Jose Antonio Vargas has always been, if nothing else, deliberately provocative. In his new MTV documentary “White People” (which you can see in full below), the filmmaker and journalist takes on the ever-relevant topic of white privilege and sets out to have a provocative, if only partially-inclusive, conversation about how white privilege is tied to structural racism.
The documentary, which premiered Wednesday night, was almost immediately controversial. Criticism and praise toward the film lead to #WhitePeople becoming a trending topic on social media. Responses ranged from “why are white people being victimized?!” to “this documentary is so necessary and everybody needs to see it!” to “this documentary’s stupid and doesn’t go far enough,” with every iteration of responses in between. Particularly meaningful criticism came from journalists of color who thought that the film’s presentation and seemingly-cursory look at white privilege should have been more comprehensive. Said The Guardian’s Rebecca Carroll:
But the problem is, none of the white people in White People ever really get uncomfortable. And that’s what needs to happen more than anything else – even more than the big needle-moving national “conversation” all of us in the struggle fantasise about, led by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the president, and Ava DuVernay. White people need to feel uncomfortable, and black people, people of colour, need to see them sit in that discomfort – not the white tears model, but the paradigm shift variety.
Vargas responded to criticism in a new Medium editorial, outlining four major threads and responding to each while defending his film’s intentions. The first and third threads—that, respectively, he’s fostering racial discord and awkwardly timing it against the Nicki Minaj-Taylor Swift beef—don’t merit much discussion (although he did say that he hoped Tay Tay saw “White People”).
The second—why should anybody care what white people have to say?—was addressed by Vargas as important because white youth (in his view) didn’t have many forums in which to understand their whiteness:
Many white people, including those interviewed in the MTV special, do not think of themselves as a race, and they feel defensive and uncomfortable when they are racialized. “White is the default — it is the default race,” one young white person told me. But America was never “white”. The world was never “white.” As I said in the documentary, “White is not a country.”
The fourth—that “White People” doesn’t go far enough—was the most thoroughly addressed thread in the piece. Vargas essentially agreed with critics, saying that “White People” is intended as a primer for those folks (especially white youth) who need the conversation started:
We want to have a conversation about everything — from #BlackLivesMatter to Asian Playboys to Hapas (look it up) to Homo Cholos (again, look it up) to White People. It’s going to get weird, and it’s going to get uncomfortable. But it has to, if things are going to get better, if we are to understand each other better.
You can watch “White People” in its entirety below.