In The Hollywood Race, Shannon Houston examines the dynamics of race and culture as they play out in film, television, music and pop culture.
There’s an incredible, terrifying documentary streaming on Netflix right now, titled Fed Up. Stephanie Soechtig’s film is guaranteed to make you re-think every bit of food you put into your body this week. But rather than wagging a finger at you and telling you to put down that Pepsi (though, you’ll likely be putting down and taking a lighter to your Pepsi after watching this), at the end of the movie, viewers are presented with just a few, small, helpful tasks to try out, if they’re interested in beginning the very critical journey towards better health and food intelligence.
Jose Antonio Vargas’ MTV documentary White People (now available online) doesn’t do this, and that’s okay because no one 41-minute film can do everything. Instead, Vargas uses White People to do something few of us who are talking about race are willing to do—listen to white people, and patiently present facts to help some of them (like the young woman who insisted she couldn’t get a scholarship to her dream school because of reverse discrimination) come to the realization that, even though they may not feel like it, they are always benefiting from white privilege.
Vargas has been attacked for being far too gentle with the white people in his documentary, some of whom display incredible ignorance (whether due to their own faults, or their upbringing and environment), but it’s important to remember that we need someone like Vargas. I myself have recently been self-diagnosed with Racial Discussion Fatigue Syndrome (RDFS) and have only this video and my fellow RDFS sufferers to calm my nerves:
So—and I say this without snark—I am grateful for Vargas whose careful, calculated and empathetic approach clearly made an impact on some of the people in the TV documentary. But like many viewers, I can’t help but ask, “What next?” For all of the white people who watched White People, what actual steps might be taken to address the myriad issues that were presented? Here are three ideas, inspired by the people in the short film, any of which might get the ball rolling for white people interested in understanding their unique position in America.
I admit that there were many moments in White People where I had to laugh, rather than cry. One young woman insisted that “ghetto” wasn’t a derogatory term because she’d heard it used repeatedly on Real Housewives. The head of an Italian family in Brooklyn, who had once himself been an immigrant, complained of the Asian immigrants “taking over” his neighborhood. (It should be noted that all of these people get educated, in some way or another.) And I also learned the definition of the Sioux word “Wasichu.” It might be my new favorite word.
But one of the most sincere and encouraging moments of the film came when Lucas opened up to his conservative parents about the white privilege workshop (“Lucas’ Super Serious White Privilege Workshop”) he’d started teaching. You can see his eyes welling up with tears and his face reddening as he shakily asks them, “I wanna know if you guys would come to my white privilege workshop tomorrow.” They agree. And while we know there’s little chance his step-father will budge on the majority of his views, his mother seemed to have a more open mind and the presence of both of them in the workshop signified something. Whether we can understand it or not (and, really, we should all be able to understand this), his parents approval meant a great deal to him. If nothing else, the young man was clearly encouraged to continue his work.
At the risk of sounding like someone with actual hope for the future—imagine a world where more of these were available and publicized? This particular young man ran his workshop alone, and that may have worked in his favor. But a special guest co-host of color every once in a while probably wouldn’t hurt either. Just sayin.’
Lucas’ father explained that, one of his difficulties with race discourse was his [mis]understanding that he was supposed to be guilty about being white. He learned this, he said, when he Googled “white privilege.” Googling white privilege is, actually, a great place to start. However, if you’re googling and also declaring inwardly that you refuse to feel guilty about your race and they better not try to make you feel bad for the sins of your ancestors, then you’re probably off to a bad start. One of the best things you could do is skip over all other Google recommendations, and scroll down just a bit to this article: Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person. A great read, even if you’re not broke, Gina Crosley-Corcoran breaks it down for everyone having a difficult time seeing their own privilege. She even directs you to another article (I know, so many articles!) that helped her immensely, Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.
I wouldn’t be a Paste critic if I didn’t recommend two films that changed my life and demand that your life be changed by them as well. As strange as it feels to write these words, it’s important that White People offered white people a space to openly discuss race, and to do so with a person of color they trusted. And it’s also important that white people step away from this documentary knowing that there are many other documentaries that can help them further understand the benefits of their position and the effects white privilege has on systemic racism and classism.
Central Park Five (streaming on Netflix) from legendary Ken Burns and his co-director Sarah Burns is sure to make viewers uncomfortable, but will leave you incredibly informed about a historical rape case, New York culture and the unique brand of American racism in the late ‘80s:
Nailiah Jefferson’s Vanishing Pearls (streaming on Netflix), presented by Ava DuVernay’s AFFRM, invites you into the historically black bayou communities on the Gulf coast in Louisiana. It explores the devastating effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon (or BP) oil spill. The government coverups that sought to disenfranchise and impoverish the members of this community happened after the spill, but Jefferson brilliantly incorporates the history of the town—which grew out of government-sanctioned racism and classism (the same kind which creates and reinforces white privilege and the power and access that comes along with it).
And if you’re a hip-hop fan, the Nas documentary Time is Illmatic (streaming on Amazon) is one more story whose central topic—the classic 1994 album—is given historical context by director One9 and writer Erik Parker. The NYC public educational system, the Queensbridge housing projects Nas grew up in and the effects of it all (and influence on his work) all come under the scope of this bigger-than-hip-hop tale.
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Salon, Pink is the New Blog and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.