The Action of Apathy and “The Whiteness Project”

Saturday, panelists on the Melissa Harris Perry Show discussed race in the context of the “Ferguson October” demonstrations that began this weekend, including a recent article detailing the shock many white residents in Ferguson felt at the racial fault lines exposed in this summer’s events. Cora Daniels, author of Impolite Conversations: On Race, Politics, Sex, Money, and Religion, made this point about such “surprise”:

It’s different to just say you’re surprised, which is a passive act, [than] to move to the action of apathy. And I think that’s what we’re seeing in that [Washington Post] story. It’s not just that people are surprised, that they’re like: “Well, I don’t get it.” That’s a very deliberate action, that you’re not valuing the experience or trusting–you’re surprised you don’t see it. But we’re telling you this is what’s happening.

“The action of apathy.”

Apathy as an active and on-going choice to not-see, to not-listen.

*     *    *     *     *

This idea was still dancing around my head this morning, when I began to see mentions in my social media sites about the new PBS series “The Whiteness Project: Inside the White/Caucasasian Box.”

image via mic.com
image via mic.com

“The Whiteness Project” is a video series in which filmmaker Whitney Dow travels around the country and interviews 1,000 white people on how they feel about their race. You can watch the series trailer here. [Disclaimer: Any resemblance to an article from The Onion, past or present, appears purely coincidental.] (h/t Colorlines)

Dow’s artistic statement on the project’s website starts off not so bad:

The project’s goal is 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.

And then quickly leaves the rails, ending up here (emphasis added):

America, despite its history (or perhaps because of it), has been a leader in confronting issues of race. While deep racial fissures do exist in American society—as evidenced by recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and in reactions to the shooting of Trayvon Martin and to affirmative action court rulings—it is hard to imagine any other white-majority country embracing and celebrating the wide range of ethnicities and cultures that make up the nation and electing a biracial president to govern them all.

Yup, you heard that right. White Americans want you to know some of our best friends favorite presidents are black. (Or at least biracial.)

image via mic.com
image via mic.com

Dow and his participants seem to be mistaking “discussions about race” for some grade-school Multicultural Fair, where everybody’s ethnic heritage gets “embraced and celebrated” by folks as they eat tacos, listen to Louis Armstrong on the CD player, and admire the tipi diorama made by Mrs. Lewis’ 3rd grade class. (Would they feel better if we gave them a hot dog and apple pie to eat, sitting at the bench table underneath the Flags of the World posters colored in by kindergarteners?) 

Apathy is an active and on-going choice.

Racial ignorance by white Americans is an active and on-going choice. 

*     *    *     *     *

“I believe that the country is not just ready for a discussion on whiteness, but is hungry for it.”  (WP’s Artistic Statement)

The country is already having this discussion. Ferguson is burning down over this discussion. Parents are burying their slaughtered children over this discussion.

When people say, “This is what it is to be Black in America,” they are also telling us about whiteness. They are telling us about the terrorizing effects of white supremacy and unacknowledged white privilege.

“I recognize that the idea of whiteness, or white privilege, is an uncomfortable one. The term ‘white privilege’ itself feels pejorative and like something whose very recognition demands an admission of some kind of guilt.” (TWP’s Artistic Statement)

Let me be clear: I have white privilege. I benefit every day from historical, structural, and embedded social realities that amplify my achievements and minimize my transgressions. The only guilt I feel relative to these facts is when I take advantage of these inequities through my own careless–occasionally willful–ignorance. No one is telling me to feel guilty.

They are telling me to listen.

They are telling me to change.

Apathy and ignorance are active and on-going choices. 

*     *    *     *     *

Ideas of whiteness and blackness underlie every aspect of the American imaginary. This massive dialectical dance has been central to the Grand Experiment since the beginning. This does not make them equal partners. This does not mean that whites need to be invited to join a conversation they have been excluded from, lest their feelings be hurt, nor that once everyone is comfortably seated, we can all begin some dialogue between two equal (if somewhat opposed) sides.

Race is not about two (or more) equal sides. Race is not a conversation somebody forgot to invite the white folks to.

I give these examples not to make moral or absolute equivalences between the types of harm done. Only to say: in cases of harm, in situations of privilege, there is no Equivalence Between Sides. Race relations in the U.S. are harmful. Violent. Abusive.

If we–as white citizens of this country–are not already aware of the role we play in either upholding or dismantling this abuse, pardon me if I am less than on-board with the idea that we need a PBS film project to “encourage [us] to become fully vested participants in the ongoing debate.”

To Not See–to Not Know–to Not Listen–is to choose apathy, and all its attendant harms.

Choose better. 

Do better. 


ADDITIONAL READING on “The Whiteness Project”

From The Daily Dot: On the Whiteness Project, white people talk about being white, by Miles Klee

From mic.com: White People Are Unironically Talking About the White Experience in New PBS Documentary, by Tom McKay

One thought on “The Action of Apathy and “The Whiteness Project”

  1. “America, despite its history (or perhaps because of it), has been a leader in confronting issues of race. While deep racial fissures do exist in American society—as evidenced by recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and in reactions to the shooting of Trayvon Martin and to affirmative action court rulings—it is hard to imagine any other white-majority country embracing and celebrating the wide range of ethnicities and cultures that make up the nation and electing a biracial president to govern them all.”

    Perhaps Dow knows of another America, maybe in an alternate universe, as the place being described is not the America I live in…

    Liked by 1 person

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