We Interviewed the Filmmaker Behind ‘The Whiteness Project’
Last Friday, a link began rapidly circulating on Twitter to an interactive multimedia documentary called the Whiteness Project, which was apparently an “investigation into how Americans who identify as ‘white’ experience their ethnicity.” The documentary featured intimate interviews with 21 people from Buffalo, New York, discussing race in a frank and often cringeworthy fashion. “For some reason, some black people hold on to the back-in-the-day slave thing,” a manidentitifed as “Jason” says. “Should slavery be something that because it happened we owe black people more? Absolutely not.” Another woman expresses her fear at how “black men in general” take a smile as an “invitation to approach.” A third white whines, “I mean, come on, you can’t even talk about fried chicken or Kool-Aid without wondering if someone’s going to get offended.” Each interview is bookended with a relevant statistic that examines how white Americans view race in North America. The online reaction was swift, incredulous, andunforgiving.
But upon closer inspection, the project is more complex and original than it first appears, and the man behind it has a legitimate track record documenting sensitive racial issues. Along with his African-American producing partner Marco Williams, Whitney Dow has spent the last 16 years specializing in films that attempt to unearth and illuminate uncomfortable racial truths and gray areas, beginning in 1998 with Two Towns of Jasper, a film analyzing the lead-up to and aftermath of the brutal, racially-motivated dragging death of James Byrd, Junior at the hands of two Texas white supremacists.
The Whiteness Project is funded through PBS’s POV Interactive Shorts program, and Buffalo’s 21 interviews are just the first piece of a project that plans to interview over 1,000 white Americans about their views on race.
With controversy swirling and the project garnering several hundred thousand views since Friday, we decided to chat with Dow over Skype to discuss the process of casting the project, how Barack Obama’s presidency has or hasn’t changed the way we talk about race, and what he thinks about the fact that white liberals are probably the biggest critics he’s faced.
VICE: First of all, what prompted this idea?
Whitney Dow: I did a film in 2003 called Two Towns of Jasper. Along with my producing partner Marco, I did a lot of talks around the country, and we were asked to give a speech for this organization called Facing History in Ourselves. They structured it by having all these seventh graders interview us. At that point, I’d been working on the film for five years, I’d donetons of talking about it, writing about it, thinking about it, and I really thought I knew a lot about myself and race because making the film with Marco was one of the most difficult, interesting, and just self-revealing processes you could possibly imagine.
This little girl got up and said, “Whitney, what did you learn about your own racial identity working with Marco?”
I had this epiphany where I suddenly realized, I don’t have a racial identity… But oh my God, of course I have a racial identity. I have the most powerful racial identity on the motherfucking planet. And despite all the work I had done, all my talk about it, all my bullshit, until that moment, I hadn’t really processed it in a real way where I recognized it. It sounds really fucking corny, but it was like having some sort of conversion experience. With that knowledge, all of a sudden, I started to see the world in such a different way. It was kind of like getting X-ray glasses. Once I became conscious that my race was an active component of my everyday experience, that it was an active dynamic thing that I controlled that impacted me, it fundamentally changed the way I saw the world and interacted with people.
Heil Hipster: German Nipsters (Neo-Nazi Hipsters) Are Trying to Put a Stylish Face on Hate
This winter, the German media came up with a new term, “nipster,” to describe the trend of people dressing like Brooklyn hipsters at Nazi events. Experts have noted that the German neo-Nazi presence on Tumblr and other social networking sites has become sleeker and more sophisticated. Neo-Nazi clothing has become more stylish and difficult to recognize. There’s even a vegan Nazi cooking show. “If the definition of the nipster is someone who can live in the mainstream, then I see it as the future of the movement.”
Black Israelites Say Whites Are Possessed by the Devil
In case you missed it, neo-Nazis were supposed to take New York City, and much of America, by storm on March 15. It was all part of a scheme hatched on the white-supremacist chat rooms of Stormfront. They called for a national “white man’s March.” Unsurprisingly, the planned nationwide protest ended up being a complete dud. I know, because I spent the day scouring Manhattan looking for fascists.
They were no shows at Grand Army Plaza near Central Park, where they had planned to congregate. Nor were they on hand in Queens, where they had advertised a barbecue party that day in front of the outlet strip mall on Jamaica Avenue, which is heavily trafficked by African Americans and West Indians. The only other white person around on Jamaica Avenue that afternoon, besides myself, was a dude handing out yoga-studio flyers. Instead of hitting the streets, many of this country’s racist white folks rang in “white man’s March” by lazily posting photos of themselves holding white-pride banners on the internet.
But that’s not to say I didn’t find racists on March 15; they just weren’t white. In Queens, I came upon a group of about a dozen individuals lined up in a row, wearing purple robes with faux-gold edging in front of the Jamaica Center shopping complex.
If you live in a major American city, you may have encountered a variation of the scene I witnessed: men who look like they’ve wandered off the set of an all–African American production of Jesus Christ Superstar, soapboxing on the street corner to puzzled passersby. While the first rule of advertising is to keep it short, with these guys the message travels a long, windy route through the Book of Deuteronomy and other texts before arriving at the takeaway: Black people are the real Jews, and white people are possessed by Satan.
When I asked the strange group of men who was in charge, I was directed toward a robed gentleman who said, “People call us the Black Israelites. But that’s not right. We are the Israelites.”
Their garments read “Israelites United in Christ” in a font that looked as if it had been borrowed from a poster for Disney’s Aladdin. There on the street, one fellow read from a Bible, overseen keenly by a preacher who would interrupt him periodically and interpret the text. The gist of the message from what I could gather was, “Down with the white man’s science.”
Two protesters outside last weekend’s white nationalist summit in Washington DC’s Ronald Reagan building, being ironic.
Some Well-Dressed White Nationalists Got Together in DC Last Weekend
The worst part about going to a white nationalist conference is when everyone thinks you’re a white nationalist.
As I approached the Ronald Reagan Building in downtown Washington, DC, on Saturday morning, a group of protesters started jeering at me, and one hoisted a cardboard sign in my direction that read: “Fuck off, Nazis!” Then I had to pass through a metal detector and security checkpoint manned by several black policemen.
Hey guys, boy am I excited to cover this event, I wanted to say. Because I am covering this event, as a journalist, certainly not because I’m a crypto-fascist.
The event in question was the National Policy Institute’s “leadership conference,” titled “After the Fall: The Future of Identity.” It’s a boring name that, like a lot of vague monikers used by political entities, conceals an alarming agenda.
The National Policy Institute is a white nationalist think tank. These aren’t Breaking Bad Nazis or yokels in KKK robes. These are suit-and-tie white separatists—academic-sounding fellows who speak grimly about “preserving European culture” from the swarthy tide of egalitarianism and immigration. Their leader, Richard Spencer, is as clean-cut as they come, which, as he told Salon, is essentially a recruitment tactic:
“’[White separatists] have to look good,’ Spencer said, adding that if his movement means ‘being part of something that is crazed or ugly or vicious or just stupid, no one is going to want to be a part of it.’”
The assumption is that if they dress nice, people will follow Spencer and his fellow travelers on their road to a white ethno-state where pasty people can listen to Jack Johnson records and play Frisbee in glorious racial homogeneity.
Here’s What’s Happening on the Internet’s Most Racist Forums
These days, you can call someone a cum bubble that was sharted out of a dead hooker’s crusty asshole and chances are you’ll walk away with a high five. But call someone the N-word, and you’ll be dropped faster than Paula Deen’s hottest potato. Racism really is the last taboo—and that’s a good thing. In fact, earlier this month, Slate examined the waxing and waning power of profanities over time and concluded that cuss words related to religion (“damn,” “hell”) and body functions (“dick,” “shit”) are losing their shock value, while racial slurs are becoming more and more provocative. In other words, as we become more secular, immune to gore, and open to freaky porn, we’re also becoming less OK with bigotry. Again, this is a very good thing.
This Week in Racism: Reverse Racism
I’ve gotten a lot of complaints in the last few weeks from my loyal readers. Some of you out there seem to think that I’ve been remiss in my duties as the foremost expert on racism. That’s totally fine. I accept your judgment. I love all of you equally. I even love those of you who say, “Dave Schilling is a total piece of shit with no brain cells to his name” or “I bet Dave Schilling has a really small dick.” I honestly love you folks, too.
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: My penis is the normal size, OK?]
The complaint I’ve gotten most in my time writing this column is that I never highlight instances of minorities being racist toward white people, a.k.a. “reverse racism.” Somehow, I’m a bigot for “ignoring” all the multitude of stories in the world about roving gangs of black teenagers menacing old grannies in the suburbs, or all the black police officers beating up defenseless white guys in tank tops. Please feel free to send these mythical unicorn stories to me on Twitter. I look forward to the motherload of responses I’m sure to get.
In the meantime, I have decided to answer your prayers and dedicate this week’s column to the men and women single-handedly keeping the ridiculous notion of reverse racism alive. I will be ranking news stories on a scale from 1 to REVERSE RACIST, with 1 being the least reverse racist and REVERSE RACIST being the most reverse racist.
An Interview with a Gay, Russian Neo-Nazi
An image from the Gay Aryan Skinheads (G.A.S.H) VK page.
A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed someone from the Malaysian neo-Nazi scene. The whole concept of Malay neo-Nazis was confusing, because a pretty dominant part of the Nazi shtick was hating anyone who wasn’t white, and people from Malaysia normally aren’t white. However, it turned out that the notoriously strict Nazi ideology wasn’t too much of an issue in this case, and that the Malay Nazis could carry on sieg-heiling and wearing swastikas despite the fact they aren’t Aryan because they really hate immigrants, or something.
Another group of neo-Nazis not bothering to adhere to Hitler’s guidelines on who to hate are those involved in the Russian gay neo-Nazi skinhead movement. As you might recall from being within spitting distance of any history textbook ever, the Führer and his Third Reich buddies weren’t too keen on either Russians or homosexuals—an estimated 100,000 of the latter were arrested between 1933 and 1945, with 5,000 to 15,000 eventually being sent to perish in concentration camps.
Much like the Malays, minor historical details like rampant persecution and horrific genocide have apparently been forgotten by the Russians. The first such group I came across were the Gay Union of Patriots of Russia, whose members spout bizarre theories about how only gay men can be true Russian patriots. I also learned that there was a group called Gay Aryan National-Socialists and another called GASH (Gay Aryan Skinheads). That last one had the best ring to it, so I tracked down a member, Balu, on VK.com—a Facebook equivalent that’s big in Russia—and had a chat about the gay Russian Nazi scene.
VICE: Hi Balu. Can you say a bit about the ideology behind G.A.S.H?
Balu: Our ideology consists of clearing the planet of “dirty” nationalities. We fight for purity of blood, for white skin color and for strong and beautiful people. We don’t accept white guys or white girls who hook up with black men. It is disgusting to observe such interracial unions. Why share your life with such rejects when there are healthy white guys?
Because there are also healthy people from lots of different races. You know, most people don’t equate Nazism with homosexuality. Why do you think this is?
I think it’s based on a stereotype and, initially, heterosexuals prevailed in the nationalist movement. Also, public opinion calls nationalists rough barbarians, murderers, and so on, so observers from outside probably think that the nationalist has to be a strong, fearless street fighter, and gays represent gentleness, kindness, and harmlessness. In the public imagination, it doesn’t make sense that men who prefer the beautiful and glamorous side of life can fight for their rights and ideas.