Why Would We Need Something Called ‘The Whiteness Project’?

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When the Whiteness Project hit the web last week, Twitter’s judgment of it was swift and brutal: A resounding NOOOOOPE echoed through timelines everywhere. The multi-platform project, created by filmmaker Whitney Dow and partially funded by PBS, explores white people’s relationships to their own race — as if we don’t already have enough white people talking about white people. The fact that the video clips showcased white people from Buffalo, New York, making naïve and often outright racist statements certainly didn’t make the project look any better.

Dow has spent the majority of his career making documentary films about race (like the award-winning Two Towns of Jasper) and believes that even though we live in a white-supremacist society, as Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, the only way we’re going to improve race relations is if white people feel more comfortable confronting their own racial identity and how it influences their outlook. This means white people will have to talk about their whiteness and acknowledge that people of color are frequently forced to define themselves in relation to whites.

Sometimes, upon personal reflection, the revelations we have about our own prejudices and the way we relate to others are going to be ugly and unpleasant, and of course it’s that visceral discomfort that makes the whole project such an easy target. But it’s also exactly why Dow thinks the Whiteness Project is so important. Intelligencer spoke with Dow yesterday via phone to find out more about how the project came to be and what he thinks of the initial reaction to it.

Intelligencer: How did you come up with the idea to the project?
Whitney Dow: One thing I want people to really understand is this is a project 18 years in the making. Its genesis was really [in] 2003, in the course of making Two Towns of Jasper. [Ed. Note: Dow has been working on race-related documentaries for 18 years, but released Two Towns of Jasper with his partner Marco Williams in 2002.] We did a lot of university talks around the film. During one of these talks, I had what I would term a racial epiphany. I was being interviewed by some seventh-graders in front of this audience at a fund-raiser, and I was asked what I learned about my racial identity working with my partner Marco Williams. I said, “I have no racial identity,” but at the same time, I was having the feeling that I had the most powerful racial identity in America. I hadn’t really thought about it, or I had thought about it but I didn’t really understand it, and it was like getting X-ray glasses all of the sudden, realizing how my race impacted every moment of every day. And at that point, I said, “Well, if I can create something that could give other white people that same experience, I could be doing something valuable.” That was in 2005, and it was a long journey back. I’ve been trying to get this project funded for years, and it’s been turned down by every funder. I had dropped the project when POV approached me last spring. And this is my attempt to give other people that moment. I don’t know if I’ve been successful based on what Twitter’s saying, but this is just the beginning. I’d like to do something much bigger. I didn’t realize that I would hit such a chord.

What do you think of the online response to it? Why do you think people reacted the way they did?
I expected some reactions, but the level of the anger really caught me off guard because the reaction when I was trying to get it funded was more of, Meh, this doesn’t really have any value. The level of reaction I got [online] was, This is outrageous, what you’re doing. My response to it is: What is outrageous about speaking the truth? The one video about the woman talking about the woman being afraid of black men and the statistics saying 40 percent of whites think black men are inherently violent: It’s a real fact. It’s an uncomfortable fact; it’s a strange, terrible fact; but why is saying that out loud so outrageous? I think that my goal is to get white people to sort of confront the disconnect between how they experience the world and the reality of the place they hold in the world. So far, I think it’s done a good job of creating these conversations. I realize that when you come in as a white belt in Twitter jujitsu and you’re facing black belts, you’re going down hard. The people who have serious Twitter skills — I’m not able to compete.

Did you notice a racial divide among the backlash?
It was equally black and white. I expected white people to be outraged, and what’s actually interesting to me is the biggest critics of the project are white progressives on the web. They think it’s really outrageous, what I’m doing. I would argue that that’s because a lot of progressive whites — and a lot of people of color, too — think in some ways that they’re out of the paradigm of racial debate because they’re righteous. And I would argue that all white people, myself included, hold some of the most discomforting things we see somewhere inside us, and it’s really uncomfortable to confront that fact.

What’s interesting to see is that since that initial Twitter reaction, the project has gotten stickier every day. The people that are going to the site are staying on it and watching somewhere between five and six minutes of video. They’re coming, and they’re staying. Whereas the first day people staying for a minute or two, or coming to take a screenshot and put it up on Twitter and make some joke, or say, “OMG,” or “I’m gonna vomit.”

Were you surprised by the things some interview subjects had to say?
I wasn’t surprised at anything because I’ve been doing this work for so many years. I’ve heard everything from all sorts of white people. But the thing that you can see in the videos that still is always surprising to me is that when you ask white people about whiteness, they start talking about black people — invariably, that’s what happens. I think it’s because our sense of whiteness is very caught up in our relationship to blackness, and vice versa. I got a really beautiful letter from a woman that said, as a black woman watching, she always felt like her blackness was defined by whiteness, and she didn’t realize how caught up in blackness white people were.

The other thing that I would say is I can’t tell you how grateful I am to these people who are willing to speak honestly to me. Cut them some slack if you don’t like what they’re saying, because white people don’t have a lot of experience talking about whiteness. They are not always going to sound how you want them to sound.

So you don’t think some of them are actually just racist?
I think some of them are actually racist, but I think we’re all actually racist to some degree. And I think that I’m also very aware of the power dynamic that I wield in that situation. I know when I’m sitting with someone who isn’t familiar with me yet, and I’m talking to someone who’s an auto mechanic or something, they’re not necessarily savvy to what the potential is. I really kind of consider myself an advocate for the people I film — not because I believe what they’re saying or believe in it, but because I want to present it accurately.

Do you think white people don’t consider whiteness a race because they see it as the default and everyone else different in comparison to them?
Yes, white people think race is something outside themselves, and they don’t consider themselves a race. They consider themselves Irish or Italian — they consider themselves ethnic — but they don’t recognize that they’re a race. I think that’s a lot of where the disconnect and miscommunications happen.

Why do you think it’s important for white people to “own” their ethnic identity?
I find that once you fully own it and understand it, it enhances your life incredibly and enriches your experience in the world and your relationships with other people. The paradigm changes by people in the paradigm changing their behavior. I really love Ta-Nehisi Coates’s analysis. Progressives think race is a fault in the system that needs to be addressed through measures to right wrongs, but in fact, white supremacy is the organizing principle of the country. I think that’s the reality of it, and once you accept it, the denial of that makes it very, very hard to change the racial dynamics that play out on some stage. Whether it’s Ferguson or Trayvon Martin, we’re continually replaying this vignette, and I’m trying to do my part in changing the dynamic. If white people are interested in changing that dynamic, they have to look at themselves first. It’s not about changing something outside you.

Whitney Dow Q&A: On ‘The Whiteness Project’