MTV’s ‘White People’ Documentary Sticks to the Superficial and Comes Up Short

When MTV announced White People, and when the trailer for it was first released, the documentary’s existence was met with uncomfortable laughter, genuine derision, and some bafflement. It seemed totally improbable that any network — especially MTV — could explore this subject with any accuracy or nuance. While it’s not as bad as many predicted, White People still isn’t worth the watch.

White People,  which airs tonight, is from Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize winner and, as he mentions, an undocumented immigrant. It’s certainly a noble attempt at bringing the race conversation to the foreground, and Vargas is, sometimes, the right person for the job. (At other times, he is gently egging on his subjects to say racist things or he focuses too briefly on them, in moments that ultimately lead nowhere.) Race is something that people need to discuss — and this is infinitely more true for white people who claim they “don’t see color,” whatever that means. It’s far easier, and much more convenient,  to wave these discussions away under the guise of colorblindness (which is something Vargas brings up later in the documentary) than to actually discuss them. Which, most simplistically, is what White People aims to do. It doesn’t exactly succeed.

There are two major problems with the documentary: It is extremely short — about 40 minutes without commercials, making it feel more like an MTV True Life episode than an actual, insightful documentary — and it pulls too many of its punches, never fully committing to getting to the heart of its subject. At one point, Dakota, a Southern white man who goes to a Historically Black College, brings home two black college friends to meet his white friends. They’re supposed to be having a frank discussion of race over dinner — one white girl admits to once crossing the street whenever she saw a black person, though, she quickly adds, she doesn’t do that anymore; one black girl begins crying when talking about how she hates the word “ghetto” — but the scene is abrupt and framed in a way that verges on cutesy: Look at this white girl proudly admitting her past racism and bragging about how she’s reformed! “Isn’t it amazing,” Vargas marvels out loud, “the power of these words?” That’s not an honest conversation about race. It’s a superficial after-school special, or a brief lesson in an elementary school classroom.

Jose in a dicussion with young peopleAnother segment of the documentary finds Vargas visiting a school where all of the students are Native American but most of the teachers are white. Both students and teachers are aware of this unique and sometimes troubling dynamic. One student says, “[The teachers] always talk about the good things white people did,” while another, when tasked with writing down stereotypes of white people, sadly says, “They’re mean to us.” A different segment puts Vargas in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, examining the tensions between the newish Asian immigrants and the oldish Italian immigrants. Vargas does try to explore the other side, as well, when he asks white people to name reasons why they are at a disadvantage; the only substantive response he gets involves scholarships, and he then sets out to disprove it. None of these segments stay in their setting or with their subjects long enough to provide anything particularly deep or thought-provoking; mostly, they convey some basic uncomfortableness before shrugging and moving on to the next topic.

Throughout the documentary, Vargas speaks with an audience full of young people about race, with white people bravely saying what we already know — “I can walk to a convenience store and back without getting hassled by the police” or “I’ve never experienced systemic oppression.” It’s clear the white people in attendance are trying their best to be honest and open, and even to learn more about their own privilege, but Vargas doesn’t spend enough time with them to make these conversations seem any deeper than just casual acknowledgements.

Some of the problems with White People (and the way a few of its subjects come off) are clearly due to the fact that the documentary is a product of its network. It has the splashy graphics, quick transitions, and hesitance to really dive deep, choosing instead to tell us what we already know, like most of MTV’s programming. (It would function better as a pilot episode to a multi-part docuseries on race than as a standalone special.) I suppose White People is aiming to appeal to MTV’s young demographic, but it operates in a way that implies MTV doesn’t trust that its viewers are smart enough to handle something better, deeper, and even more uncomfortable. The result is a noble attempt that, as executed, barely skims the surface.