Last Friday, a link began rapidly circulating on Twitter to an interactive multimedia documentary called the Whiteness Project, which was apparently an “investigation into how Americans who identify as ‘white’ experience their ethnicity.” The documentary featured intimate interviews with 21 people from Buffalo, New York, discussing race in a frank and often cringeworthy fashion. “For some reason, some black people hold on to the back-in-the-day slave thing,” a man identitifed as “Jason” says. “Should slavery be something that because it happened we owe black people more? Absolutely not.” Another woman expresses her fear at how “black men in general” take a smile as an “invitation to approach.” A third white whines, “I mean, come on, you can’t even talk about fried chicken or Kool-Aid without wondering if someone’s going to get offended.” Each interview is bookended with a relevant statistic that examines how white Americans view race in North America. The online reaction was swift, incredulous, and unforgiving.
But upon closer inspection, the project is more complex and original than it first appears, and the man behind it has a legitimate track record documenting sensitive racial issues. Along with his African-American producing partner Marco Williams, Whitney Dow has spent the last 16 years specializing in films that attempt to unearth and illuminate uncomfortable racial truths and gray areas, beginning in 1998 with Two Towns of Jasper, a film analyzing the lead-up to and aftermath of the brutal, racially-motivated dragging death of James Byrd, Junior at the hands of two Texas white supremacists.
The Whiteness Project is funded through PBS’s POV Interactive Shorts program, and Buffalo’s 21 interviews are just the first piece of a project that plans to interview over 1,000 white Americans about their views on race.
With controversy swirling and the project garnering several hundred thousand views since Friday, we decided to chat with Dow over Skype to discuss the process of casting the project, how Barack Obama’s presidency has or hasn’t changed the way we talk about race, and what he thinks about the fact that white liberals are probably the biggest critics he’s faced.
VICE: First of all, what prompted this idea?
Whitney Dow: I did a film in 2003 called Two Towns of Jasper. Along with my producing partner Marco, I did a lot of talks around the country, and we were asked to give a speech for this organization called Facing History in Ourselves. They structured it by having all these seventh graders interview us. At that point, I’d been working on the film for five years, I’d done tons of talking about it, writing about it, thinking about it, and I really thought I knew a lot about myself and race because making the film with Marco was one of the most difficult, interesting, and just self-revealing processes you could possibly imagine.
This little girl got up and said, “Whitney, what did you learn about your own racial identity working with Marco?”
I had this epiphany where I suddenly realized, I don’t have a racial identity… But oh my God, of course I have a racial identity. I have the most powerful racial identity on the motherfucking planet. And despite all the work I had done, all my talk about it, all my bullshit, until that moment, I hadn’t really processed it in a real way where I recognized it. It sounds really fucking corny, but it was like having some sort of conversion experience. With that knowledge, all of a sudden, I started to see the world in such a different way. It was kind of like getting X-ray glasses. Once I became conscious that my race was an active component of my everyday experience, that it was an active dynamic thing that I controlled that impacted me, it fundamentally changed the way I saw the world and interacted with people.
And at that point I said to myself, If I can figure out a way to make a film or do a project that can give other white people this same experience, I will be doing something of value.
All screencaps via the Whiteness Project
How did you find the people you interviewed?
[Buffalo] is actually the third city I shot in. The process for getting how to find the participants has been really difficult.
I shot in New York and I shot in Milwaukee using my sort of standard production techniques of getting a producer and doing a casting call, bringing in real people, and I realized—as I was watching the footage—that I was getting all these middle-class people. And they’re liberal, middle-class people because those are the people that the people in the production have relationships to.
So, when we went to Buffalo, I hired a producer there and I said, “Look, here’s the thing: I need everybody from the auto mechanic to the banker. I really need a broad range of people.”
We both did some personal casting. I just sent guys to walk around the streets and sort of gave them archetypes of people that I was looking for: I wanted blue-collar people, I wanted white-collar people. I wanted old, young, gay, straight, and a mixture of women and men. They also put it on Craigslist.
We actually interviewed 24 people. [There were] three who I didn’t put [in the documentary because] I didn’t feel they were either that representational, or that strong, or added something. I was very afraid that people would come and they’d see something that was weak and just move on.
I would tell people when they’d come in, “I’m doing a project about race for PBS. You can come in and sit down and talk about it. You don’t have to sign the release ‘till after you talk to me. I’m not trying to play ‘gotcha’ with anybody. Don’t say anything to me that you don’t want me to use. And if you don’t like how the conversation went, don’t sign the release, because I can use anything. I’m really not out to screw people here. The goal, as I said at the top of the interview, is to get white people to understand that their race is a dynamic component in their life, and also understand that how they experience their race as an individual is probably very different from the reality of what it means to be living in America.
Forty percent of white Americans think that "many" or "almost all" black men are inherently violent. That’s a fucking
. It’s not pejorative. I’m not trying to say these people are inherently evil; this is the reality. I’d be lying to say that some of the most discomforting feelings in those interviews, like what that woman said [about being afraid of some black men], I got that in me too. I’m not any better. I’m not someone who is standing and saying, “I’m outside of this thing.” If whites are going to participate in changing the racial dynamic, they have to deal with their own shit first. And they also have to be allowed to be fully vested participants in the conversation. If every time a white person opens their mouth about race someone yells, “You’re being a fucking racist!” at us, we can’t do it. White people don’t have a lot of experience talking about their race, so they’re going to say a lot of dumb shit.
You and Marco started making films about race in 1998 with Jasper. Has the way we talk about race changed since then?
That’s a really good question. I think people are more honest and open in some ways. I think there’s some assumptions now that things have changed far more than they actually have. And one of the things that I struggle with... is the relationship between the public and private. The public conversation has really changed—in terms of what you’re allowed to say, how you’re allowed to say it, the assumptions of how you view people, and how you talk about race—but I feel like the private conversations haven’t changed. People talk very, very differently in private. And you see in that guy, Jason, in this particular Buffalo segment, who says, “If there were black people in the room, I’m going to talk very, very differently.”
And perhaps the dialogue of you and me trying to teach each other about race isn’t working; perhaps a more constructive dialogue is you listening in on what I really think and me listening in. You don’t have to have to interpret anything for me. The other thing I want to say, just to counter some of the haters, is that from all of the people of color who I know, the refrain I hear is, “We as black Americans are so tired of explaining race to white people.” So, I’m like, OK, I’ll take that on! And then I get a lot of hate from people saying, “Well, who the fuck are you? Why are you giving white people a platform to talk about this shit?”
Whitney B. Dow via PBS POV Docs
How do you think that Barack Obama’s presidency has affected the way we discuss race?
I think it’s polarized people. I’m one of those people who does believe that there’s a big portion of the country that—whether they’re aware of it or not—are really caught up in the fact that we have a black president. And I can tell you for myself, still, with all of the work that I’ve done, I see Barack Obama—I kinda don’t process him as black or white at this point—but when I see a picture of Barack and Michelle and their family in the White House, I go Holy shit, we have a black family in the fucking White House! It’s still astounding to me that it is happening right now. And I think it also has given people who aren’t interested necessarily in examining how race affects their own lives, this get-out-of-jail-free card where they’re like, “Well, we have a black president, so… [racism is over].”
The other thing I’ll say about Barack Obama is I’m always interested in about power and race. Black people who get power from the white power structure are very different from black people who get power from their own power base. I feel like some people are upset about Barack Obama not being more radical—I know I am. But you don’t get to be the first black president of the United States by rocking the boat and being a firebrand. You can’t have both things.
One of the things you see in the videos is that there’s a lot of blue-collar white people—and I experienced this when I did this film in 2005 about self-segregation in Buffalo high schools called I SIT WHERE I WANT—is that both the white kids and black kids in school were really cognizant of the idea that if you’re a really smart minority kid or person of color you have a leg up once you get into the college system. The black kids would say it and the white kids would say it. And the white kids would say, "We’re not advantaged whites, and we’re not people of color, so we’re kind of totally disenfranchised.” You see that in some of the interviews with people who are working-class whites who feel disenfranchised. But it’s like anything—they’re looking at only one thing that’s on the scale. They’re not looking at everything that’s on the scale. There’s a lot of shit on the scale. And you can’t pick and choose.
Look at the fucking numbers. Your individual experience does not define the group.
What have you learned in the course of conducting all of these interviews that has surprised you?
This woman wrote me this really nice note and she said, she always was caught up in her sense of her own blackness and how it related to whiteness and that she felt her blackness was always being defined by whiteness. And that she didn’t realize how much whiteness was caught up in the same thing: that we define our whiteness by our relationship to blackness. And it’s always funny to me that whenever I ask white people to talk about being white, they immediately start talking about black people. Over and over again, I’d say, “I want to talk to you about race,” and they’d be like, “I want to tell you about black people.” It’s like clockwork.
And what I think people of color don’t necessarily understand is that whites are deeply conflicted and confused and don’t really know how to grapple with these things. They have never known how to talk about it, they don’t know how to process it, they feel like they’re not really part of this thing, and so it’s a really, really complicated situation. And the other thing that I’ve learned a lot is that white liberals have been some of the most vicious critics of this project. I mean, I’ve gotten a lot of hate from people of color who are like, “A white guy talking about white people, what the fuck?” and I’ve gotten people on the left saying, “Oh, yeah, we need another white guy giving white people a platform to talk about whiteness. That’s basically the world.”
Why do you think you’re getting that heat from the white left?
Because I think that the white left sees themselves outside of the racial paradigm. And I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates. I opened my funding proposal with a quote from him that I can paraphrase from an Atlantic piece he wrote a few months ago: He says basically Obama-era progressives view racism as a problem within the system that needs prescriptions that either address inequality to help black people or change the system to make it more fair, whereas he sees white supremacy as the organizing principle of the United States of America. It always has been, it is today, and it always will be.
And I agree with that. And again, I don’t think that’s pejorative; I think that’s reality. Look at the fucking founding documents. White supremacy was the organizing principle. I think if you look at the world as it is, that’s a lot more interesting than looking at in some sort of fantasy.