The Whiteness Project

Ugh. I can’t even…

But I’m going to try.

I’ll be frank. When I first heard of this project, sight unseen, I imagined it was a series of vignettes detailing how the lives of individual white Americans was difficult, and using this to claim that white America had it just as bad as African-Americans or Hispanic-Americans. I thought it was going to be some of the worst racist dreck ever produced; dreck that ignored how the deck is stacked against People of Color (PoC)and always has been. I figured it was going to ignore the fact that this country was built for and benefits white people. I thought they’d ignore that the political, economic, social, and religious power in this country is overwhelmingly in the hands of white people.  I thought it was going to make the case that the struggles of PoC is their fault, rather than the fact that the playing field has never been level.

Was my first impression correct?

The brainchild of Whitney Dow, (who, along with Marco Williams, created Two Tone Productions, which focuses on race and in their words, “any subject matter that allows us to investigate what it means to be human), the Whiteness Project is intended as an exploration of how white Americans perceive their ethnicity.  The first installment of the ongoing project is a collection of 24 interviews of white people in Buffalo, NY in July 2014.

Having listened to 5 of the 24 videos, I learned that John, who used to be in prison, never really paid much attention to his race, until he was forced to side with either Hispanic-Americans or African-Americans while in prison. Only then did he become aware of his ethnicity.  He sided with the Hispanic group in prison, feeling as if he had nothing in common with the black population.

From Kathie, I learned that she’s a person who “doesn’t see race”. She feels that she got where she did because of who she is.  It’s clear that she has no concept of white privilege. Worse, she’s never had any reason to stop and think about her ethnicity and how it has allowed her to navigate through life with greater ease than other ethnic people.

Ken considers himself ‘White, Native American’, but seems to focus more on his Indian heritage rather than his white heritage. I’d be interested to see if he identifies with his Indian heritage for personal reasons, or if he identifies as Indian to honor his grandfather (which is implied in the interview). He makes very little mention of being white.

Andrea sports visible tattoos and dyes her hair. As a result, she feels that she experiences as much discrimination as a black person. In fact, she says if she went out with a minority person, she’d get as many stares and be subjected to the same treatment as black people.

Chris points out the lack of diversity in Buffalo. He mentions that he’s never really felt conscious of his race, but he wishes he felt a connection to his ethnicity…a feeling of being a ‘part’ of something.  Of the 5 interviews I listened to, he recognizes the importance of diversity and of interacting with people outside of your ethnic group. Even still, he doesn’t appear to demonstrate knowledge of how his race benefits him.

There are of course, 19 more interviews to listen to, but one thing I was struck by is that it doesn’t feel like an interview.  Sure the speakers are [probably] asked questions, but we’re not privy to any of that. As a result it feels one-sided. It feels like this is what these people genuinely think about their race.  It’s interesting bc they don’t really have an idea of being white. That’s at the heart of white privilege. It’s being “normal”. It’s having your race normalized to such a point that it’s invisible.  Contrast that with African-Americans or Hispanic-Americans, who routinely are made aware of their race.  Given the history of both groups in this country, and how they have long been oppressed-precisely bc of their race-it makes sense that their ethnic identity would be something they are very much aware of.

I asked earlier if my first impressions were correct.  I’d say YES and NO.  For the individuals interviewed, their privilege makes them blind to the ways that their race impacts their lives, They literally don’t have to think about their race.  It’s not an issue to them. It’s not something that’s their fault, and it’s nothing they should feel guilty of. However, if this country is going to have an open, honest discussion about race, white people need to become aware of their privilege. That’s the only way they’ll be in a position to help tear down the institutional barriers that prevent true equality for Blacks and Hispanics. Several of my initial impressions were correct, but that’s more to do with the interviewees, rather than the interviewer.  What does Whitney Dow have to say about his project? Could that change my perspective on this work?

Short answer: Yes.

While many media projects have investigated the history, culture, and experiences of various American ethnic minorities, there has been much less examination of how white Americans think about and experience their whiteness and how white culture shapes our society. Most people take for granted that there is a “white” race in America, but rarely is the concept of whiteness itself investigated. What does it mean to be a “white”? Can it be genetically defined? Is it a cultural construct? A state of mind? How does one come to be deemed “white” in America and what privileges does being perceived as white bestow? The Whiteness Project is a multi-platform media project that examines both the concept of whiteness itself and how those who identify as “white” process their ethnic identity. The project’s goal is to engender debate about the role of whiteness in American society and encourage white Americans to become fully vested participants in the ongoing debate about the role of race in American society.

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.

I recognize that the idea of whiteness, or white privilege, is an uncomfortable one. The term “white privilege” itself feels pejorative and like something whose very recognition demands an admission of some kind of guilt. As a white person, I reject this. I have found that honestly examining the role my ethnicity plays in my day-to-day life, and, in fact, how it has shaped my life’s entire arc, has been incredibly enriching and enhanced the quality of all my relationships, regardless of the ethnic make-up of those involved.

America, despite its history (or perhaps because of it), has been a leader in confronting issues of race. While deep racial fissures do exist in American society—as evidenced by recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and in reactions to the shooting of Trayvon Martin and to affirmative action court rulings—it is hard to imagine any other white-majority country embracing and celebrating the wide range of ethnicities and cultures that make up the nation and electing a biracial president to govern them all. I believe that the country is not just ready for a discussion on whiteness, but is hungry for it. My experiences working on this project have repeatedly shown me that when white people honestly engage on this topic, it is incredibly freeing for everyone, regardless of ethnicity, and makes discussions about race more productive, ultimately helping to advance a culture of true equality.

The Whiteness Project

One thought on “The Whiteness Project

  1. 1

    I am from the project. I have a Latino husband. So I experience first hand what I spoke about in my clip. If you are interested in talking more about this, let me know.

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