The Whiteness Project

Salon has an article on “Why the Whiteness Project is so endlessly mortifying”, about a PBS documentary exploring, however one-sidedly, the concept of white identity.

If you read between the lines of this writer’s snarky political correctness (a prerequisite for Salon articles), it appears the documentary might be, however circuitously, arriving at a realization of there being a formative and growing, latent, sense of white racial consciousness (or at least sense of ‘white identity’) in the U.S.:

A new PBS documentary asks whites to “experience their ethnicity.” This appears to mean disparaging other races…

Into this charged atmosphere comes the Whiteness Project, an online documentary series that could easily be mistaken for satire were it not for the involvement of PBS and filmmaker Whitney Dow’s assurances that he is “deadly serious about this.” Dow plans to interview 1,000 “white people from all walks of life and localities” about how they “experience their ethnicity.” The first 24 of those interviews were conducted this summer in Buffalo, N.Y.

Dow may have a point when he argues that white people who want “to participate in changing the racial dynamic in this country” are “going to have to deal with their own shit first.” The problem is, a lot of his subjects aren’t talking about their race—they’re criticizing minorities…

“White people have been very tentative about engaging” with his line of questioning, Dow said. No kidding: the contortions of some interviewees as they struggle to put across a blinkered worldview without sounding openly racist are terribly painful to watch.

From the Whiteness Project’s website, project lead Whitney Dow, between canned liberal statements about Ferguson, et al, writes the following:

After almost two decades of making films with my black producing partner, Marco Williams, I have come to believe that most whites see themselves as outside the American racial paradigm and their race as a passive attribute. Subsequently, they feel that they do not have the same right to speak about race as non-whites. The Whiteness Project hopes to bring everyday white Americans, especially those who would not normally engage in a project about race, into the racial discussion—to help them understand the active role their race plays in every facet of their lives, to remove some of the confusion and guilt that many white people feel around the subject of race and to help white Americans learn to own their whiteness—and everything positive and negative it represents—in the same way that every other ethnicity owns its ethnic identity.

In Slate, black writer Jamelle Bouie’s reaction to the Whiteness Project interviews is telling. Read between the lines of Bouie’s acknowledgement that, among whites, there might be a silent majority who actually have vestiges of a positive sense of white racial identity.

The interviews for the Whiteness Project—a new series from PBS and documentary filmmaker Whitney Dow—are varied, succinct, and candid. “Because slavery happened, does that mean we owe black people something?” asks one participant, who continues with other, similar observations. “I think it’s hard to talk about race as a white person because, maybe, black people are just looking for a reason to tell you why you’re wrong, or tell you why you owe them something,” he said. “I just don’t buy into that nonsense about discrimination,” says a doctor. He insists: “If you have it upstairs, and you really commit to doing what you want to do with your life, I don’t think race has anything to do with anything.”

These interviews are just the first part in a larger series, and already, they’re valuable. It’s rare that white Americans talk about race. It’s even rarer that they do so on camera. And it’s rarer still that they reveal ignorance, confess to prejudices, and share their fears.

With that said, watching the interviews is jarring. In general, you don’t expect anyone to openly say he or she is “proud to be white” or warn that “a lot of white boys aren’t going to be pushed around.”

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