What do white millennials think about whiteness? Jose Antonio Vargas is on a mission to find out

If you ask one of our country’s preeminent scholars on race, there’s a huge problem with how we think about whiteness. The issue? We don’t think about it. Not really.

“Whiteness is on a toggle switch between ‘bland nothingness’ and ‘racist hatred,’” historian Nell Irvin Painter wrote recently. Clearly, it’s more than that. So what is it, exactly?

In his new documentary for MTV’s Look Different initiative, which aims to tackle racial, gender and anti-LGBT bias, immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas travels around the country asking white millennials to do something. According to MTV’s own polling, that “something” doesn’t happen very often: thinking about race, and moreover, thinking about whiteness.

Vargas’s documentary is an addition to an atmosphere where discussions of race are seemingly inescapable — he’s certainly not the first person to focus on whiteness. But his focus on the racial attitudes of millennials is noteworthy.

Vargas is a former employee of The Washington Post who was part of the Pulitzer prize-winning team that covered the Virginia Tech massacre. He is also an undocumented immigrant, which he revealed in a 2011 story in the New York Times Magazine. Vargas now runs Define American, his advocacy organization centered around immigration reform.

In the film, he meets Lucas, a white student at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, Wash., who teaches a white privilege workshop to other white students. Lucas says he never talked about race with his parents growing up, something that’s fairly typical for white millennials, according to MTV’s research. Lucas finds himself at odds with his mother Lauresa and stepfather Mark, whose media diet consists of a heavy stream of Fox News, particularly “The O’Reilly Factor.”

Vargas and the cameras are present as Lucas attempts to engage Lauresa and Mark in a conversation about race based on his work. The tension around the dinner table is palpable when Vargas asks Mark what he thinks.

“When Lucas mentioned ‘white privilege,’ I went on Google and started looking it up. Most of the stuff I saw was so slanted against white people,” Mark says.

“So it’s almost like an attack? As if it’s attacking white people?” Vargas asks.

“A little bit,” Mark replied. “You get a bad feeling. … You can’t just slam it into me and say ‘you’re a jerk.’”

Mark’s reaction, and the reflexive defensiveness that characterizes it, is a familiar one that knows no class or geographical boundaries.

In an open letter he entitled “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White,” New York Times columnist David Brooks took umbrage with Coates’s harsh assessment of America in his new book, “Between the World and Me”:

I think you distort American history. This country, like each person in it, is a mixture of glory and shame. There’s a Lincoln for every Jefferson Davis and a Harlem Children’s Zone for every K.K.K. — and usually vastly more than one. Violence is embedded in America, but it is not close to the totality of America.

… The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility and ever more perfect democracy cherishes the future more than the past. It abandons old wrongs and transcends old sins for the sake of a better tomorrow.

From the ivory tower of the New York Times to a suburban Washington dinner table, critiques of America and whiteness raise hackles and defenses. We see this over and over. Why does it keep happening?

Painter, a professor emerita of history at Princeton University and the author of “The History of White People,” explained this defensiveness as an inability to see beyond oneself.

“As I hear most white people talk about race as whiteness, they’re pretty naive,” Painter said. “Our culture is a racist culture in which race is a really important thing to know. It’s a big part of everybody’s identity, but for white people’s identity, the cultural part of it … is that you are an individual, so you’re … not part of the culture, you’re not part of the ideology… You are individual. And people get very testy when asked to see themselves as more than an individual, and that’s when white privilege comes in and ‘oh, I don’t want to be stigmatized, I didn’t do it,’ this defensiveness comes up because people are much more comfortable thinking of themselves as individuals.”

Despite their similar themes, there’s a gulf between “White People” and Painter’s bestselling “History of White People,” and it is intentional. Vargas’s documentary would be right at home amongst MTV’s “True Life” series whereas “The History of White People” is more academic. It’s not necessarily the same as the New York Times’ Op-Docs series which includes “A Conversation With White People on Race” and it’s not a PBS Frontline documentary either.

Vargas balances what could veer into “feelings journalism” with facts and empirical data, which is what he does when he meets Katy. Katy is a white girl in Scottsdale, Ariz., who graduated in the top 10 percent of her class with a 3.8 GPA but was unable to attend Grand Canyon University because she couldn’t afford it. She’s now enrolled in community college. Katy blames her fate on what she sees as a lack of scholarships for white students. (According to an MTV/David Binder Research study, 48 percent of white millennials believe that whites face just as much discrimination as people of color).

Vargas gently informs her that not only are the vast majority (69 percent, according to FinAid.org) of college scholarships awarded to white people, but that white scholarship recipients are actually over-represented — white students make up 62 percent of college undergraduates. The reverse discrimination that Katy and her mother feel is to blame for Katy’s enrollment in community college simply doesn’t exist.

At just under 41 minutes, “White People” is short, and because it aims to talk with high-school and college-age millennials rather than at them, it’s not loaded with verbiage from the academic and social justice spheres. Her ideas may be present, but Peggy McIntosh doesn’t come up once. Vargas said he thought “White People” would not be so well received in social justice circles because it focuses on whiteness. It’s worth noting that people of color and their voices are present throughout the film, however.

“I didn’t make this film so I can talk to white progressives and people of color who are progressives and pat ourselves on the back and say ‘oh, look what we did.’ That’s not the goal,” Vargas said. “As a filmmaker and a journalist my goal is how do I create this conversation and how do I create a space where people can actually see each other better? That’s my goal.”

“If I were in this business, talking to white people about this — which I am not, because it’s so exasperating — I would get them to the first step of saying ‘look, you’re not just an individual.’ Just to get them there would be just a giant step,” Painter said.

With “White People,” Vargas is asking white Americans to sit with their country’s many faults, to process facts instead of feelings, to consider the corrupting force of racism not just as a relic of the distant past, but the real and pervasive legacies of America’s peculiar institution, and the comforts they enjoy because of it.

“In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage,” Coates writes in “Between the World and Me.” Like James Baldwin before him, Coates is soon moving to Paris for a year, where he said he is simply seen as American before he is seen as black. But as much as Coates writes explicitly of the black body, Vargas illustrates how there is no collective “white body” in the converse.

“This is where the Baldwin quote is so instructive,” Vargas said. “Baldwin said ‘I’m only black if you think you’re white.’ We constructed it! And now, we have to deconstruct it.”

Vargas is asking his audience to examine whiteness as an institution, as America itself, as the two are so often conflated, but he also seeks to challenge that institution through his Define American campaign. He holds a mirror up to whiteness and to America, with the hope for an honest assessment of its flaws, for acknowledgement that it’s relied on a scaffolding of the subjugation of black and brown people, denial, hypocrisy, and even self-delusion to keep it erect. “White People” asks if it’s possible for the whole edifice to remain standing once whiteness itself has been deconstructed. Should it remain standing? What will arise in its place?

“I don’t think we can have a conversation about race in America anymore and not include white people in the conversation,” Vargas said. “I don’t think we can have those conversations about diversity and not include white people in the conversation. For me, that’s why I wanted to make a film that is centered around unpacking what white identity is and what whiteness is, which for me is such treacherous territory.

“… For far too long in this country, we’ve equated ‘white’ with ‘American.’ This country was never white. The world was never white. I think that is a realization that all of us, including white people, have to face.”

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