Is the national conversation about race really a conversation? Are some white people afraid to speak up?
“You say the wrong thing then suddenly you are a racist.”
“I feel like you guys are attacking me now.”
“It feels like I’m being discriminated against.”
These are a couple examples of young white people speaking their minds in the ads for MTV’s upcoming special, “White People.” Directed by Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former-Washington-Post-reporter-turned-social activist, the TV documentary shows young white people, and others, from across the country discussing race — honestly.
“The Southern battle flag — it’s more than just black and white,” a timid-looking white man tells Vargas in one trailer. “There was a heck of a lot more to it than just slaves.”
Even within the 84-second clip, a thoughtful discussion blooms:
“But, you’ve got to think of it, like, the Confederacy was fighting for their way of life, which their economic system was slavery. That’s like someone flying a swastika above their house,” another white student replies. “What if they’re like, ‘I’m honoring my grandfather who fought, you know, for Germany in that war who was not a Nazi but he was a German.’ What if that person was flying that flag above their house, you know what I mean? Would it be the same thing? It would be.”
The ads show strained, squirming, even teary-eyed youths diving deep into a conversation they may have never had before. And that’s Vargas’s intention: get people uncomfortable.
Vargas, 34, works specifically with five young adults to dive into how at least this sampling of young Americans today understands racial identity, white privilege and similar topics, according to MTV’s news service.
“We cannot have an honest conversation about race in America until we explore and unpack what ‘whiteness’ and ‘white privilege’ mean in America,” he wrote in one Facebook post. “This is not an easy, simply or comfortable conversation. So let’s get uncomfortable. Let’s talk.”
“Whiteness often remains unexamined in conversations about race in this country, even as it acts as the implicit norm against which other racial identities are judged,” wrote MTV President Stephen Friedman in a press release. “By shining a spotlight on whiteness, we hope ‘White People’ will serve as a powerful conversation starter that encourages our audience to address racial bias through honest, judgment-free dialogue.”
Vargas, a former reporter for The Post, has a unique personal history. Born in the Philippines, Vargas was put on a plane for California by his mother at age 12. In his high school history class, he came out as gay. While with The Post, he was part of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize for the newspaper’s coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. He then went on to reveal his undocumented status in a 2011 essay published in the New York Times Magazine, to advocate for the rights of undocumented immigrants and made the movie “Documented.”
It’s with his varied perspective that Vargas attempts to foster a “judgment-free space” for students to get out of their comfort zones.
“Perhaps only in America can an undocumented gay Filipino who looks Asian has a Latino name and graduated with a Political Science and African American Studies degree can make a film for MTV called ‘White People,’ ” he wrote in another Facebook post.
“White People” airs July 22, and is available online July 23 on multiple platforms.