In 1955 James Baldwin traveled to Leukerbad, Switzerland, a tiny village nestled in the heart of the Alps. The inhabitants, who had not encountered too many black people, marveled, and often gaped, at his dark skin and gloriously kinky hair. Children innocently shouted “Neger! Neger!” when they laid eyes on Baldwin, who quickly realized his status as a stranger. The trip provoked a reflection on the ability of race to reveal as much about white people as about the black "other."
“What one’s imagination makes of other people is dictated, of course, by the Master race laws of one’s own personality and it’s one of the ironies of black-white relations that, by means of what the white man imagines the black man to be, the black man is enabled to know who the white man is,” Baldwin wrote in his essay “Stranger in the Village.”
Sixty years after Baldwin's voyage, Jose Antonio Vargas is taking Baldwin’s efforts one step further by turning the spotlight onto white people to gauge how whiteness factors into America's racial dynamic.
In Vargas' new documentary, "White People," which will air on MTV July 22, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist takes a simple approach: ask white people to think of themselves as such and acknowledge the historical implications that accompany their identity. Hesitation to discuss what it means to be white -- in part because those conversations can be emotionally taxing -- means that discussions about race often preserve white comfort. Mainstream narratives about race in America always touch on what it means to be black, Latino, Asian or Native American, but for Vargas that isn’t enough.
“Until we unpack ‘whiteness’ as a social construct … we cannot have a real, more honest conversation about race and racism. And that's really my goal -- real, honest, even uncomfortable conversations,” Vargas said. “In this era of #BlackLivesMatter, at a time when Latinos are the largest minority group and Asians are the fastest growing racial and immigrant group, exploring and questioning ‘white privilege’ is essential.”
But not everyone agrees. The film’s one-minute trailer has already garnered backlash. Some people of color don’t seem to understand why Vargas is making a film about white people instead of addressing the issues facing marginalized groups. Likewise, some white folks accuse Vargas of publicly shaming the white race and making them feel guilty for being white.
Vargas said he was prepared for the criticism and that he’s insisting on the conversation despite it.
“It’s not about explaining ourselves,” he said. “It’s about asking white people to be present with us in the same way -- as you said -- we think about race all the time.”
By unpacking whiteness, as Baldwin and many others did before him, Vargas’ project allows us to take a closer look at the foundation of America’s racial framework by analyzing the white backdrop against which race and racism is juxtaposed.
It’s important to note that race and racism, while interconnected issues, are not the same. Race is a surface-level social construct. Racism, conversely, is political.
Noel Ignatiev, author of How The Irish Became White, believes it is important to talk to the people who, inadvertently or directly identify with the white race. The social and political privilege attached to light skin, he said, explain how America works.
“Fair skin, of course, is a type of skin -- some people have fairer skin than others -- but by itself that doesn’t mean anything," Ignatiev said. "Thinking of yourself as white means that you accept and embrace a society that attaches social meaning to fair skin. Without the advantages of whiteness in this society, fair skin would have no more significance than big ears or left-handedness -- it would mean nothing.”
“Part of the problem is whiteness is considered to be the norm… The majority of the human race lives a life of misery and pain -- especially people without money,” he added. “To be white is to some degree [to] be exempted from that. So it’s not the norm. It’s the exception.”
The documentary challenges this notion of whiteness being the default in America. Vargas, who refuses to be called a minority, said non-white people have internalized the idea that we are the minority when, on a global scale, we actually aren’t.
“This country was never white,” he said.
“I put the spotlight on white people and asked them about their own race, which is something that we don’t do in this country,” Vargas continued. “They’re the default. They’re the standard. They’re the norm -- [but] we are the ones to be questioned, dissected and explored. I think there’s something wrong with that.”
Vargas recently moved to Los Angeles to launch #EmergingUS, a digital magazine, that will address how race, immigration and identity intersect in America. The magazine, which is a partnership with the Los Angeles Times, premieres this fall and will dedicate a section to white Americans becoming a racial minority.
The concept of America becoming less white, due to immigration and more multiracial babies being born, tends to worry white people. A 2014 study by Northwestern University found that this fear causes white people to take socially conservative positions on both race-related and race-neutral policies. Such concern, according to Ignatiev, stems from a desire to maintain the white identity and the privileges attached to it.
He is not convinced, however, that America is becoming less white in the political sense.
“There are people coming into the United States who don’t have fair skin in the way Europeans do but, nevertheless, the ranks of whiteness are being opened. So the white race is being enlarged and redefined," he said. "I don’t see all of these immigrants becoming less white. Rather I see them being absorbed into the social formation of whiteness. They are not being subjected to, for instance, the sort of mistreatment that black youth in West Baltimore are being subjected to. No one is being stopped by the police for driving while Asian.”
Relationships with American whiteness are no more homogenous than the multiple racial identities that comprise "people of color." But no matter which ethnic group you speak to, conversations loop back to how we are different from them -- which makes dissecting whiteness all the more vital.
While Vargas was traveling and filming "Documented," a documentary about immigration, his conversations always shifted back to whiteness, he said. “It always ended up in this very anxious place where the combination of demographic shifts and the fact that whites are becoming an emerging racial minority -- that’s where the conversation always turned,” he said. “And it was always interesting to me.”
When Vargas shared this, I wasn’t particularly shocked. People of color in America have always sat amongst ourselves and talked about what it means to be white.
For black people in particular, understanding whiteness has been "a matter of survival," Ignatiev said.
“Black people have always been forced to observe and think about what it means to be white… They’ve always been very astute observers of that," he said. “In order to figure out how to survive, black folks have always looked up. What I find interesting is that the whites don’t like to think about what it means to be white.”
Vargas hit on this during our talk. “In some ways, I think people of color know a lot more about whiteness than white people do,” he said.
The Huffington Post put out a call for white people to talk about what it means to be white -- and the responses seemed to bolster Vargas' observation. One thing I noticed going through the many comments we received was that a significant number of white people had not thought of themselves racially. What shocked me more, however, was that most white people who responded were fairly aware of the privileges coupled with being white.
Often, this is not the case. Studies show that, when "faced with evidence that their group benefits from privilege," white people do not take personal responsibility for these social and political advantages. Instead, they find themselves feeling threatened. But the reality is that being white in America is a privilege financed with the blood and plunder of black and Native bodies.
Vargas chose to highlight in his film young white millennials who were starting to become racially aware -- by teaching on a Native American reservation, for example, or coming to terms with not getting a scholarship.
White Americans overall are becoming more attuned to racial issues, Vargas said. "I don’t think you can be a person in America right now and not think about what’s happening with Black Lives Matter, think about what’s happening with immigration,” he said. His challenge was making sure different journeys to awareness were represented in the film.
In one scene, Vargas asks Samantha, a 23-year-old white woman who is one of 14 white people on the Lakota Indian Reservation, what her racial identity means.
“We’ve never had to internalize what white people have done in here in America,” she answers. “But here, you can’t escape that.”
Mentioning this scene brought Vargas and me back to James Baldwin. In the spring of 1963, a PBS affiliate followed Baldwin around San Francisco as he met with members of the black community, which resulted in the documentary "Take This Hammer." Baldwin's words at the end of the film, in which he describes racial epithets, resonated with Vargas.
I know this and anyone who’s ever tried to live knows this. What you say about somebody else -- anybody else -- reveals you. What I think of you as being, is dictated by my own necessities, my own psychology, my own fears and desires. I’m not describing you when I talk about you -- I’m describing me. Now here in this country, we’ve got something called the nigga … We have invented him. I didn’t invent him. White people invented him. I’ve always known … what you were describing is not me. You invented it, so it had to be something you’re afraid of so you vested me with it … I’ve always known that I’m not a nigga … I’ve learned this because I’ve had to learn it. But you still think, I gather, that the nigger is necessary. Well, he’s unnecessary to me so he must be necessary to you. So, I give you your problem back. You’re the nigger, baby. It isn’t me.
"For me, as someone who gets called illegal, as someone who gets called a faggot -- I remember thinking to myself that was so empowering for me to hear" those slurs, Vargas said. "I’m only the illegal that you don’t understand. I’m only the faggot that you can’t see in yourself."
As a black woman who has studied what it means to be white, I understand where Vargas is coming from. Racism is a psychosis that manifests politically and socially. It is as complex as the human experience. It is not cut and dry. It is not, excuse the cliche, black and white.
At the end of our interview, I told Vargas my belief that race talks are only going to go so far if white people aren’t constructively involved in the conversation.
“If there is one message that I really hope resonates with people, it’s what you just said,” he replied.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly named Jose Antonio Vargas' 2013 documentary. It is "Documented," not "Undocumented."