The most noticeable thing about the recently launched Whiteness Project is that public responses to it have been so varied. The website gives an initial description of “a multiplatform investigation into how Americans who identify as “white” experience their ethnicity.” The project’s director and producer, Whitney Dow, orients the project around ideas that fall within the long-standing academic realm of “Whiteness Studies,” which characterizes whiteness as an under-examined racial category. The Whiteness Project is funded by PBS’s POV films; this affiliation gives the project legitimacy and viewers therefore expect it to take up the topic of race with some seriousness. But at first glance, it’s not so clear what the project is doing.
Recent responses to the piece on Twitter speak to a general confusion around the project’s aims. The site argues that white people “feel that they do not have the same right to speak about race as non-whites” and seeks “to bring everyday white Americans…into the racial discussion.” But understandably, some critics have wondered whether presenting a platform in which we can hear white people’s thoughts about race and racism was the most productive intervention in this conversation. For many people of color who are often charged with speaking about race – but yet often have our voices diminished or silenced when we speak about our experiences of racism – the incorporation of white voices seemed beside the point. While some writers note Dow’s good intentions and the project’s antiracist potential, many folks have identified the heart of this project’s challenges: opening a venue for white people to talk about race has produced the inevitable, displays of white racism.
My teaching and research in literature focuses on race and racism and to the extent that I can be said to have any political agenda in the classroom, mine is an antiracist one. So, while some might dismiss this project out of hand as “racist,” I am more inclined to wonder, “Can I teach this?” After all, if I dismissed out of hand every racist text, I’d have very little to teach. I have found that it’s not hard to get students to see racial discrimination at work in the nineteenth-century’s race-based system of slavery, Indian removal, or anti-miscegenation laws. But when dealing with race in the present, and without the perspective of a history of righteousness and pretended national progress, the waters are less clear. Thinking about race in the present is difficult work, in part because students often do not have a familiar frame of reference for doing this. Some of the most revealing data the project cites speak to the absence of such a frame and to how necessary conversations about race might be:
75% of white Americans say their social networks are entirely white.
70% of white millennial Americans did not grow up in families that talked about race.
If the future of race relations in the United States depends upon white acknowledgement and understanding of issues of race and racism, we’ve got some work to do.
In truth, the interviews show a broad spectrum of white people’s thoughts about race. Some interviewees are absolutely indignant at the idea of white privilege, claim that slavery has had no lasting repercussions on people in the present, or deny the existence of racial discrimination in the United States. Some make generalizations about groups of people such as “black men” or “the black community.” But others seem aware of geographical and occupational racial segregation and even racial discrimination, viewing these as problems, even if they do not know how such problems might be corrected. Perhaps even more interestingly, some of these interviewees express their own discomfort when talking about race, or even their limitations understanding the experiences of people of color, even those with whom they are in close relationships. Perhaps most surprisingly, the comments section of the Whiteness Project site seems to have a more genuine discussion of race and racism than anyone would expect from that notorious genre.
So if it doesn’t seem quite right to label the Whiteness Project itself as “racist” for giving voice to sometimes racist sentiments held by its subjects, how might racist content be useful for antiracist work? What struck me as most odd about the Whiteness Project’s artistic statement is its articulation of itself within the purview of antiracism. While Whitney Dow does mention the concept of “white privilege,” nowhere in the artistic description do we see the word “racism.” The word “racist” only comes up on the list of statistics on race, citing a 2014 Rasmussen Report, that “10% of white American adults believe most whites are racist. 38% believe most blacks are racist.” This statistic alone speaks to the larger problem with talking about race and racism in the United States: Many people, like some of those interviewed here, do not understand racism with regard to a larger, historical system of oppression, rather than the views and feelings of individuals, alone. Pairing these individual people’s statements to the larger scale of national statistics on race, the project starts to make these connections. But those connections are various, and require some thought – and often more context than these interviews provide – to unpack. Digging through The Whiteness Project’s interviews and information, one comes across all of the following:
60% of white Americans say race relations are “generally good.”
26% of white Americans say the successes minorities achieve in business and education are perceived as being due to racial preferences.
“The Civil Rights Act of 1964 doesn’t protect the 20% of white American adults with tattoos.”
In short, these interviews and snippets of information fairly demand further conversation. They cannot stand on their own; we must talk about what is going on here. Why do more than half white Americans say race relations are good, and are we to believe them, and why or why not? Why do some white Americans attribute minority success to racial preference and how does this square with our understanding of how racial discrimination has worked historically and if it does not square why do some white people feel the business or educational successes of people of color are unfair? Why doesn’t the Civil Rights Act protect white American adults with tattoos and should it and why or why does this not fall into the purview of this particular legislation?
Also requiring some unpacking is the last paragraph of the artistic statement:
America, despite its history (or perhaps because of it), has been a leader in confronting issues of race. While deep racial fissures do exist in American society—as evidenced by recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and in reactions to the shooting of Trayvon Martin and to affirmative action court rulings—it is hard to imagine any other white-majority country embracing and celebrating the wide range of ethnicities and cultures that make up the nation and electing a biracial president to govern them all. I believe that the country is not just ready for a discussion on whiteness, but is hungry for it. My experiences working on this project have repeatedly shown me that when white people honestly engage on this topic, it is incredibly freeing for everyone, regardless of ethnicity, and makes discussions about race more productive, ultimately helping to advance a culture of true equality.
Is America really a leader in confronting issues of race? What does it mean to confront these issues? Does a white majority nation really embrace and celebrate its wide range of ethnicities and cultures and what does it mean to celebrate these? Does electing a biracial president constitute such a celebration? How does this celebration square with the racialized violence against Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin or affirmative action discourses? What would it mean for white people to “honestly” engage in a discussion on whiteness? What would it mean to have a “productive” discussion about race? How would this help to advance “a culture of true equality” and what would that culture or that equality necessitate?
The questions raised both by this project and its description reveal the difficult work the project sets before us. The project shows us that white people experience whiteness from positions that are heterogeneous, that are undereducated about race and racism from this position of privilege, that are sometimes racist and sometimes antiracist and sometimes just trying to understand, that are sometimes uncomfortable with the very concept of race or racism or privilege, that require an explanation of race’s intersections with class and gender and sexuality and ability, and that are sometimes very difficult for antiracist people to watch and to understand, and even more difficult to grapple with and educate and urge toward antiracism.
I think Whitney Dow gives a more succinct and clear picture of his investment in the project in a recent Twitter conversation. @DPRINCECFRN took Dow to task for the one-sided nature of the racial dialogue in these videos, and Dow’s response speaks more to his aims than the project’s artistic statement:
I got to the point where I felt … “who the fuck am I to talk to POC about race?” I should be trying to educate my own people about race so that they can … participate in the conversation more effectively. I think I said it to someone else, but I believe that if white people are… going to participating in changing the racial dynamic of the country they are going to have to deal with there [sic] own shit first.
The Whiteness Project demands that we ask ourselves: What would it mean to deal with the “shit” of whiteness? And how might this project help us to do so?