The White Privilege Project
By Hera Chan
In pursuit of a “white ethnicity” and to engage white Americans into racial discourse, director and producer Whitney Dow of Two Tone Productions has created ‘The Whiteness Project’, a pilot television series partially funded by PBS that will feature white people talking about how they feel about their “ethnicity.” In an interview with Steven W. Thrasher of The Guardian published yesterday, Dow claims he “made this project for white people, not for people of color.” One of the objectives of this project is to “to help white Americans learn to own their whiteness – and everything positive and negative it represents – in the same way that every other ethnicity owns its ethnic identity,” according to Dow’s artistic statement on ‘The Whiteness Project’’s webpage.
Featuring a series of interviews with various white Americans who reside in Buffalo, ‘The Whiteness Project’ seeks to provide a platform for whites to discuss race with the same confidence and authority as people of color – not in dialogue with people of color, but rather within themselves. The project comes at break of a massive wave of racial discourse in America at this moment – from the imminent inauguration screening of dramatic comedy ‘Dear White People’ on October 24 to the ongoing demonstrations in Ferguson seeking justice and change in light of the fatal shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. Discernibly, what is missing from the dialogue is an articulation of the conception of racialization itself and the exertion of power through systemic racism.
Ethnicity, defined as a social group which identifies as a community based on their common cultural roots and experiences, holds great value in terms of political mobilization. There are no tangible limits to a community; rather it is an imaginary, unifying force based on a certain perceived collective consciousness. The political value of “ethnic” or “racial” consciousness has been demonstrated by people of color groups who have fought and continue to fight for fair representation and recognition within America, a white-dominant nation. By identifying as part of a greater people of color community, movements have been able to make strides in face of the oppression enacted by a white-dominant system. The pursuit of white people seeking their own “ethnic” roots has taken a popular turn in recent memory, with websites such as Ancestry.com providing the service to trace white peoples’ roots through census reports, social security records, and military records.
The subversion of racialized politics by those in power has been largely used to remove the agency and power of political organizing of people of color. This is shown in an extensive history of the appropriation of cultural empowerment movements founded by people of color. By claiming ethnicity as a form of white identity, ‘The Whiteness Project’ obscures the lines by which people of color communities have used to self-identify themselves in their rightful claim to an equitable existence. A commonly-known example of one such subversion would be the appropriation of Black music by Elvis Presley. These subversions and appropriations only demonstrate the power of white hegemony today, and the level of white privilege America still upholds. Note: Dow himself rejects the notion of white privilege.
The total elevation of uninformed opinions in ‘The Whiteness Project’ does not “[make] discussions about race more productive, ultimately helping to advance a culture of true equality,” as is claimed in the artistic statement, but rather, provide yet another platform for the featured whites to showcase their utter lack of knowledge of racialized politics which is a symptom itself of white privilege. “I don’t think I have ever come across anything that has made me aware of my race,” says Kathie.
There is a difference between the elevation of white voices on a major network such as PBS in the discussion about race, and anti-racist practice itself. Providing a platform such as ‘The Whiteness Project’ does not serve to encourage viewers or interviewees to participate in an active role to combat institutional racism. It does not address the roots of racialized identities as a product of a governing system created by white colonizers. It does not address the political, social, and economic factors that are interlaced with the oppression of people of color. White people should participate in racialized discourse, but check themselves like everybody else. Perceptions of race cannot be isolated from conceptions of passing, of class, of gender. In an interview with Jessica Roy, as published in the Daily Intelligencer of the New York Magazine, Dow says, “white people think race is something outside themselves, and they don’t consider themselves a race.”
The default body is a white male, and the default culture is white culture – whether it is in actuality an amalgamated appropriation melting pot or not. To redirect the discussion on racialized politics by people of color back to white people is yet another top-down way to claim a movement that is bottom-up. Racial differences are a social construct that has been engendered to serve an economic and social purpose, as regulated through cultural and legal frameworks. How we identify race is a method of categorization that is learned, not inherent. As Dow said in his interview with Roy, “white supremacy is the organizing principle of the country.” This is only possible with the oppression of those who are not white.