Minority Reports

Talking to the Filmmaker Behind Our Doc on White Students at Historically Black Colleges

In the first episode of 'Minority Reports,' VICE's Lee Adams meets an unexpected minority at a historically black college.
June 22, 2018, 1:28pm

Tiago is a white freshman attending Morehouse College. It's the Atlanta institution where Martin Luther King, Jr., whose face is plastered on Tiago's dorm room wall, got his degree. The 18-year-old estimates he's one of three "non-traditional" students currently attending the school, and he's part of a growing trend. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are paying the bills by recruiting more non-black students.

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VICE's Lee Adams visited Morehouse for the first episode of Minority Reports to see how Tiago, his peers, and the campus community are responding to the implications of this growing minority. We asked Adams why he wanted to tell this story.

VICE: What is Minority Reports about?
Lee Adams: Minority Reports is a series where we look at minority populations in places you wouldn’t expect to find them. It’s an effort to grant representation while also starting a conversation about really complicated things like race and privilege that people try to avoid. We want to address them head on.

Where did the idea for the show come from?
It came from the story in this first episode about the practice of historically black colleges and universities recruiting white and non-black students. Then we thought, “What if we did a whole show about people in places where you wouldn’t expect to find them? Where they’re existing as a minority, and stretching what and who a minority can be?" The first episode might be one of the first times you’ll see a white male as a minority in America.

How do you find your subjects?
That story was pitched to us by a writer named David Dent, a journalism professor at NYU. I said no, originally, because I didn’t want to go to a black school—a demographic the mainstream media often doesn’t cater to—as an extension of VICE and champion the one white perspective that exists there. But then I thought, “As a journalist, how can I be responsible about the way I tell this story so that it’s fair to the kid and it’s fair to the institution and fair to all the people who have gone there and continue to go there?”

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When I met Tiago, he said, “I’m not just here because I got a scholarship. I'm not just here because it was down the street from my house. I don’t just leave every day after class and go home. I’m here. I’m engaged. I believe in the mission. I feel called to this school by the mission.”

That let me know this was our guy. I found someone who is the right type of non-black student who you would want to attract to a black school, if there is such a thing. I knew I could do this story with him. It was the right time, with the right person, in the right place.

For later episodes, we start with a question and then try to find out what the answer to that question is. It’s a lot of fucking Googling.

There’s a moment in the first episode where the students are pointing out the problem coming to their historically black college to tell the story of a white dude. Did making this documentary change how you felt about the story?
Yes and no. The number one question to consider was, “Why does he want to go to school here in the first place?” In my mind, an HBCU wouldn’t seem particularly attractive to a white person unless they were fascinated by black culture and saw it as an opportunity to see us in our “natural habitat,” which is fucking weird in and of itself. I was perplexed by that question.

When I got there and met Tiago, it changed my mind. I got it. I understood why he wanted to go there. If he’s really as woke as he seems to be, now he has to prove it. Just being there isn’t enough. He has to be engaged, and then take what this school has given him and apply it to his life in ways I couldn’t by virtue of the color of my skin. He’ll have to navigate those white spaces that he can freely navigate and initiate change. He’ll have to be the ally he says he wants to be. There’s a burden of proof on white students at black colleges to give something back and not just take something from this experience.

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White students could always go to Morehouse. But the school was designed to serve the black community in very specific ways. I think they will always do that, but the growing number of non-black students definitely alters what they do and how they do it. Not to say that it takes away from the service they provide to black communities, but the kids there now have an added responsibility to take this non-black person who has entered their space and help them understand the narrative of their lives. You go to a black school not only to receive a great education, but also to prepare yourself to enter a society that rejects you and doesn’t value you as intelligent and capable.

If you’re a white student entering that space, you’ve got to be prepared to not have an opinion for once and do a lot of listening. You’ll be welcomed regardless, because that’s how black people are. But you’ve got to be prepared for the fact that you’re affecting somebody’s experience in a potentially adverse way.

What was the biggest challenge you overcame to make this episode?
Justifying what I was doing to myself. I knew that if I spoke to the other students there, I was doing the right thing. I knew I had to keep it as balanced as I could, without inserting my own thoughts on what was happening. As a journalist, you want to make sure you’re telling the actual story as it is, and not as you see it or how you want it to be perceived. I knew as long as I was allowing the kids there to drive their own narrative, I was doing the right thing.

What are the most important components to include in a documentary dealing with racial tension?
It required brutal honesty on all sides and finding people who are brave enough to confront that. It’s easy to do one of these docs and wind up with everyone tiptoeing around the issue. People want to be nice to each other. They don’t want to say things that are controversial. They're worried about their own reputations. If we’re actually going to get somewhere, I need to take people out of their comfort zones—figuratively or literally—and address the issues.

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It’s hard to sit in front of a black professor and ask her if this is reverse racism, knowing that it’s going to trigger a negative response. That’s going to alter the dynamic of our relationship. Or spending a week with an all-white K-Pop band in Korea, feeling like it might be fucked up. What they're doing seemed a lot like cultural appropriation—and I agreed to spend a week with these dudes and hope they don’t hate me by the end of it! I need them to be open, but also honest. Honesty is the key to this show.

How do you remain impartial in these tricky situations?
Honestly, I have no idea. Having a sense of humor definitely helps. It's knowing when to ask the hard question, and it’s knowing how to ask the hard question. I don’t want to be combative. I don’t want to be biased. But I do have to get that honest answer. If someone’s bullshitting me, I’ve got call them on it. Dave Lavin, who hired me at VICE, told me being a journalist is like playing sports. It’s all about acting and reacting. You see what the defense gives you, you make a decision. If they behave one way, then you’ve got to already know your two or three next steps.

It’s a lot of preparation. You need to really know the story. You’ve got to have the stats, the facts, and the figures to back up your questions. And you need to be actually listening so that you’re ready to pivot one way or the other.

What else is coming down the line for Minority Reports?
There’s a mostly American, all-white K-Pop band in Korea, which is amazing. The next episode is about black professional bull riders. At the highest ranks in the world, the top 100, there was only one black professional bull rider. His name was Neil Holmes. He retired, but this new kid, Ezekiel Mitchell, is rising up the ranks.

In a future episode, I really want to tackle policing. I’m not sure what aspect I’m going to focus on, but that’s where I’m starting and we’ll see where I end up.

How do you hope these stories will impact people?
I hope they agree with me. I hope they disagree with me. I hope they take this and talk about it and reimagine who can be a minority. I hope they understand that everyone has a story, regardless of what space they’re in. Maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge anyone. You don’t know why they’re there or what it took for them to get there. Whether that’s a bad cop, a black guy in an all-white space, a white guy in an all black space, or a K-Pop band that isn’t Korean. When you ask, “What are you doing here,” be prepared to actually listen to the answer. That’s the point of this show.

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