This week, filmmaker Whitney Dow launched "The Whiteness Project," a non-satirical, "deadly serious" multi-platform investigation into "how Americans who identify as 'white' experience their ethnicity." You can see the first round of interviews with 24 Buffalo, New York residents on the website here, and a preview of the project, via backer PBS, below.
Dow says that he is hoping to interview 1,000 "white people from all walks of life and localities" about the white experience (he's already put photos up on Facebook of interviewees from NYC and Milwaukee). Some of the participants focus on perceived criticisms of white people ("Some whites are very exclusive..."), some tone-deafly talk about POC ("Some black people kind of hold onto the back in the day, slave thing, or feel they aren't being treated right") and some don't really talk about being white (like this woman who instead talks about being intimidated by black men). Some people express themselves pretty reasonably, while others get increasingly angered.
While tweeting with Daily Dot reporter Miles Klee, Dow admitted he was nervous about how the project would be received by the public: "A bit nervous as I know it has a huge chance of being misunderstood. White people have been very tentative about engaging. POC either get it right away or are hugely offended," he wrote. You can get an idea of the reactions the project has inspired so far:
— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) October 10, 2014
Whiteness Project gave me the jitters. We ain't gon make it are we?
— Craig Jenkins (@CraigSJ) October 10, 2014
— Lindsey Adler (@Lahlahlindsey) October 10, 2014
Whiteness project. "“You don’t know just where the line is.” http://t.co/jYVclxtzEj
— Guy (@Payitforward87) October 10, 2014
FINALLY we get to hear white people's side of the story http://t.co/hGukizuPA9
— Jessica Roy (@JessicaKRoy) October 10, 2014
WE HAVE ACHIEVED PEAK CAUCASITY http://t.co/MrrYuhW8sP
— Desus (@desusnice) October 10, 2014
what, exactly, is this meant to accomplish? http://t.co/ldWuRmVAFg
— Mychal Denzel Smith (@mychalsmith) October 10, 2014
look how gradually angry this guy gets. this is way more useful than these black ppl panels you see on tv. http://t.co/JeYGbQvv7n
— Bomani Jones (@bomani_jones) October 10, 2014
The Whiteness Project? I don't know why we need new nicknames for the United States tbh
— An Amazon Wishlist (@ShrillCosby) October 10, 2014
— jessie (@ex_liontamer) October 10, 2014
But Dow adds that he has received at least one message which makes him feel the project is worthwhile:
— Whitney Dow (@whitneybdow) October 10, 2014
You can read Dowd's full artistic statement below:
While many media projects have investigated the history, culture, and experiences of various American ethnic minorities, there has been much less examination of how white Americans think about and experience their whiteness and how white culture shapes our society. Most people take for granted that there is a “white” race in America, but rarely is the concept of whiteness itself investigated. What does it mean to be a “white”? Can it be genetically defined? Is it a cultural construct? A state of mind? How does one come to be deemed “white” in America and what privileges does being perceived as white bestow? The Whiteness Project is a multi-platform media project that examines both the concept of whiteness itself and how those who identify as “white” process their ethnic identity. The project’s goal is to engender debate about the role of whiteness in American society and encourage white Americans to become fully vested participants in the ongoing debate about the role of race in American society.
After almost two decades of making films with my black producing partner, Marco Williams, I have come to believe that most whites see themselves as outside the American racial paradigm and their race as a passive attribute. Subsequently, they feel that they do not have the same right to speak about race as non-whites. The Whiteness Project hopes to bring everyday white Americans, especially those who would not normally engage in a project about race, into the racial discussion—to help them understand the active role their race plays in every facet of their lives, to remove some of the confusion and guilt that many white people feel around the subject of race and 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.
I recognize that the idea of whiteness, or white privilege, is an uncomfortable one. The term “white privilege” itself feels pejorative and like something whose very recognition demands an admission of some kind of guilt. As a white person, I reject this. I have found that honestly examining the role my ethnicity plays in my day-to-day life, and, in fact, how it has shaped my life’s entire arc, has been incredibly enriching and enhanced the quality of all my relationships, regardless of the ethnic make-up of those involved.
America, despite its history (or perhaps because of it), has been a leader in confronting issues of race. While deep racial fissures do exist in American society—as evidenced by recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and in reactions to the shooting of Trayvon Martin and to affirmative action court rulings—it is hard to imagine any other white-majority country embracing and celebrating the wide range of ethnicities and cultures that make up the nation and electing a biracial president to govern them all. I believe that the country is not just ready for a discussion on whiteness, but is hungry for it. My experiences working on this project have repeatedly shown me that when white people honestly engage on this topic, it is incredibly freeing for everyone, regardless of ethnicity, and makes discussions about race more productive, ultimately helping to advance a culture of true equality.