You may have heard that MTV is launching a new show called White People. You also may have heard that, because of this, the entire country is inflamed about the issue of race and racism.
The trailer for White People (available on YouTube) has been slammed as “racist” and “white guilt-tripping” on major news networks, has received an overwhelming majority of thumbs-down votes on YouTube, and has garnered over 9,700 impassioned comments in just two days.
So what is this show? It is a documentary in which journalist Jose Antonio Vargas explores what it means to be White in America “with the goal of starting some real and honest conversations in a thoughtful, judgment-free environment.”
Why does this offend so many people? Two big reasons.
First reason: mainstream Americans like to believe we’re all color-blind.
“What is this ‘race’ thing? Why do we need to talk about it? Aren’t we like, so done with this obsolete 19th-Century concept? What does the color of my skin have to do with anything?”
The most glaring problem with White People is that it contradicts one of mainstream America’s most cherished dogmas: the dogma of color-blindness. This is the belief that race no longer affects American lives, that people who act on racial prejudices are a sad and pitiable few, and, in an optimistic mindset, that any “racial” disadvantage can be overcome with self-confidence and doggedness of spirit.
White People sends the opposite message: race matters. This infuriates White America in the same way that a staunchly agnostic TV show might incite the indignation of fanatical theists. It asks the forbidden questions, it utters the forbidden words, and it destroys the one condition that is most fundamental to racial power: silence.
Second reason: it threatens privilege.
This right to be silent on racial issues is one aspect of White privilege that White people clutch with—excuse the pun—white knuckles. This is because silence protects privilege from the difficult conversations that force it to be vulnerable. MTV’s new show White People is intimidating precisely because it subjects those privileged people to the same terrifying vulnerability that the racially underprivileged face every day. The conversation is a great equalizer in that way.
Why am I excited for this show?
What makes this show so sickening for White America is the same thing that makes it a boon for social progress. White People promises to make White people feel “uncomfortable.” For any kind of progress, some degree of unrest is an obvious prerequisite. But what I really love about this show, at least the sense I get from the trailer, is that it promises to help White people process these feelings—not just leave them to wallow in White guilt, which would be counterproductive.
In an ideal world, people would still have privilege. But they would see it, and they would use it for the common good.
What does it really mean to be young and White in America? I’m going to tune in to MTV later this month to find out.