Director of ‘The Whiteness Project’ Wants ‘Honest Conversation’ About Race

By Carla Murphy Oct 17, 2014

"The Whiteness Project," one of POV’s new digital-only series, begins in Buffalo, New York, with 21 men and women in front of a white background speaking candidly about how they experience their whiteness. Not everyone sees the value in the series, which launched last Friday. Countless articles have questioned the purpose of the project. Others slammed it. "Good gosh, just what we need; a bunch of pasty-faced, pudgy, fugly attention whores spouting nonsense. Way to go, Buffalo!," wrote one commenter. "Everyone’s always saying they want an honest conversation about race." says Whitney Dow, the documentary filmmaker behind the project. "When you have one, you can’t punish people when they speak their minds."

Despite the strong reactions, Dow, who is white, wants to take the film cross-country, to "engender debate about the role of whiteness in American society and encourage white Americans to become fully vested participants in the ongoing debate about the role of race in American society." On the phone the filmmaker fell into an easy and honest–there’s that word again–conversation about race, his childhood, his many critics and how much he’s still learning.

You produced Marco Williams’ "Banished" (2006) and co-directed "Two Towns of Jasper" (2002), so you’re no stranger to discussing race in America. How is "The Whiteness Project" similar to your earlier work?

The similarities go back to the original premise of "Two Towns of Jasper" where Marco and I used segregated crews. I had a white crew and I just shot white people. He had a black crew and he just shot black people. We felt that white people would feel more comfortable talking to a white crew [about the murder of James Byrd] and [the same for] black residents. We also had a broader idea, though, which was that black and white people live in such different realities that when you’re trying to have dialogue across race, actually, many times they’re talking about different things. And perhaps you can have a more constructive dialogue by letting white people and black people listen in to each other’s honest thoughts instead of trying to have them talk about something cross-race. So [with this project] me and a white crew talking to white people about whiteness is done very much in that spirit.

And how’s "The Whiteness Project" different?

I’ve wanted to do something on race that is not oppositional. Race tends to be covered as us-against-them, or, something happened and there’s a victim and perpetrator–like in "Two Towns of Jasper," which was about a horrible racial murder. And I really felt [that oppositional construct] had always allowed white people to put themselves outside the racial paradigm and not try and recognize themselves and their own issues with race and ethnicity. So the idea of doing something that didn’t give [white people] [that] crutch [and] where they would have to talk directly about whiteness–that’s what I wanted to create. Now of course the ironic thing is that when you ask white people about whiteness they start talking about black people.

You touched on that in yesterday’s New York Magazine interview. Go into that a bit more.

This has been one of the big learning experience for me.* Some black people–and a black woman who’s been in touch with me put it this way–understand their blackness in relationship to whiteness. I didn’t realize, until people started contacting me that whiteness is the same thing. We understand our whiteness in relationship to blackness. And I really think that goes back to our sense of ourselves as Americans and how this country was founded as a contradiction, on this idea that all men are created equal–except if you’re black. … We have this very complicated history and I think it complicates our sense of ourselves.

What’s wrong with how white folks, either in your life or in the media, talk about race, now?

That’s a really good question. In documentary film where I work, what I see is that oppositional or victim-perpetrator construct. And in mainstream media, race is either not acknowledged or it’s acknowledged in a way that’s not accurate. I learned back in Jasper, that there’s a difference between non-white voices in media who get their power to speak from a white power structure [and] those who get the right to speak through their own power base. [In the media] you have some very loud voices that aren’t white. But a lot of them are dependent on a white power structure so, I wonder, if they are really able to speak their minds.

How does whiteness come up for you, not just in your work but, in your family life or where you grew up?

I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the ’70s. It was a very, very white, homogenized place but it was during the era of busing. There was all this racial tension and there were riots and busses getting turned over in Boston. I remember my first experience of having to grapple with all of that. I was 15 years old and I was a counselor at the YMCA in Central Square. Most of the kids I was counseling were 10, 11 or 12 and most of them were black or Puerto Rican. It was a hot summer day and we decided to go to the North End to the public pool. The kids go to get changed in the dressing room and five large white men cornered me and said, "I understand what you’re doing. We don’t want any trouble. But if any of those niggers go in the pool, somebody’s gonna get seriously hurt."

What’d you say to them?

I didn’t know what to say. I said, "OK." And I then–as a 15-year-old boy who never really had to think about this stuff–had to try to explain to these kids, without any words or experience, why they couldn’t go in the pool. It was a humiliating and devastating experience. And it’s really stuck with me to this day.

Who in your family or friendship circle did you share that with at the time?

No one. We didn’t have the language to talk about it. I probably joked about it with my friend Nicky, like, "Holy shit, I almost got my ass kicked!" But I didn’t know how to talk about it. I didn’t know how to process it. One of the great things about today is that people do have the language to talk about it now. It’s a much better situation than when I was growing up.

Is 2014 a more receptive time for the conversation you’re trying to have with white people, compared to when "Two Towns of Jasper" came out in 2003?

Yeah, I think it is. Did you see [Wednesday] night on Jon Stewart? He says to Bill O’Reilly, "I’m not interested in your book. I have one thing I want to do in this interview and that is to get you to admit that white privilege exists." The whole show was on that. Right afterward, Stephen Colbert has the director from "Dear White People" on. There’s something out there now. I think people are ready and interested in that debate and I like seeing two white people having that debate. Bomani Jones talked about "The Whiteness Project" in his recent webcast [:34-:41]. He said, "I get asked to go on shows all the time to talk about the black experience and about race. I’m so happy to see white people going on shows to talk about the white experience and race." He breaks "The Whiteness Project" down in a very sophisticated way.

I’m going to be frank. I’m not really interested in hearing white folks talk about race or whiteness. I’ve been a minority in majority-white spaces since I was 12 years old. I feel like I know what your subjects are going to say. Why should I take the time to watch?

I would say that people like you and me who have thought about race a lot and have been around and processed it, maybe that’s not who this project is for. But, again, I go back to all these women of color who’ve written me from Albuquerque to Australia, who’ve said it was really painful but incredibly cathartic to hear what white people say when they’re not in the room. That’s all I can say.

Are you afraid that you’ll end up creating caricatures of white people? How will you avoid that?

I certainly hope not; that’s not my intention. I think that’s an issue every time you do a project on race: People always try not to see themselves in the people up there on the screen. One of the reasons why I did it in Buffalo is because when people think about race they think about the South. When I did "Two Towns of Jasper," people would say, "That’s not me. That’s the South." But you’d be in denial as a white person if you didn’t admit that you hold some of the most discomforting things [said in "The Whiteness Project"]. When Deanna says white people think black men are inherently violent, she’s not saying something that people don’t know. And I’m not sure why I’m getting attacked for saying something I’m getting attacked for saying something [about what white people believe].* All she’s saying is something that’s representative of 40 percent of white Americans. I don’t think it’s that radical to acknowledge it.

You can caricature ["The Whiteness Project"] but you’d be missing an opportunity to examine perhaps for yourself why and how what’s being said relates to you–as opposed to attacking person saying it. It’s not about these particular individuals. They represent common views. I don’t want people tying this whole thing to those particular 21 people in Buffalo. I commend and respect them. And I am incredibly grateful that they agreed to participate.

Have you talked to anyone involved in the series since it went live last Friday?

Yeah. One person told me he values and believes in what I’m trying to do. But he also says he’s nervous about the effect it’ll have on everyone. You know, I’m happy to become the punching bag for this project but I really hope these 21 people don’t become the punching bag. They took a leap of faith about being honest and it’s terrible to think that then you get punished for it. Everyone’s always saying they want an honest conversation about race but then when you have one, you can’t punish people when they speak their minds–especially if they’re not attacking you. And certainly if you want to bring someone along [in their understanding of race] and make progress, attacking them does not advance the conversation. 

In the responses you’ve gotten since last Friday, what’re the three common themes you’ve picked up?

One: "This is amazing, Thank you for doing this, This is the most incredible thing I’ve seen." Two: "I don’t understand it." Three: "You’re a fucking asshole"–and, "You all just should die."

What’s been most encouraging about the response you’ve gotten so far?

The personal letters. There are insanely personal comments being posted on the website and I’m just blown away that people are sharing. One woman with a white boyfriend talked about being rejected by his family, for example. People also find my email and send me long heartfelt letters. Again, it reaffirms that people are hungry for this discussion. People are also spending on average, six minutes on the site, which lets me know they’re watching a number of videos. That’s really encouraging because I’d rather have one person go and spend an hour than 50,000 people go and spend 10 seconds.

And the most discouraging?

There are certain people who seem to refuse to engage me or acknowledge the legitimacy of my position. I don’t expect you to agree with me or like what I’m doing. But I’ve been caught off guard by people who write or tweet about the project, and when I want to talk, they just insult me. It seems like all they want to do is generate interest in fact that they’re fighting with me. And I don’t understand that. I understand people want to hate the caricature of a white guy named Whitney B.* Dow making a project about white people. I get it. But I believe if you engage me, it will be valuable for both of us. I’m disappointed in some of those interactions. Those bother me more than the people who say, "You should go die."

*Post has been updated since publication for clarity and to correct Dow’s misstated middle initial. It’s "B," not "D."