When Jose Antonio Vargas started filming the documentary series White People in January, he had a somewhat disconcerting thought. "Man, I really have to control my eyebrows," he remembers telling himself. There's no confusion about how Vargas feels about things — his trademark expressive eyebrows "have a mind of their own and I don't know what they're going to do."
The documentary airs 8 p.m. Wednesday night on MTV, and from the title alone, it's easy to see why Vargas had that concern. While there's a case to be made that American culture is filled with reflections on white culture, drumming down exactly what that culture is, why it exists and the role it plays in the tangled national conversation about race and racism is something else altogether. He was prepared to hear his young white interview subjects say some pretty outrageous things about race. And for him, that was OK.
"We cannot have a real honest and full conversation about race if we don't unpack the construction of whiteness in America," Vargas told Mic.
Cue the cringing: Hard questions are the backbone of Vargas' one-hour special. There's Dakota, the white gay Southerner, who leaves the confines of his small, conservative town to attend a nearby historically black college. For the purposes of the documentary, he gets his white hometown friends and black college friends together for dinner that becomes awkward, tearful and finally, revelatory.
Then there's Katy, a straight A student in Arizona who's convinced her whiteness kept her from getting competitive scholarships, leaving her without the money to attend the four-year college she'd set her heart on.
There's Lewis, a young white man in rural Washington state who convinces his conservative-minded parents to attend the white privilege workshop he teaches on his college campus.
Samantha, a white high school teacher on a Native American reservation in South Dakota, talks about coming face to face the benefits of her privilege. And then there's John, born and raised in the historically Italian-American Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood of Bensonhurst, who's coming to terms with a wave of immigrant Asian newcomers.
These are all uncomfortable moments, whether you're identifying with the characters' racial journey or mumbling out loud about the absurdity of it. But it's rare to get such a candid, up-close look at this experience — usually, people of color are handed the weight of worrying that seemingly intractable things like their skin color, name and hometown will largely determine their lot in life.
For the most part, the series leaves alone the messy questions of white identity: Who is considered white in the United States, and why are they considered white? Instead, it deals with how young white people experience their own race in this country.
Making sense of whiteness: Vargas may seem like an unlikely narrator for such an endeavor. He's a queer, undocumented immigrant from the Philippines who grew up in the liberal Bay Area and graduated from San Francisco State University with degrees in political science and black studies. He's since become a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a leading voice on immigration equality. But from the moment he landed at Los Angeles International Airport at the age of 12 in 1993, he's tried to make sense of how white people operate.
"People of color in this country know more about whiteness than possibly white people know about whiteness," he said.
In fact, it's people of color who have been leading America's cultural conversation on what it means to be white in recent years. Justin Simien, whose 2014 film Dear White People was a critical success, is a black gay man whose film is essentially an open letter from a group of black college students to white America.
"One of the privileges of being white in a white-dominated society is that you get to avoid the topic of race entirely if you choose to, including your own," Simien wrote in an email to Mic. "That said it's been nice to talk with white audience members who saw themselves in my black characters."
For decades, conversations about white people and race were limited to academia. In the early 1990s, critical race theory emerged as a field of study, with pioneering legal scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Derrick Bell arguing for a new way to talk about race and racism in a post-civil rights era. In more recent years, white writers like Tim Wise emerged to push the conversation of race and racial identity among white people, but his efforts were largely consumed by like-minded liberal activists.
But, as the MTV documentary points out, more places in America are becoming so-called "majority-minority" states. The conversation about how white people experience race and to what end has reached a new tenor. It's no longer being had only in classrooms or conference halls, but instead on movie and smartphone screens.
Jeff Chang, whose book, Who We Be: The Colorization of America looks at multiculturalism since the 1960s, says that a new language has developed — like the terms, "anti-black racism" or "white privilege" — to talk about anti-racism, and what it could mean in the future.
"If everyone's a minority, how do you form a majority?" Chang said to Mic. "It's a political question as well. How do you form a new consensus for racial justice when whites are a minority and they're not in charge anymore — there's still whiteness, but how do you transform that when the numbers have shifted?"
Chang also theorizes that the conversation about whiteness is also being fueled by young people of color, particularly students who are no longer content to leave such discussions in the classroom. "The discussions happen on Twitter," Chang said, which leads to peers teaching each other about race.
That, according to Vargas, is an uncomfortable conversation for anyone to have, especially white people. "Your generation is going to have to facilitate a conversation that we've never really had before in this country," Vargas tells a group of students in the film. "That's beyond the simplistic discourse that we have when we talk about race."