“Ready to get uncomfortable with us?” asked the official MTV Twitter account on Wednesday, preparing its audience for the documentary White People, which aired that night. In the hour-long special, Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Jose Antonio Vargas talks to young people — many of them white — about race in America. While white people aren’t the only ones talking, they are involved in every conversation, and each segment has some focus on the white experience of race: a white guy who goes to a historically black college, the white teachers at a school on an Oglala Sioux reservation, white people who feel “attacked” by questions about racism at town-hall discussions in North Carolina and Washington State. It’s a documentary for white people, Vargas acknowledges, and an attempt to get them to reckon with their own racial privilege.
The documentary did make some of its subjects uncomfortable. When presented with evidence that white people are more likely to receive scholarships than people of color, one white student says, “Okay, now I feel like the victim here … I feel like you guys are attacking me now.” Many white people managed to take Vargas’s questions super personally and, at the same time, disassociate themselves from racism. They struggled to understand that white privilege is something that is both bigger than they are and also something they are actively involved in.
At the same time the documentary was airing, this disconnect was playing out in real time on Twitter. After the VMA nominations were announced, Nicki Minaj tweeted, “If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year.” Taylor Swift read the tweet and, like many of the white people in White People, managed to both take it personally and avoid accountability. “It's unlike you to pit women against each other,” she tweeted at Minaj. The exchange was portrayed by the tabloid internet as a frivolous spat between two pop stars, but their disconnect was actually a pretty trenchant example of what happens all too often when white people hear big-picture critiques about racism.
Swift, it’s clear from her response, didn’t read Minaj’s tweet as a critique of the VMAs and, more broadly, the media. She thought she was having a conversation about women and competition. Minaj’s tweet, though, was meant to critique embedded racism and deep cultural biases. “Nothing to do with any of the women, but everything to do with a system that doesn't credit black women for their contributions to pop culture as freely/quickly as they reward others,” Minaj explained on her Instagram later. “We are huge trendsetters, not second class citizens that get thrown crumbs. This isn't anger. This is #information.”
This, as the reaction to both her tweet and the White People documentary shows, is a tough lesson for white people to learn. It’s not about how hard you’ve worked for what you have, how you personally feel about people of other races, or how good your intentions are. It is about the fact that you benefit from white privilege (and, in this case, from a culture that privileges skinny white women’s bodies). So it is about you — just not in the way you thought it was.
Swift did not create the music industry’s exacting beauty standards and racial biases. But it’s also true that she benefits from them. She easily fits the dominant ideal of thin, white beauty and hasn’t been vocal about questioning it. She offers her fans inclusive platitudes like, “You’re lucky enough to be different, never change,” and, “I think that there are so many different ways that someone can be beautiful.” But as far as I know, she’s never acknowledged that she would have had a harder time connecting with all of those fans if she looked different. Hanging out with mostly white supermodels onstage every night doesn’t help much either.
“I thought I was being called out. I missed the point, I misunderstood, then misspoke,” Swift tweeted yesterday. “I’m sorry, Nicki.” In a way, though, Swift was being called out. Not for being nominated for a VMA but because she has failed, at least publicly, to consider her role in perpetuating beauty standards that are impossible for most women to live up to. The way forward isn’t just an apology to Minaj. It is to acknowledge that Minaj’s anger at systemic racism is legitimate, and to join her in calling bullshit on the industry’s beauty standards and railing against the ways in which those standards inform which artists are rewarded for their work. Swift is famously good at collecting friends. I’m sure she could befriend more women who aren’t thin and white, and invite them up onstage with her. If she really does see Minaj’s original point, she can’t just apologize and leave it at that.
White People doesn’t push its white interview subjects to this conclusion, and it has drawn some warranted criticism for that. The documentary doesn’t ask white Americans how they “can live with themselves in the current climate of terrorism against black people in a structurally racist system,” as Rebecca Carroll notes in The Guardian. Perhaps the exchange between Minaj and Swift was the best thing to happen during the week the documentary was released. By contrast, the criticism Swift received wasn’t exactly gentle. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for her to be an example of white failure to recognize and address structural racism. But as a powerful public figure with a devoted following, she can choose to turn her discomfort into something more meaningful than an acknowledgment and apology. And hopefully, in doing so, push other white people to do the same.