The title “White People” was clearly intended to provoke folks like Fox News’ Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, who eagerly took the bait. Get past that, and MTV’s latest addition to its “Look Different” campaign is a credible if rather thin exploration of “white privilege” and the evolving conversation about race. Produced, directed and hosted by filmmaker/journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, the documentary focuses on how younger whites view matters of race, including those afflicted by a sense of victimization regarding affirmative-action policies and those who favor a color-blind society. It’s generally interesting, but seldom digs farther than skin-deep.
Part of that, obviously, is a function of time. Flitting across the country to conduct focus groups from Arizona to North Carolina, South Dakota to Washington state, Vargas covers a good deal of ground, literally and figuratively.
Despite how some conservative pundits have characterized the material based solely on a trailer for it, the goal isn’t to “shame” white people. Nevertheless, Vargas’ earnest examination skates rapidly across whites’ discomfort in probing matters of race, and some of the interviewees’ more questionable assumptions, without getting to the root causes. In the case of perceived victimization, for example, there’s scant mention of the elaborate conservative media substrata devoted to promoting those beliefs, or how coverage of minority grievances in more traditional and left-leaning venues plays into that apparatus.
Similarly, some of the head-scratching utterances from the young people Vargas interviews are left dangling (when not punctuated by musical cues), such as references to “white” being “the default race,” “the norm” and “the good thing.” While it’s hard not to wince at the terminology, it’s difficult to separate subtle racism from a lack of articulateness, given how little thought some participants have seemingly given to how being white defines them.
Vargas weaves a fair amount of solid data into the presentation, including projections regarding the U.S.’ growing minority population and the way some neighborhoods (he uses the Chinese influx into Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst as an illustration) are experiencing notable demographic shifts. Yet even within the context of the network’s larger public-service/education campaign, the special would have been improved by either a narrower approach – zeroing in on one or two of the focus groups – or by expanding it to two hours.
Although it’s become popular to say America must learn to speak frankly about race, the media’s short attention span and tendency to get distracted have a way of interrupting that process. With its ability to reach younger viewers MTV — which launched Lookdifferent.org, a campaign against “hidden racial, gender and anti-LGBT bias,” in 2014 — certainly has something to contribute. “White People” in theory is a reasonable place to start, but as constructed, this opening salvo is more of an invitation to have that talk one of these days than a fully realized discussion.