|Jose Antonio Vargas with two unnamed men. (© 2015 MTV.)|
At first, I was reluctant to watch the MTV documentary White People. I’d seen a trailer for it a couple of weeks before, which gave me the impression that a good portion of it was white college kids simply regurgitating the “privilege” narrative. Besides, it was an MTV project; whatever else you expect an MTV program to provoke, thought is not usually one of them.
It was better executed than I thought it would be. This was largely due to Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and filmmaker who did the interviews and asked the questions. Throughout the film, Vargas is charming, receptive, and avoids all appearance of being accusatory or condemnatory. Although he takes one occasion to change minds, for the most part he simply looks on and asks questions as young people struggle to break through the barriers to openly talk about racial perceptions.
That’s not to say the documentary is, shall we say, without its moments. A young man in a “privilege workshop” talks about “never having to represent your race to other people.” My first reaction on hearing that was: “You’re a kid. You’ll get your chance soon enough.”
One of my sharpest memories is of a discussion I had twenty years ago with a coworker and her fiancé about mixed couples. My coworker noted that black parents seemed to welcome such couples, while white parents didn’t, then turned to me and said, “Why are they like that, Tony?” The only thing I could tell her is that my previous girlfriend had had an opportunity to meet my dad and his wife, and that she had ducked out. I’d been called upon to explain white people, as if we were all of a piece.