Jose Antonio Vargas: White People Is for White People

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Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images

The one-minute trailer for Jose Antonio Vargas’s White People — set to air on MTV Wednesday at 8 p.m. — has already drawn ire from the right. No one has seen this film yet,” said National Review editor Rich Lowry. “But I think we can agree that it will be as stupid and exploitative as you expect from a network that brought us Jersey Shore and Teen Mom 2.” Having watched the film, though, the 40-minute documentary arguably has a much softer touch. “We talk about race a lot in this country. But we don’t include you in the conversation,” Vargas says at the beginning of the film to a group of young white people. “I’m interested in how you feel.”

I first met Vargas at a screening for Documented, a documentary about his life as an undocumented immigrant, which he made after he wrote his New York Times Magazine essay “My Life As an Undocumented Immigrant.” Before this interview, he told me that he saw White People as a companion piece to Documented because they both deal with issues of belonging in an increasingly multiethnic America. We had a lengthy, and at turns tense, discussion about the documentary, how Americans talk about race, and the role of blackness in defining whiteness.

I wanted to ask you, as an undocumented Filipino man doing this work, if you found it difficult for white people to open up to you to have a conversation about whiteness.
I guess as a reporter I always thought that my biggest strength was that I could get anybody to talk to me. I wasn’t the best writer, but I could get people to talk to me. I think this film actually probably proves that. The camera has a really strong bullshit detector. If it’s inauthentic or if it’s fake, I think that comes across. And I think what we have in this film are pretty authentic, organic, and raw conversations with people. That’s what I love about documentaries.

When someone on camera looking at you directly says, “As a white person, you kind of get this feeling that things belong to you,” and, “Well, you never have to internalize what white people have done in America, and here you can’t escape that.” Just those two comments alone have warranted very unprintable emails. People are saying that I’m making them feel guilty. I’m like, "I’m not." I’m sure there are progressive, liberal people who are going to watch this thing and they’re going to go, “Oh, you should’ve been harder on people.” I’m sure they’re looking to say that. Some people on the right are going to say, “He’s too hard,” or “He’s making us feel guilty or ashamed of who we are.”

As they already have, apparently.
As they already have, right? It’s not my job to worry about how left, right will react to something. My job is, am I creating something that connects people? That’s my job.

Has anything stuck out to you from the reactions?
What’s so interesting in the reactions so far, in the emails that I get, publicly and privately, is that white people are so not used to being racialized. As Asians, blacks, and Latinos, we’re so used to being racialized because we confront it every day. To make a film called White People and have this trailer, all of a sudden I’m “stereotyping” white people. Because to be white comes with a certain kind of individuality — you can be an individual. If you’re a person of color, you’re always somehow a representation of your race. So that was interesting to me in the reaction.

Before this interview, you had mentioned that you didn’t want this conversation to be the same one about race, and I was curious what you mean by that.
I remember following the whole online thing between Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehisi Coates. I was reading it thinking, Hm, I wonder what a conservative woman in Iowa would think of this. Or are we just so used to having these conversations in our own echo chambers that it doesn’t really matter if it reaches beyond the choir? As you can see, this fits how this film was made. We could have easily made a didactic, point-fingers-and-blame-people kind of film. For the most part, whenever you talk about white privilege, it’s an academic subject. College campuses talk about it a lot; Tim Wise and Peggy McIntosh have done groundbreaking work on it. How do you put that on film in a way that’s accessible and relatable without making people run away? That’s kind of how we made the film, too. It’s much easier to have these intellectual conversations and not even wonder, who is it for? Who’s the audience?

Who is the audience?
When the producers of the film and I were researching this, there hasn’t really been a film that talks to young white people about how they think of themselves as a racial group, right? To us this is different because we focus on white millennials. Nearly 50 percent of white millennials feel that they’re as much a victim of racism as people of color. Nearly 50 percent. For young white people, color-blindness is the ideal — to not want to see race at all. White millennials feel that we’re created equal, but are they willing to see just how unequal different races are treated? Yeah, we’re all created equal, but we’re all treated differently. All you have to do is look at the criminal justice system and look at the education gap. So I think that’s specific to this “post-racial generation.”

If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re saying that the audience is white millennials?
Yes. But I think people of color are going to find the film interesting. I was talking to a reporter the other day, a black woman, and I said something along the lines of, “I actually think people of color know more about whiteness than white people do.”

Knowing that, did you ever consider making a documentary about white people without any white people?
Oh yeah. And I actually think we could easily do one like that. Again, people of color are so used to being racialized in this country, to being seen as “the other.” For me it was important to make a film where white people are the ones being racialized and being looked at in that way. And say, like, do you know what this is?

So, what is whiteness?
Whiteness is a racial construct. White people constructed it. It’s a construct that serves a purpose. Who does it benefit, and who does it marginalize? To me, those are the kind of questions that are exposed in the film. For example, there’s a young white teacher on the Native American reservation that says, “I represent something bigger than myself here. My skin color represents something bigger than myself.” I remember hearing that and thinking to myself, I wonder how many young white people think that.

You intersperse the film with “town hall”–style conversations with young people about whiteness, but included in those groups are people of color. I was curious about how those groups came about and why you decided to include people of color in those forums?
Honestly, we held them like town halls. We specifically said we’re looking for people to talk about whiteness. Most of the people who came were white, but there were some people of color who came. I thought it was important to have them in the room. When that Asian guy in the small crowd, when he talks about the stereotypes that are attached to being Asian, and the white guy says, “Do you really wake up thinking about that?” And the Asian guy goes, “Yeah, sometimes I can’t help but do that.” That was such a surprise to the white guy. I thought having people of color in some of those scenes actually added more context to the conversation.

It’s interesting that whiteness doesn’t really exist until it comes into relief against something else. It struck me that the teachable moments often came from people of color telling white people what their experiences were and defining whiteness for them.
Yes, not all of them.

No, but, it happened often.
Lucas is the one where that wasn’t the case. He taught white privilege workshops and realized that he didn’t know much about race before he came to college. Demographically speaking, young white people are not in the majority in this country, they’re in the minority. My question is, if they’re not the majority anymore, then what happens? How do things change? Or do they change at all?

Let me ask you this question, what surprised you about the film?

Not much, to be honest. Like you said, this is not a new conversation for a lot of people of color who write about race.
Yeah, of course not. Not for people of color.

There was not much for me that was particularly surprising. It did feel like the documentary wasn’t for me. It makes sense that you said it was for white people.
I’m not sure how surprising it’s going to be for people of color to see this. Again, race is something we deal with and confront every day. My hope is that it opens up different spaces of conversation. Too often, when we talk about diversity in this country, and the people who have this conversation are usually people of color. How often do we include white people in conversations about diversity?

I think we do.
Maybe this is a generational thing. In my experience working in newsrooms, that hasn’t really been the case. For diversity conversations, people of color usually get together and talk about white people, instead of having that conversation head-on.

Well, part of the reason why that happens is because people of color are recentering the narrative. But this is an interesting situation to recenter whiteness in this conversation.
But wait, Alex. I think it’s important to own that narrative and recenter that conversation in front of white people.

Don’t you think that happens in the current age of social media?
Oh yeah, it’s easy to do that if you’re alone on your computer or tweeting from your phone. But to do that in front of somebody at work, at school, or in class? That’s harder. I feel like people now feel like we’re having a racial conversation because everybody can tweet and Facebook or Instagram what they say. To me, that’s easy. What’s harder is to actually get in front of somebody, and in a polite, open way, talk about it. And listen. What we did in the film was ask questions and listen.

Were you concerned it would come off as whining?
No. It depends on what you’re trying to get out of this. For me, it was important to have that conversation about scholarships. The facts are that people of color do not get more scholarships than white people. That was important to confront right away. When the young white woman in Arizona, Katie, feels that she couldn’t get a scholarship because the scholarships are going to people of color — that was something I heard a lot. A lot of young white people say that. That’s why I really applaud Katie for saying it on camera and having a conversation about it. And then on camera telling her the facts, that’s she’s actually inaccurate. That’s important, that’s an important thing to have happen. We can’t just let her say, “I can’t get a scholarship because it’s all going to people of color.” We have to say, "Wait a second, have you looked at the facts?"

Since I got to this country when I was 12, I’ve been obsessed with this idea of whiteness and blackness because I realized I was neither. For me, it was so important to me to make a film that focused on whiteness because you wouldn’t have blackness if you didn’t have whiteness. What is that great James Baldwin quote, “I’m only black if you think you’re white”? We constructed whiteness and now we have to deconstruct it.

So I’m curious to hear how you think blackness functions in the documentary, if at all.
Clearly, there are black people in the film. The dinner scene where they talk about the word ghetto, I thought that was really interesting and an important thing to remind people of words. In the same way, this is not about what black people think of white people or Latinos think of white people or Asians think of white people. I wanted to put white identity at the center of the film and then deconstruct it.

I remember reading this quote from Toni Morrison when she was talking about when the Germans and the Latvians and the Irish came to this country. They tended to Balkanize, they were German, they were Irish, they were Balkans. But what they couldn’t be was black. So this idea of defining themselves as to what they’re not instead of what they are is, in a way … I think so much of whiteness is that. So much is what we’re talking about in terms of defining yourself in relations to other people.

I wanted to talk about violence, too. Whiteness is often very violent, but in the film it’s shown as mostly insidious or unseen, so I was curious why you chose to avoid …
Because the documentary is 40 minutes long, Alex, and can’t contain everything you want it to contain. [Laughs.] That’s why. Again, I can make an entire series on this. We started making this film in January; we started filming right after the New Year. Charleston clearly had not happened. Ferguson was, of course, very, very in our minds. I wish we could’ve expanded the scenes at Crazy Horse High School where we talked about Native Americans and the history of violence against Native Americans. Again, it’s a one-hour TV special, and for me, this is a good start.

You mentioned Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is very much in the cultural conversation right now because of his book, Between the World and Me. I read the excerpt in The Atlantic, and he arguably has a pessimistic worldview when it comes to the idea of racial justice or racial progress in the U.S. Your documentary, though, seems inherently optimistic. Would you agree with that assessment?
I know Ta-Nehisi is a big fan of James Baldwin, as am I. One of my favorite quotes from Baldwin is when he says, “I cannot be a pessimist because I’m alive.” To say that I’m a pessimist is to say that life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist; I’m forced to believe that we can survive what we must survive.  Look, I’m not even supposed to be here. I’m not even supposed to be making films and writing articles. So my optimism is part of that. That’s why I insist so much on these difficult, uncomfortable conversations. Because that’s what our future relies on. I think we are what we are when it comes to race relations in this country because far too much of our conversations are easy and simple. I actually take that as a compliment that optimism is something that people see in my work. I guess that’s just part of my nature.