White People Tries To Cover Everything, Digs Deep Into Nothing

Photo: Courtesy of MTV.
Talking about being white in America and all that encompasses — from white privilege to the historical weight of what white people have done to minorities — is ambitious, and, as MTV's documentary White People proves, an impossible subject to do justice to in just over 40 minutes.

As journalist and Filipino immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas hops from city to city, including Rapid City, SD, and Phoenix, AZ, he speaks primarily to white people in their late teens and early 20s about what whiteness meant to them.

By far the most illuminating segment was filmed at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a reservation in Wanblee, SD, which is home to members of the Oglala Sioux tribe. The reservation's population of 725 includes 14 Caucasians. Their presence there is quickly explained on a trip to the reservation's K-through-12 school, where the student population is 100% native, and most of the teachers are white. When one teacher speaks of refusing a student a bathroom pass and receiving the comeback, "You took our land and you won't even let me go to the bathroom," he claims to know the student was only joking. Still, it's difficult to maintain that same confidence as a viewer, to be certain that student was trying to be funny and not vocalizing completely valid anger and frustration.

A group of high school girls are asked if a favorite (white) teacher is "wasichu," a word which literally means "he who takes the best meat," but colloquially means white. While one girl says she doesn't use the obviously negative word because her father taught her not to be racist against any group, another girl answers yes, but seeming to want to soften the blow, adds, "But the most awesomest wasichu ever." It's obvious that she likes the teacher, but it's important to note that her affection doesn't prevent the girl from associating the white instructor with a term that denotes a history of privilege and exploitation.

Another telling segment focuses on Katy, an 18-year-old living in Scottsdale, AZ, who couldn't afford to attend her dream college because she didn't receive enough scholarships, despite her good grades. She feels she would have had the opportunity to earn more scholarships if she were a minority, a feeling echoed by her mother. Vargas relays the statistic that white students are actually 40% more likely to receive scholarships than minority students, delivering the news in a room with one of Katy's biracial friends. Katy replies, "Now I'm the victim," and claims, "I feel like you guys are attacking me right now." The segment ends with Katy saying she's going to keep trying to fund her education, which feels like a bizarre note to end on. It makes the entire segment about Katy's problem rather than a teaching moment for her to realize that she's wrong — she still has more advantages as a white person.

After spending time in many predominantly white communities,Vargas ends the doc with a trip to Bensonhurst, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, which, over the course of the last decade, has gone from a predominantly Italian neighborhood to one with a booming Asian population. Vargas travels the streets with an Italian-American twentysomething named John, who expresses, while not outright racism, a general frustration with the changing dynamic of his home turf, bemoaning the fact that many of his new neighbors can't speak English (and were thus unable or unwilling to sign his petition to approve a block party).Vargas points out that when John's own family immigrated, they could only speak Italian. John agrees, but still doesn't seem thrilled with his changing community.

The conclusion is a continuation of the doc's focus on young white people who claim they're color blind, yet the reason they don't see race is because the purposefully surround themselves with other white people and choose not to think about the problems that minorities in this country face.

The concept behind White People was full of potential, and it raises ideas that might have sparked truly meaningful discussions if the doc took the time to fully explore them. Unfortunately, it achieved exactly what it seemed to want to avoid — skimming the superficial surface of race in America.

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