A provocative film, that is also the perfect length to show in a class, Whitewashed flips the typical narratives about race upside-down. Instead of whites bemoaning “political correctness” or even asking people of color to articulate their experiences of inequality, this documentary approaches white Americans about their experiences as whites. Some interviewees are of the “people on the street” variety, often expressing the former sentiment above, of “what’s the big deal?”. But, most of the interviewees are reflexive whites, who have thought a good deal about their racial privileges—and many are even avowed anti-racist activists. The only “famous” interviewee is Tim Wise—whose inclusion seems to have provoked neo-Nazi rage in the comments section on the YouTube copy of the film, who seem to suspect am anti-white, “Zionist conspiracy” (an articulate person—even a white person—talking about racial inequality seems to be enough to piss-off Nazis). But, interestingly, the film is an all-white space in which whites dialogue about that which they rarely talk about: whiteness. The film includes a wide variety of perspectives, but is far more illuminating than the average conversation about race amongst whites.
Whitewashed addresses a variety of questions regarding whiteness. The first question—where’d white people come from?—seems unanswerable to the average person. The anti-racist interviewees, however, note the appearance of “whites” occurring alongside European immigrant assimilation to the US. Giving-up their ethnic heritage allowed these immigrants to acquire the benefits of “whiteness” in America. The most provocative questions—and the ones that garner the most interesting answers—pertain to what it means to be white, and white people’s experiences with racism and privilege. As it turns out, while most whites never reflect upon their race, while anti-racist whites acknowledge that their whiteness offers them an incredible array of privileges, especially vis-a-vis minorities.
There’s a lengthy series of interviewees reflecting upon their privileges; being able to avoid racial profiling (especially by the police) seems to be a key one. A viewer might attribute a certain level of bravery to the interviewees who reflect upon their experiences of privilege, the shabby treatment of people of color (sometime inadvertently at their own hands), and what that means for their lives today. Admitting to be a racist—as one older male does early on—is a powerful admittance. But, as a younger woman reflects later, understanding the consequences of being raised in a racist society and holding racist views, was something that was largely out of her hands—therefore, she focused on dealing with her latent racism and carrying on with her life trying to be a better anti-racist.
The film’s aesthetic is appealing: old photos of European immigrants entering the US is juxtaposed with all black-n-white interview footage (the political message to this “colorless” choice is clear). The transitional music is light and playful, which is unexpected given the heavy-handed, sinister music that often accompanies documentaries of this variety. The film’s director is a sociologist and organizer, as well as the director of the Mary Turner Project, which was established to commemorate the life of the lynched Black woman named Mary Turner, as well as the event and institution that facilitated her death in southern Georgia in 1918. As a racial education and reconciliation project, Whitewashed fits well within the mission of generating a deeper dialogue about the meaning and significance of race and racism, especially amongst whites, who seem oblivious to it and who are arguing even more avidly about its supposed irrelevance.
For the sake of transparency, I must admit to knowing the director. I even appear in the film and am shown as a relatively competent, reflective white person. That said, one of my favorite parts of watching Whitewashed was the venue I was able to first see it in. The premiere public showing included numerous other interviewees in the audience as well as many dozens of college students, roughly evenly split between white and Black. The discussion afterward was amazing and just what I assume the director desired. White students seemed impressed to hear other whites speak so candidly about race and their own privileges—something whites rarely do amongst each other. Black students were shocked by both how much privilege whites has in relation to them and that some whites were actually very aware of it (on both counts, the Black students didn’t know whites “got away with” so much, nor did they think any whites understood how much discrimination and inequality people of color experience). After the film, both white and Black students told personal stories that reflected upon things that interviewees had said (especially in respect to differential treatment by police), which helped to create a fascinating discussion around whiteness.
There’s a challenge or two, to viewing Whitewashed. Audiences will have to watch closely in order to distinguish between the “a-racial” person on the street and the anti-racist interviewees. Sometimes there’s overlap, but usually the consequences of what they say is starkly 180-degrees in difference. Generally, the a-racial people are actually outside, while most of the anti-racist are interviewed indoors (but this is not 100 percent the case). The ambiguity between these two poles of opinion might help people be as critical as possible about what is said.
The only other thing that a studious observer might note about the people included is that, while diverse in terms of gender (and maybe sexuality), the anti-racist whites seem much more middle-class, at least judging by how articulate they are (indicating their higher socio-economic status). The a-racial people on the street sound more working class and have much stronger Southern accents. While this may perpetuate stereotypes about racist “rednecks” and more “enlightened” middle-class whites, this is not universally the case, and Whitewashed avoids making easy caricatures for audiences to fall for.
The best contribution of Whitewashed—beyond getting people to talk about race and whiteness—is that is shows the part of the “race conversation” that seems to always be overlooked. The people with race privilege, often staffing the bureaucracies involved in institutionalized racist discrimination, and who decry raising issues of race (let alone admitting to its importance), are usually white. To ignore these patterns is tragic. Hearing whites—in some respects, modern-day John Brown, white-privilege-defectors—talk about these privileges and the resultant problems is an important experience for everyone. The film informs people of color that they do have some white allies and it puts other whites on-notice that not everyone sharing their skin color is of the same mind about what it means to be white in America.
Topics: race, inequality, whiteness, privilege