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Here’s what happens when you ask white people how it feels to be white

When Whitney Dow proposed calling his interactive race documentary For Whites Only, he got a swift reality check: he was never going to get funding with a title that evoked the Jim Crow South. He dropped it.

He ultimately dubbed it The Whiteness Project: an investigation of how Americans who identify as white experience their ethnicity, through a series of online video clips. (He hopes to expand it to include a public video kiosk showcasing similar material.) But Dow still insists the initial title conveyed an important point: that his work is designed to speak exclusively to, and with, white people.

That's what makes this project a big deal.

Aside from standup comedy routines poking fun at disparate cultural norms, or hateful expressions of white supremacist views, we're not used to hearing people speak explicitly about what it means to be white. "Normal, everyday white people" — that's how Dow describes his subjects — don't typically spend much time consciously, or publicly, dwelling on their own racial identities.

"White people think race is something outside themselves, and they don't consider themselves a race," said the 53-year-old-filmmaker (who, if you haven't figured it out by now, is himself white).

"I'm not an activist. I'm a filmmaker. When I make a project it's because I'm interested and want to learn."

The first installment of the project, "Inside the White/Caucasian Box," is a collection of 24 interviews with Buffalo, New York, residents who self-identify as white. They respond on camera to deceptively simple questions like "What is it that makes you white?" and "Can you describe any benefits you receive from being white?"

Some responses are introspective ("I wish I had the feeling of being part of something for being white"), while others make jarring leaps from self-reflection to defensiveness. Often, respondents seem to unconsciously answer a question that wasn't asked by focusing on black people instead of themselves. ("I just don't buy into the nonsense about discrimination," or, "Because slavery happened, does that mean we owe black people something?")

Public reactions to the project have ranged from intrigue to appreciation to dismissiveness to outright scorn, with fans and critics sprinkled unpredictably across racial and political divides.

According to Dow, who's dedicated the majority of the past 15 years to making films about race, all of this conversation was sort of the point.

I spoke to him about what he's really trying to do, his reactions to condemnation of the project, and the personal experience that made him want to get people like himself to think out loud about race in a way many Americans of all races would rather not hear.


Jenée Desmond-Harris: Looking at a lot of the reactions to The Whiteness Project, particularly on Twitter and in the comments section, it struck me that some people may have missed the point — or at least what you intended as the point. What did people get about the project, and what did they not get?

Whitney Dow: I think in some ways the comments section on the site itself is really irrelevant, and I'll tell you why. I think that what's much more interesting to me is that the thing has been shared over Facebook over 30,000 times at this point.

The conversations are not taking place in public spaces. They're taking place in private spaces where people have relationships. Comments sections on something like this tend to just be like a war, a battleground. I've also I've seen some amazing back and forths on the website where people are really laying it out there in a very real way and actually listening to each other. Of course, I would say 25 percent of it is probably just crap but I have seen … I've been pulling some stuff to show funders because I haven't seen conversations like that take place before.

I think Twitter is a problematic issue. I think that Twitter is a great place for communicating with people, and I really like it to communicate with people, but it's not a great place to go for considered thought and discussion in a lot of ways.

Jenée Desmond-Harris:That's very true. How did you see the message lost there?

Whitney Dow: I think at first a lot of people were going to the site, taking a screenshot, and then posting it to Twitter and saying, "What the fuck?" But what's happened is I've watched the site analytics, and the longer it's up, the longer people are spending on it.

"I believe our whiteness is so tangled up in our relationship to blackness"

I think the first reaction is like, "What is this?" and then people spend a little time with it and realize that it's much more complicated. I would say it's probably 85 to 90 percent positive and 10 percent really negative. I think a lot of the early articles focused on the negative. Those aggregator articles people would go and just troll Twitter for all these horrible things and put it up and say, "This thing is getting slammed."

They weren't sitting with me on my personal email getting all these really beautiful, thoughtful notes from people and letters from people I had never met before. People from all over the world.

I think that ... there's two groups that really don't like it, don't get it. One is from the right, on the conservative side, who say, "Why are you stirring something up? Everybody needs to forget about race and stop talking about it. We just need to move on." The other side is from the left who are saying, "You're just another white guy who won't let go of the microphone. You're putting all this stuff out here that's incredibly wounding for us to hear, and it's really, really outrageous what you're up to."

The third one, which is my favorite, is that I'm secretly a Jew who is out to destroy the white race.

Jenée Desmond-Harris: I think we can pretty much dismiss number three, but how do you respond to the first two criticisms?

Whitney Dow: On the right side, I would say, "You've got to be fucking kidding me." I'm going to have to stop swearing so much. I’d say, "You've got to be kidding me. To pretend that this is something that is not a real issue is ridiculous. Look at any set of data. Forget any interview that Whitney Dow does. Go to the census and just do some sorts. What it means to live in America as a white person, see what it means to be living in America as a black person."

On the left, I would say, "You are wrong because this is not a part of the discussion that has taken place: white people talking to white people and examining what it means to be white and what that means. By doing that, it's going to make every discussion that we have more productive because you're not going to be talking to people who think that race is something outside themselves."

interview

Filming The Whiteness Project in Buffalo, New York (Whitney Dow)

Jenée Desmond-Harris: Do you draw any distinction between airing people's opinions and teaching people? Is there going to be a point in this project when you instruct people on how they should think, or are you simply exposing how people do think?

Whitney Dow: I'm not an activist. I'm a filmmaker. When I make a project it's because I'm interested and want to learn about something and understand something and the process I use to understand that is to make a film or interactive piece. I'm learning, too.

But I think I already am instructing the way people think with the piece. I feel like the instruction that's there is … well, to me it's obvious, but maybe it's not. It’s the idea that there's a big disconnect between the ways whites perceive themselves, their position in the world and American society, and the reality of it. That's pretty obvious.

Jenée Desmond-Harris: I’ve heard you tell the story about how a child asked you what your racial identity was and you initially said you didn’t have one, and then reexamined that. Besides that moment, what else equipped you to think about race the way you do now? What made you someone who is interested in making films about race in the first place?

Whitney Dow: It was totally accidental. I don't know ... You can put me on the couch if you want. I’ve talked about being a counselor at the YMCA in Boston. This was in the '70s during busing, and racial tensions were really high.

All the kids I was responsible for were black and Puerto Rican, and they were 10 or 11. We decided to go swimming one day, decided to go to the North End to the public pool, which was in the Italian section of town.

We got on the subway, went to the North End, went into the changing building into the bath house. As they're changing, these four or five toughs come in; they seemed like big men at the time. I was 15 and they were probably late teens or early 20s.

They said, "Are you responsible for these kids?" I said, "Yes." They said, "You know, we just want to be really clear about something. If any of those ni**ers go in the pool, someone is going to get seriously hurt."

As a 15-year-old with no language or way to make sense of it, I had to explain to those kids that they couldn't go in the public pool. It was a humiliating and devastating experience. It was very, very confusing, and so I would say that the seeds of what I'm doing here are sowed there.

Also making Two Towns of Jasper [a film about the 1998 dragging death of a black man in Jasper, Texas]. The process of making that film fundamentally transformed my life.

Then that experience that you've read about when I say my racial epiphany was sort of a big turning point in my life and how I thought about these things. It fundamentally changed the way I see the world, interact with the world, see other people, and interact with other people.

Jenée Desmond-Harris: Is the idea that white people will watch the films, and see the responses juxtaposed with the statistics you’ve offered about the reality of race in America, and say to themselves, "Wow. These white people really don't get it, and now I'm going to get it"?

Whitney Dow: Maybe I'm naive, but I would say that every white person that watches it, I challenge them to tell me that some of the most discomforting things they hear and see in those videos, they all hold pieces of that somewhere inside themselves. Myself as well.

"I'm trying to give voice to my own community so they can listen to themselves"

The idea that you might be afraid of a black person at some point. The idea that you might feel that black people, they feel that you owe them something and to be confused about that feeling and so not knowing how to process it. … Nothing that is in those videos is radical, and nothing in those videos I believe is out of the mainstream.

You feel those feelings to a greater or lesser degree, I think, but I don't feel like I'm trying to say, "White people, look at these racists." Absolutely not. I'm saying, "Look at some of the things, the issues that we have in our community around race and we need to grapple with them."

Jenée Desmond-Harris: Why do you think so many of the responses ended up focusing on black people?

Whitney Dow: I believe our whiteness is so tangled up in our relationship to blackness. You ask white people about whiteness, and they talk about black people.

Jenée Desmond-Harris: Yeah, it's fascinating.

Whitney Dow: I got a letter from someone — a woman — a beautiful letter saying, "These are incredibly painful videos to watch. Incredibly hard to watch but I always felt that my blackness was defined by whiteness, being a black woman in a white world. It was incredibly cathartic and relieving to see that white people are grappling with the same thing, that they feel like their whiteness is somehow defined in opposition of blackness. Seeing that we're grappling with the same things gave me some sort of inner peace."

That was something that completely caught me off guard because that's not what I was up to, but I think that, yeah — I think that our sense of ourselves is caught up in the other.

Jenée Desmond-Harris: There’s possibly a difference between the subjects’ response being problematic, or a little bit racist, or whatever, versus the project as a whole being racist or problematic. Is there a difference between the responses themselves and what we learn from the responses?

Whitney Dow: I've gotten emails that say things like, "You're giving a platform for racist people." Well, if somebody really believes that, they're fundamentally misunderstanding what I'm up to. Sometimes the truth is hard.

There's some people I'm never going to convince that it's not problematic. There are some people who are very vocal. I went to see people of color early on in the process [to get feedback on the concept], and some people were like, "This is phenomenal," and some people were like, "You're a fucking asshole."

I didn't do this for people of color. I did this for white people. … People say, "Why don't you do a blackness project?" I said, "Who am I to determine what black voices are heard on race? Why would I do that? That would be ridiculous."

I'm trying to give voice to my own community so they can listen to themselves.

participants

Whiteness Project participants. (Whitney Dow)

Jenée Desmond-Harris: What’s the best possible outcome of this project, and what’s the worst?

Whitney Dow: I already feel like it's already been the best. I feel like people are giving it consideration in a serious way. It's not being dismissed out of hand. People are giving consideration both in media … and also they're giving it consideration in their private space. They're taking it to the networks, taking it to their forums. The traffic to the site is coming from the most bonkers places.

It is becoming like a reference point for people, and that tells me that this issue of whiteness is critically embedded in everything. People kind of recognize it, and that's why it's all the traffic is coming from different places.

What would be the worst thing? If I didn't get the funding to complete it. I feel like I've just started and I feel like I've opened the door, and I feel that in some ways I have an obligation to the people who have engaged so seriously to complete the project.

I wouldn't want to let 21 people in Buffalo define this whole thing. I think there's a lot more people who should be weighing in.

Jenée Desmond-Harris: Are there times and places where it's productive for white people to think out loud about race and times when it is not?

Whitney Dow: That’s a really good question. … I recognize that it's a minefield. It's especially a minefield for white people. This is what I would say. I would say the people who are approaching white people and want to talk about race, if you believe that they're really sincere, cut them some slack that they're trying to engage it.

Jenée Desmond-Harris: What is one thing you tell people that you think can begin to change their thinking about what it means to be white?

Whitney Dow: One is the question I ask, "What makes you white? What is it that makes you white? Is it your skin? Is it your ancestors?" The other thing is, "Ask yourself honestly … if there's anything in your life you can point to that is a benefit that you've received from being white. Think about that honestly."

"I feel like people are giving it consideration in a serious way. It's not being dismissed out of hand."

I think a lot of times in the videos you see white people want to talk about the things that they're losing. You've got to look at everything that's in the balance. You can't pick and choose and say, "I didn't get into this college, therefore affirmative action is unfair and this whole system is unfair and I'm being discriminated against."

You need to look at everything else on that balance. Maybe your mortgage is lower and you don't have to think about your race on a day-to-day level. Maybe you have a better shot at getting a job, even though you're a felon, than a black man who is a felon. You've got to put everything on the scale. You can't just point to the stuff that isn't working out for you.

Jenée Desmond-Harris: I noticed you freely used the word ni**er earlier, which, to be honest, is not even something I like to say. And you’re white — so I think it's a really interesting choice on your part. Especially in the context of this project, because I’m guessing a lot of people you interviewed who are saying kind of horrendous things about black people wouldn't use that word.

Whitney Dow: They'd never use it.

Jenée Desmond-Harris: Right. I wonder if that’s something you've thought about explicitly, and how it lines up with your larger thinking about whiteness and race overall.

Whitney Dow: I guess it comes from my place as a documentary filmmaker. For me to say, "F you don't get these n-words," I'm not representing reality. The reality of the situation was how that word hit me in that situation. I wouldn't be telling the story accurately if I didn't say it. I also sometimes I think it's good for white liberal progressives to hear it, because it's the reality of what people think.

It softens it so much in this "n-word" this and "n-word" that. I would never use it in the context of not telling a story or the context of "You's my ni**a." It's not my word.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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