MTV’s ‘White People’ opens dialogue on perceptions of race

New documentary hosted by Jose Antonio Vargas

“THE time is ripe for some real talk about race.”

This week, #WhitePeople became a trending topic. People across the nation were really talking about what it means to be White—as well as what it means to be Black, Hispanic, Asian, etc.

Jose Antonio Vargas wants people to get real talking about race. An openly undocumented, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Vargas is the host of a new documentary on MTV, aptly called “White People.”

“For hundreds of years in this country, it was just white and black,” said Vargas in his remarks at the screening for his documentary, held Monday, July 20 at the Regent Theater in Downtown LA. “Now that we have so many multicultural people here, people from all races and mixes and colors, we must ask ourselves: where do we fit in this conversation we have about race?”

Vargas, who won the Pulitzer for his in-depth coverage of the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shootings, is open about his status as a Filipino undocumented immigrant. He also founded Define American, a media and culture campaign aimed to transcend politics and shift conversation around immigration and identity in the US.

“I arrived in this country exactly 22 years ago. When I landed, I thought I was in the wrong country…I was looking for people like Michael Jackson and Pamela Anderson, and instead I saw people who looked like me,” he told a laughing audience.

In the film, Vargas asked students across the nation questions such as, “How might your life be different if you weren’t white? When you say ‘white,’ what does that mean to you?”

“Many white people feel uncomfortable talking about race,” says one participant. “If you say the wrong thing, then suddenly you are a racist.”

The documentary challenges viewers to look at race with an honest, vulnerable lens. It invites people to start up conversations about white history, privilege, frustration, discrimination, and identity—even if it seems uncomfortable or awkward.

“Let’s share in the un-comfortability. Why? Because we’re not talking to each other enough about this type of topic,” said Vargas. “Let’s pledge to do this and get uncomfortable.”

“A cornerstone of white privilege is even knowing that it exists,” he added.

Topics in the film include current events and issues such as affirmative action, racial stereotypes and ignorance, the lack of color in many big-time US corporations, and group-targeted hate crimes.

“We’ve never had to internalize what white people have done in America, but you can’t escape that,” said one female student in the documentary.

“White People” is part of MTV’s “Look Different” campaign. An interactive forum on the website allows groups and users to start conversations about sensitive topics—such as racial profiling, sexism, and LGBT issues—and bring about awareness to the younger generations. Viewers can click different links to explore content about whiteness and other racial constructs.

The Look Different campaign website presents different activities for people to engage with in order to raise awareness and combat racial bias. An interactive race quiz called the Implicit Association Test will help those honestly uncover their own personal judgments and prejudices. A seven-day “Bias Cleanse” from the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity will challenge users with daily “de-bias”-ing and non-judgmental tasks, and using social media hashtags to spread awareness to their friends.

“We are using the power of story to transform politics, to shift conversation about how we engage as citizens,” said Ryan Eller, the executive director of Define American. “You can’t talk to people about immigration in the US without having an honest conversation about race.”

“For the first time, we are telling America’s full story,” Eller continued.

Define American is collaborating with the Los Angeles Times to create a new digital magazine dedicated to this topic, called EmergingUS, with the hope of creating “a space where people can understand where racism and racial issues come from.” Vargas will be the chief editor of the magazine.

“We are excited to dive into these issues in a vulnerable, open, perhaps uncomfortable and honest conversation,” said Vargas. “At EmergingUS, we aim to put blackness and people of color and undocumented immigrants—ALL lives who matter—into the conversation.”

“White People” first aired Wednesday, July 22 on MTV at 8:00pm, and can be viewed online at http://www.lookdifferent.org/.

Vargas also celebrated the growing number of Filipinos in the US, especially in Southern California, where he called Los Angeles “the capitol of Filipinos in this country.”

“As Filipinos, we should be proud of our brown skin,” Vargas told the Asian Journal. “Why are we always glorifying being ‘white’ in our culture? The whiter our skin, the more good-looking or artista we are; it’s like we’re trying to be something we’re not. We are brown-skinned, tan Filipinos—we ought to be proud of that.”

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