What Is The Whiteness Project?

Photo: Courtesy of The Whiteness Project.
It's easy to have a knee-jerk reaction of "WTF?" to PBS' new POV Interactive Shorts series called The Whiteness Project. According to the project's website, it's "a multiplatform investigation into how Americans who identify as 'white' experience their ethnicity." The investigation takes the form of a 1,000 interviews with "white people from all walks of life and localities in which they are asked about their relationship to, and their understanding of, their own whiteness."
It's even easier to get all riled up when you hear pull quotes from interview clips from the project's first installment, which is called "Inside the White/Caucasian Box." The collection features 24 interviews filmed in Buffalo, NY, in which white people say things like, "It's my honest opinion that today, the white race is the one that's discriminated against," and "There should be more white people speaking up and talking about white people." Oh, and Jason, who says, "Do I think it’s beneficial for me being white? Have I gotten any privileges like that? I would say no...[F]or some reason, some black people kind of hold onto the back in the day, the slave thing, or they feel they’re not being treated right...Should slavery be something that, because it happened, we owe black people something more? Absolutely not."
When Twitter caught wind of The Whiteness Project this weekend, the overall reaction was pretty negative. "The problem with the #WhitenessProject is White people have been talking for too long. It's time they learned how to listen!" @Akhenaten15 tweeted. Articles about the project have headlines like, "Why Would We Need Something Called The Whiteness Project?" (New York Magazine) and "The Whiteness Project Is a Pageantry of White Ignorance" (The Frisky).
But, while we've been accused of being way too PC ourselves a few times lately, there may be something here worth considering.
The man behind The Whiteness Project, Whitney Dow, has spent almost two decades now making films about race. In 2003's The Two Towns of Jasper, Dow and his producing partner Marco Williams examined the aftermath of a lynching in 1998. Some of their other productions include Banished and Freedom Summer, which also examine race in America.
In the artistic statement for The Whiteness Project, Dow describes his mission thusly: "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." This is where many of the project's detractors would interject and wonder if this is because white people don't need to talk about being white — it just invites inherent white privilege to emerge.
But, Dow rejects the notion of white privilege. The term "feels pejorative and like something whose very recognition demands an admission of some kind of guilt." The project is about exploring "everything positive and negative [whiteness] represents" in America and helping both subjects and viewers "understand the active role their race plays in every facet of their lives."
This goal might be a little too nuanced, though, as evidenced by the outcry on Twitter.

Something with a title like The Whiteness Project is obviously going to attract a lot of attention. It's clear from interviews Dow has done about the project, such as this one with Vice and one with The Guardian, that it's not intended to be as tone-deaf as critics would have you believe.
Dow himself has also responded to some of his Twitter critics.

Still, in the wake of Ferguson and other recent racially charged events, this might not be the right moment for a series in which white people investigate what it means to be white. What do you think?

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