As a lifelong white person—or Person Without Color, for the more sensitively inclined—I have nothing against white people. I mean, sure, at this late date in their history, I’m all too aware of the dubious and disheartening white-people statistics. Nearly all Prius owners, Vineyard Vines wearers, and girls named “Addison” are white. Almost 8 out of 10 Canadians are white. And the most reliably annoying person in the world, Gwyneth Paltrow? You guessed it: white.
Still, as a committed multiculturalist (I play Chinese checkers, drink Black Russians, and frequently Indian-give my kids’ allowance when running low on cash), I freely admit that black people have a lot to apologize for, too—as anyone who has ever been to a Tyler Perry movie can attest. So nobody’s perfect. And white people have inarguably enriched the culture as well, having invented everything from modern air conditioning to Yacht Rock.
It was with bemused curiosity, then, that I approached the Whiteness Project, an “interactive documentary short” brought to us by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Whitney Dow, under the aegis of PBS’s POV, which bills itself as American television’s longest-running showcase for independent nonfiction films. After all, it’s hard to think of two entities that bring more unassailable authority to the subject of whiteness than PBS and guys named “Whitney.”
For many years now, white people have been the equivalent of the goofy sitcom dad. It’s okay to take shots at them, since it’s assumed that they run everything, to the detriment of everyone else (our black president notwithstanding—though he is, in point of fact, half white). You see it most recently in films like Justin Simien’s Dear White People, a campus comedy of manners that spends much time sending up white people. The script, written by Simien, who is black, was honed over several years on his DearWhitePeople Twitter page, where he celebrates #TokenTuesdays (group shots of smiling white people with one black friend) and tweets out Caucasian-tweaking zings such as “Dear white people, dating a Black person doesn’t count if it pisses off your parents.”
But though Simien is enjoying the white-hot spotlight now (sorry, my white privilege at work), he had to stand in line behind white people (what else is new?) to make fun of white people. There was Norman Lear, whose lovable bigot Archie Bunker, for all his bite, was still the butt of the joke. And there was cracker comic Jeff Foxworthy (“You might be a redneck if you’ve ever climbed a water tower with a bucket of paint to defend your sister’s honor”). Most notably, there was Christian Lander, whose “Stuff White People Like” franchise for years kept white people snorting their Aprihops India Pale Ales from their noses as they read of white people: liking black music that black people don’t listen to anymore, picking their own fruit, being offended, eating hummus, wearing bangs, and buying sea salt.
Granted, Lander’s wasn’t a taxonomy of Wal-Mart-America’s white people—the ones you see wearing their best sweatpants-and-slippers into the store, their shopping carts overflowing with refined sugars and heavy carbs, as they frantically comb the shelves for Bacitracin ointment to apply to their eighth-grade daughter’s newly inked neck tattoo. No, Lander was Jeff-Foxworthy-in-Warby-Parker-glasses, classifying a particular genus of precious, rarefied, fussy white person—basically, Slate readers.
But the point is that fussy white people like to laugh at themselves, enjoying as they do the security of those who love themselves, even if they secretly hate themselves after sitting for years in their overpriced universities, enduring God-knows-how-many Critical Race Theory classes in which their Associate Professor of Indignation (who is often white) lectures them about how white people have ruined the world.
And that’s where Whitney Dow and the Whiteness Project come in.
Even though its awkwardly constructed subtitle—Inside the White Caucasian Box—makes the Whiteness Project sound like a charity MMA match at an Aryan Nation picnic, make no mistake. This is a Serious Project, and Dow is a Serious Person. It might sound like self-parody, but it is not satire. This is Deadly Serious. Don’t take my word for it. Take Dow’s. “I am deadly serious about this,” he wrote on that most serious of platforms, Twitter.