Why Dow’s “The Whiteness Project” is Important
Last week, PBS released The Whiteness Project. A torrent of criticism erupted over Twitter and across the internet, charging the director Whitney Dow with placing White people into minority status. What’s missing from all of the criticism is that White people generally don’t talk about Whiteness, and also Whitney Dow’s meaning behind this project.
The idea of people examining Whiteness isn’t a new concept. It’s at the core of critical race theory, especially under the influence of James Baldwin. Baldwin actually demands that White people examine thier Whiteness and why they (all of White Supremacy) needed to invent Blackness. Why? Race is a social construction designed to discern those who are allowed power — or at least a promised power. Being White is supposed to allow those who are “deserving of power” to reign over those who are not White. But, what is Whiteness, anyway?
One thought is that as a rule, people of color can’t be racist against White people. For most critical theorists and left-leaning persons this rings true, as racism is prejudice + privilege/power. Yet, Whiteness is so slippery that this rule is immediately broken when talking about racism against White people who are of Middle Eastern or Eastern European descent. No one is going to say, for example, that Latinos or Black Americans can’t be racist against Palestinians or Jews. But, are Palestinians White, as they don’t have the same power as White Americans?
It depends on whom you ask. Some people “Whiten” Palestinians and others “Brown” them, but who has this power to color others? Who gets to decide these things? Who are the arbiters of White Supremacy? It’s usually other White people, but not always.
However, in order to move beyond Whiteness, it’s important for White people to examine what it means to be White. Part of this will actually be White people talking about what it’s like for them to be White, so that they can get a grasp on what this phenomenon is.
Whitney Dow has a long history of examining race. His films Two Towns of Jasper, When the Drums are Beating, and I Sit Where I Want all examine the intricacies of race and colonialism. Two Tone Productions (founded by Dow and Marco Williams) in their own words serves “to create films, curriculum and web-based content, which address issues of race and difference.”
So, rather than jumping the gun and deriding The Whiteness Project, let’s learn from the project. Their artist statement says “Most people take for granted that there is a “white” race in America, but rarely is the concept of whiteness itself investigated. What does it mean to be a “white”? Can it be genetically defined? Is it a cultural construct? A state of mind? How does one come to be deemed “white” in America and what privileges does being perceived as white bestow?” Answering these questions and investigating whiteness puts us on a path to dismantling White supremacy altogether.