How a one-minute preview of Jose Antonio Vargas' 'White People' is drawing fire on the right

Jose Antonio Vargas is making some white people uncomfortable with his new MTV documentary — and they've seen only a minute of it.

The documentary, called "White People," doesn't premiere until July 22, but a trailer for it — which had nearly 2 million views on YouTube as of Wednesday — has drawn fire from the right, especially over a teaser line that indicates the program will deal with "white privilege."

That's a hot-button issue with some conservative commentators, who say that white privilege — the belief that whites receive societal benefits because of their skin color — is a means for making whites feel shame and guilt over discrimination from generations ago.

The documentary is "about the problems white people have caused in America," Rush Limbaugh said on his radio broadcast. Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly showed the trailer on her show last week, then mocked one of the questions Vargas uses in the film by asking National Review editor Rich Lowry: "How might your life be different if you weren't white?"

"We're safe in assuming that it will be as stupid and exploitative as you'd expect from the network that gave us 'Jersey Shore' and 'Teen Mom 2,' " Lowry said of the film after acknowledging that he hasn't seen it.

Vargas says he understands the reaction to the white privilege issue but said the intent of the documentary is not to shame whites. Instead, he said, "White People" seeks to explore how young whites perceive their racial identity in an America that is increasingly multicultural.

Vargas said there is rarely honest conversation about race in film and TV because "we're expecting people to be perfect. We're expecting people to be articulate. Well, race in this country has always been a big mystery to everybody. The biggest mystery to us as people of color is how white people talk about race."

A former reporter for the Washington Post and other publications, Vargas is now a partner with the Los Angeles Times in #EmergingUS, a new venture that will explore race, immigration and multicultural issues. The Times has no connection to the documentary or the nonprofit group Define American, which Vargas founded to deal with issues of immigration and citizenship.

As part of the documentary, Vargas presents research showing that half of all young white Americans believe racial discrimination is as big a problem for them as it is for nonwhites. He also notes that white students get a disproportionate amount of private college scholarship money, despite the prevailing view that minority candidates are favored.

That second fact comes as a shock to a young white woman from Scottsdale, Ariz., who believes she lost out on getting financial assistance from her preferred school because of her race.

"All it does is exposes conversations that are usually not spoken, especially not in front of a camera," Vargas said. "We got people to talk in a space where they don't feel judged."

"White People" is a part of MTV's "Look Different" campaign, which launched in April 2014 to put a spotlight on discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation.

Vargas, who was born in the Philippines and wrote a New York Times magazine article in 2011 disclosing that he was here illegally, said he is able to take the heat that his film has already received — including disparaging posts to his Facebook page and in voice mail messages and emails to MTV.

"I'm undocumented, I'm gay, I look Asian and my name is Latino," he said. "You can imagine the hate mail I get. If I were worried about criticism, I wouldn't create anything. I'm used to that."

Vargas generates candid responses in the film because he approaches the participants as peers. He said he worked hard to avoid imposing his own views, sticking to data and facts in his conversations. "I wasn't asking revolutionary questions," Vargas said. "The difference is we actually take time to listen."

Vargas does try to promote a better understanding of history. Among the five stops Vargas makes in "White People" is the Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood of Bensonhurst. Once a predominantly Italian American area, there are now business signs with Chinese characters alongside the pizzerias and calzone shops. By the end of the trip, in which a young Italian American man and his family talk about the language barrier and lack of familiarity with the emerging Asian population, the father in the household reveals that he immigrated to the U.S. from Italy when he was 5 years old without knowing a word of English.

MTV wanted to make "White People" after the network's president, Stephen Friedman, saw "Documented," Vargas' directorial debut, which tells the story of his journey as an immigrant here illegally — a fact about himself he kept hidden for years. His view of the world has gained currency as immigration has moved into the forefront of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Race relations in the U.S. have reached a similar flashpoint to the degree that even the inner feelings of Atticus Finch from "To Kill a Mockingbird" are under scrutiny. Vargas said the early response to his film shows that the time is right to go deeper.

"I think if the reaction to the 60-second trailer is any indication it tells us how necessary this conversation is," Vargas said. "We cannot have an honest and real conversation about race in America if we can't talk about what being white means in America."

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
63°