Thursday, October 16, 2014

What Would Andy Kaufman Say? PBS's 'The Whiteness Project' is Unintentional Racial Satire

Two questions.

If you saw an ad in the newspaper or online seeking individuals who are willing to be interviewed about "what it means to be a 'person of color' in America?" for a documentary or research project, would you participate?

If you saw an ad in the newspaper or online seeking individuals who are willing to be interviewed about their experiences as a "white" person in America for a documentary or research project, would you participate?

I can only answer the first prompt.

I would not participate in such an exercise because the feelings held by black and brown folks about our lived experiences with white supremacy are not a mystery. America's centuries-long racial project(s) are evidenced in the country's literature, music, art, history, popular culture, schools, politics, streets, geography, and almost every part of the country's fabric.

Denial of these obvious facts is itself an act of white supremacy. America is well beyond a point when white ignorance about the realities of white racism and white privilege are reasonable claims of racial innocence.

The "national conversation" on race--what is now circular and tired; it is noise signalling nothing--is a distraction from doing the necessary work of enforcing (and protecting) standing laws such as the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, fighting back against a herrenvolk and overtly racist Republican Party and its "Redemption" 2.0 Jim and Jane Crow dedicated Supreme Court, and dealing with the gross material and economic inequalities along the color line. Group therapy sessions about the realities of the color line are a state of permanent diagnosis. This is counter-productive: the problem and its causes are known.

Nevertheless, the well-intentioned purveyors of the snake oil known as "the national conversation on race" continue to sell their tired wares to an increasingly exhausted public.

PBS's new online project "The Whiteness Project" is intended by its creator Whitney Dow to explore how:

'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?'
It's premise is faulty. The feelings of white folks' about their own racial identities (as well as race and racism more broadly) are not a secret. American mass media, and the country's broader culture, are organized around legitimating, furthering, and sustaining the White Gaze and the white racial frame.

To understand Whiteness, one only has to open their eyes, turn on the TV, listen to the radio, walk to a bookstore, go online, talk to people, take the bus or train around one of America's segregated cities, visit a prison, drive on America's highways to the suburbs, go to formerly black and brown communities that are being "gentrified", be observant of who has what jobs in your cafeteria, talk to the black or brown women who work in home healthcare or as nurses, or pay attention to the thunderous white rage and disrespect that Barack Obama has received from many millions of white Americans and the Right-wing media hate machine.

As detailed by the Daily Mail and the Gothamist, The Whiteness Project's interviews are a parade of white grievance mongering--the white folks in the documentary are straight out of central casting under the headers "white", "angry", "racist", and "victim".

I would like to believe that the participants in The Whiteness Project are self-selecting--they are entitled white folks who (incorrectly) see their relative racial group position slipping in the world and have chosen The Whiteness Project as a venue to publicly act out like spoiled children.

But, public opinion and other data suggests that the sentiments and feelings expressed in The Whiteness Project are not at all uncommon. The Whiteness Project could simply be a personal demonstration of the aggregate data regarding white racial attitudes in the Age of Obama.

The Whiteness Project's participants are a perfect demonstration of the concept known as symbolic racism. I immediately give pause when human lived examples of social science theory are conjured up before my eyes. The performances of symbolic racism are so perfect in The Whiteness Project, thus, I fear, that they are in fact parodies of the truth.

Could it be that The Whiteness Project has been infiltrated by overt white supremacists? The White Right has been using cyber-racism and other strategies to disrupt, misdirect, and derail online (and other) conversations about white privilege and racism. They have also created an alternative media apparatus dedicated to circulating disinformation and furthering the white supremacist agenda.

Who knows? But again, I worry that claims of cyber racism, and an infiltration campaign by overt white supremacists against The Whiteness Project, are too easy answers as well.

Andy Kaufman was a master performance artist whose goal was to elicit a negative response from the audience. To that end, Kaufman would manipulate the viewer/audience into feeling angry and upset towards him.

PBS's The Whiteness Project is agitprop failed online theater. This was not the intent of its creator.

Alas, the temptation to share the white racial resentment and bigotry which lurks in "the backstage" of American life with a broader audience was too much for many of the participants in The Whiteness Project to resist.

The faces of white rage in The Whiteness Project are cringe inducing. The blinding Whiteness and racial resentment is a provocation to anger and rage for reasonable and thinking people.

Most importantly, their statements of white racial resentment are reminders of how institutional white supremacy works through the actions of individuals.

The racism political theater of The Whiteness Project is a cautionary performance--its faces of white rage and resentment are the doctors, teachers, police, politicians, bankers, real estate agents, neighbors, and others that black and brown people have to negotiate on a daily basis. They are human landmines--who in many instances quite literally possess the power to kill and limit the life chances of non-whites with impunity.

Black and brown folks are not paranoid or duplicitous when they share and describe their experiences with white racism. America is a society that is sick with white racism. Whitney Dow and The Whiteness Project have provided a lens into that (undeniable) fact.


Plantsmantx said...

I watched several of those little interviews. They were told to talk about being white, but they talked a least as much about black people- not much more than 10% of the population of this country.

Miles_Ellison said...

This is what your $250.00 tote bag pledge buys? I'd rather see a marathon of washed up disco hacks during the Spring Pledgeabration.

chauncey devega said...

Whitney actually seems sincere--how could he be so naive...unless the larger project is much better and his whole point is to allow Whiteness to display its resentment and pathologies.

chauncey devega said...

Maybe they can repackage it as a comedy? I keep offering up my services for a "White in America" series where I play the Soledad O'Brien role. Oh well.

Miles_Ellison said...

That would certainly be better than sociological privilege porn for post racist masturbation addicts.

Plantsmantx said...

I have to add, not only are we barely more than 10% of the population, most whites have very little contact with us. So, why do we loom so large in their definitions of who they are?

Well, from what little I've read about what he says his motive is, that doesn't seem to be the point he's trying to make, even though he doesn't deny that white privilege exists.

Gable1111 said...

And that's what the sum total of what "white" means to these people, a hatred and fear of blacks.

Gable1111 said...

And that's what I was thinking, because that's surely what was on display here.

Gable1111 said...

This is really comedy gold; I can imagine SNL and others are probably salivating over this about now. The Onion is probably gearing up as well.

My favorite is the the tattoo woman, insisting her tattoos makes her experience the same as that of a black woman.

Plantsmantx said...

...seems so.

DanF said...

Guilt may not be the right word, but it's close Plantsmantx. We live in a patently unjust society and we only have a few of choices as to what to do with the feelings that injustice will cause. 1) Actively work to change that which is wrong, 2) pretend we do no wrong/or do not benefit from the wrong and so the burden is not ours, or 3) shift the blame to those that cause our conscience to tingle ("If black people would just do X, Y and Z it would all be OK!"). Right leaning whites operate almost exclusively in option two and three (mostly three), while more liberal whites operate in options one and two (mostly two) and dabble in three.

anotherbozo said...

Watching this circus would be needlessly upsetting to me. My only reactions are to (1) wonder whatever happened to Andrew Hacker's insight, that, in white America, all whites are generically racist because that is our ground of being, as water to fish. Why does anyone think that blacks and browns are "just as good as" whites? That's as racist as any other sentiment. What makes whiteness the standard of anything, after all? (Andrew Hacker, "Two Nations," first published 1992). And (2) whatever happened to the brown eyes/blue eyes empathy sessions of Jane Elliott, and the lessons they taught? She performed it on Oprah once. I first saw the film about her on PBS ("A Class Divided"). Oh, public television, how far you've fallen!

chauncey devega said...

Good old Jane Elliot. PBS needs money. Now, we don't know if they will actually run the full show given the reaction. But we shall see.