Something happened on the way to heaven with the Whiteness Project. Documentarian Whitney Dow’s project, currently presented online with an initial phase of twenty-four interviews that he is expanding to one thousand, seeks to examine the cultural experience of being white through first-person interviews with people who are white.
Okaaaay. I mean, sure. Everyone’s voice matters in the conversation about race. It is a long and loaded conversation that we’ve only just begun on a societal level, and however uncomfortable it may be, I want us all to participate in the interest of moving forward together. Many racial, ethnic, and religious groups develop organizations dedicated to examining the experiences of that group, both for purposes of solidarity and reflection among members of the same group, and the edification of those outside it. So why shouldn’t white people?
I’LL TELL YOU WHY NOT.
The groups and “projects” that are formed for marginalized groups exist to fill a void, to provide cultural information and celebration that has been previously ignored, denied, stolen, or erased. In short, because these groups are marginalized. White people have not historically been marginalized. It’s that simple.
What is not at all simple is a nuanced conversation about race that is interested in a more positive future. Of course white voices are valid. But we have to agree on the systemic inequality upon which America’s racial cookie crumbles before we can even start sweeping up the crumbs and baking something better.
Mr. Dow, in a Twitter exchange with Miles Klee of the Daily Dot, said that he “knows the project has a huge chance of being misunderstood,” which could be the name of the project itself: “A Huge Chance of Being Misunderstood.” Or maybe “You’re Not Gonna Believe It, But I’m Serious Here Maybe Hear Me Out?” Or any other title that would help us bridge the gap between the natural reaction of incredulity and whatever genuine interest he hopes to garner.
When presenting something as preposterous as this is and looking for legitimate attention, and not just mockery or bad press, it is your responsibility to present it in a way that tells us you know how bad it looks. Not just that you think it might look bad, but that you KNOW. I’m not sure I’d be on board with this project with a different presentation, but it doesn’t help Dow’s cause that it looks like a basic satirical trolling feature from the despicable Thought Catalog. The project might be a mistake top to bottom, but at least if the name and presentation of this mess were dripping in self-awareness and firm Privilege Checking, I might not have gasped out loud when the page loaded on my laptop.
And then there’s the content. When a white woman on the Whiteness Project expresses her discomfort with attention from black men on the street by starting with, “If we’re gonna talk about black men in general…” we have a problem. I speak out against street harassment, but to single out black men and also say it’s because she’s “voluptuous” is less an introspective journey into her white culture and more talking shit about black men while simultaneously reinforcing a stereotype about them. When a white man complains about losing a job to “quotas,” what is that doing for the white culture except emphasizing this man’s misplaced resentment? There’s already a place for white people to whine about black people bothering them. It’s called America.
I’m very fond of saying often and loudly that black people are not a monolith. And guess what? Neither are white people. But if these are going to be your spokespeople, and this is a movement that is allowed to prosper, no one wins. These people are doing the backstroke through a river of their own White Tears™, and there’s not a big enough coat check on earth for them to check their privilege.
I would love to know what the prompts were for these statements, but all we have are the interviews themselves, and while there may be some nugget of validity in there somewhere, I’m too busy fighting day and night for my humanity to wade through the Whiteness Project’s bullshit to find it.
I’ll listen to a white person’s issues with their whiteness all day if they can first agree, loudly and clearly, to the reality of systemic racism. Then they have to behave in a way that communicates that they understand it. In his artistic statement, Dow says, “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.” Alright, Whitney. I know loads of white people are sick of even hearing the word Privilege. Sorry luvs, that doesn’t make it any less real. If being sick of something could render it imaginary or make it go away, racism would already be gone, as would littering or Two and a Half Men.
White Privilege doesn’t mean your life is better or you don’t have struggles. It doesn’t mean I need you to be marinating in guilt in order to engage with you. It means that society systemically favors you; we have to acknowledge that before we set about to change it. It doesn’t mean hating all white people and that doesn’t mean that you, Individual White Person, are the oppressor. It is systemic and historical, which makes it much bigger than any one person and necessitates us all working together to dismantle it. Self-awareness and acknowledgment of ugly truths need not cross over into centering guilt.
We need look no further than the Whiteness Project itself, and its sponsor, to see privilege in action exponentially. The project is backed by PBS, the nonprofit bastion of education and artistic integrity. This is such a fail that I really hope they revamp the whole thing if they intend to move forward. If you’re going to specifically hand white people the mic, you must first acknowledge AT FULL VOLUME that they’ve historically always had the mic to begin with. Then ask yourself if it’s time for other people to have a chance to be heard or if you really have to continue to center white people in a conversation about race. Then go back to the drawing board and come up with something better than the Whiteness Project.