, it’s hard not to resent Vargas for dragging a black woman into a potentially painful situation just so she can educate Dakota’s white friends.
White People is far more successful when the conversations happen more naturally. At the Crazy House school in Wanblee, South Dakota, where the students are all Native American and the faculty are mostly white, Vargas asks the teachers what it’s like to work near the site of a famous Lakota slaughter. “We’ve never had to internalize what white people have done in America, but here, you can’t escape that,” says one white teacher. The scene is a powerful reminder of one of the biggest privileges of being a white person: You can afford to not think about race. Vargas also learns the Native word Wasichu, which means greedy white person, from a group of teenagers. He asks if their beloved teacher is one. “Yeah,” says one girl. “She’s the most awesomest Wasichu ever, though.” Everyone laughs. It’s the flipside of the old “I can’t be racist, I have Native American friends!” argument. These kids understand that just because you like someone doesn’t mean you aren’t biased against their race.
There’s a lightness to Vargas’ interviewing style, which requires a certain grace, given the heavy topic. In Scottsdale, Arizona, he meets Katy, a young white woman who believes she can’t get a college scholarship because all the scholarships are awarded “for race.” “It kind of feels like I’m being discriminated against,” she says, uttering the film’s most incendiary words. Some people of color might wonder, How can this white girl possibly understand how it feels to be discriminated against? But Vargas never gets defensive. Instead, he simply offers statistics that dispute her claim: White students are actually 40 percent more likely than students of color to get scholarships. Their debate never gets personal. If anything, Vargas works hard to prevent Katy from looking like a villain. “You’re not the only one who feels this way,” he tells her when she starts to feel guilty. He knows that’s not an excuse, but he’s an expert when it comes to empathy, which is why he’s so good at helping people like Katy open their minds.
Most of White People isn’t too revelatory. When Vargas goes to Bensonhurt, Brooklyn, where the culture is quickly changing from Italian-American to Asian, he’s primed with the big epiphany that the Asian population actually has a lot in common with the Italian-American population! He points out that both are immigrant groups that initially struggled with the language barrier and ended up in a neighborhood where they could “stick with their own kind.” Listening to this, a young Italian-American man looks at Vargas like, Okay, buddy. Now tell me something I don’t know. But there’s one genuine moment of surprise halfway through the movie, after Vargas attends a “white privilege workshop” at a college in Bellingham, Washington. It’s taught by a white teacher to an all-white crowd. Outside the classroom, Vargas turns to a few students of color who are hanging out on campus and asks: Is it okay to have a white person teaching other white people about race? You’d be forgiven for expecting them to say, “Hell no!” But their answers are measured. One woman thinks it’s a good thing. “They can connect more with that person,” she says. Another woman agrees: “They don’t feel like they’re being attacked.”
This is exactly what Vargas is best at himself: creating a space where people don’t feel like they’re being attacked. In the documentary’s best moments, he moderates a series of town hall-style discussions focused on answering tough questions like “What does white privilege mean to you?” and “How do you feel talking with a person of a different race?” The answers are mostly smart and nuanced and honest in a way that also makes for great television. Those scenes make it hard not to want something more from MTV than a brief special that tackles a much-too-broad topic. Maybe MTV needs a whole series called White People, one that has the time to fully explore all questions the documentary only touches on briefly. Or maybe that’s not enough, either. I’d love to watch Black People, and Hispanic People, and Asian People, too.