We Interviewed the Filmmaker Behind ‘The Whiteness Project’
Last Friday, a link began rapidly circulating on Twitter to an interactive multimedia documentary called the Whiteness Project, which was apparently an “investigation into how Americans who identify as ‘white’ experience their ethnicity.” The documentary featured intimate interviews with 21 people from Buffalo, New York, discussing race in a frank and often cringeworthy fashion. “For some reason, some black people hold on to the back-in-the-day slave thing,” a manidentitifed as “Jason” says. “Should slavery be something that because it happened we owe black people more? Absolutely not.” Another woman expresses her fear at how “black men in general” take a smile as an “invitation to approach.” A third white whines, “I mean, come on, you can’t even talk about fried chicken or Kool-Aid without wondering if someone’s going to get offended.” Each interview is bookended with a relevant statistic that examines how white Americans view race in North America. The online reaction was swift, incredulous, andunforgiving.
But upon closer inspection, the project is more complex and original than it first appears, and the man behind it has a legitimate track record documenting sensitive racial issues. Along with his African-American producing partner Marco Williams, Whitney Dow has spent the last 16 years specializing in films that attempt to unearth and illuminate uncomfortable racial truths and gray areas, beginning in 1998 with Two Towns of Jasper, a film analyzing the lead-up to and aftermath of the brutal, racially-motivated dragging death of James Byrd, Junior at the hands of two Texas white supremacists.
The Whiteness Project is funded through PBS’s POV Interactive Shorts program, and Buffalo’s 21 interviews are just the first piece of a project that plans to interview over 1,000 white Americans about their views on race.
With controversy swirling and the project garnering several hundred thousand views since Friday, we decided to chat with Dow over Skype to discuss the process of casting the project, how Barack Obama’s presidency has or hasn’t changed the way we talk about race, and what he thinks about the fact that white liberals are probably the biggest critics he’s faced.
VICE: First of all, what prompted this idea?
Whitney Dow: I did a film in 2003 called Two Towns of Jasper. Along with my producing partner Marco, I did a lot of talks around the country, and we were asked to give a speech for this organization called Facing History in Ourselves. They structured it by having all these seventh graders interview us. At that point, I’d been working on the film for five years, I’d donetons of talking about it, writing about it, thinking about it, and I really thought I knew a lot about myself and race because making the film with Marco was one of the most difficult, interesting, and just self-revealing processes you could possibly imagine.
This little girl got up and said, “Whitney, what did you learn about your own racial identity working with Marco?”
I had this epiphany where I suddenly realized, I don’t have a racial identity… But oh my God, of course I have a racial identity. I have the most powerful racial identity on the motherfucking planet. And despite all the work I had done, all my talk about it, all my bullshit, until that moment, I hadn’t really processed it in a real way where I recognized it. It sounds really fucking corny, but it was like having some sort of conversion experience. With that knowledge, all of a sudden, I started to see the world in such a different way. It was kind of like getting X-ray glasses. Once I became conscious that my race was an active component of my everyday experience, that it was an active dynamic thing that I controlled that impacted me, it fundamentally changed the way I saw the world and interacted with people.