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New 'Whiteness Project' shows millennials struggling with identity

There has been a lot of buzz about the so-called disaffected white voter, but not a lot of investigation into white people's relationship with their own race.
Whitney Dow's “Intersection of I,” features a interviews with 23 millennials from Dallas, Texas sharing their views on race and identity. (Courtesy of Whiteness Project)
Whitney Dow's “Intersection of I,” features a interviews with 23 millennials from Dallas, Texas sharing their views on race and identity.

This election season there has been a lot of buzz about the so-called disaffected white voter, but not a lot of investigation into what actually constitutes a white person these days.

For instance, according to the Pew Research Center, census data has shown that more than a million people of “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin” changed their racial listing to white between 2000 and 2010. Meanwhile demographic shifts have experts predicting that the U.S. will be a "majority-minority" country as early as 2020, a reality which appears to have provoked a great deal of fear and anger within certain segments of the white population.

Amid this period of anxiety, when polling suggests that most Americans see racial tensions on the rise, director Whitney Dow is releasing the second installment of his provocative documentary series "The Whiteness Project." "Intersection of I" features 23 interviews with millennials based in Dallas, Texas, who all identify as white. They come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, have varied sexual orientations and gender identities, but they all tell their stories direct to camera in same fashion, with statistics provided at the end of each segment to give their viewpoints context.

The series of testimonials is striking in how it reveals the complex and tortured relationships some white people have with their own race. There's 18-year-old Nick who identifies at white even though he has a Mexican mother ("I have to hide who I am," he says), 17-year-old Nathan who says the "hardest thing" to be in America is a "white, Christian male," and 22-year-old Wade who is "not necessarily happy" that's he white and who bristles at prejudiced people at his place of work.

"White people are really hungry to have this discussion, to find a way to participate in conversations about race, because I think they don’t know how to," Dow, who is white, told MSNBC on Tuesday. "They think a conversation about race is a conversation about people of color. Identity is an equation, and whiteness is the piece of the equation that is often not examined and left unsaid."

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The challenge, according to Dow, is that, in his experience, most white people are not accustomed to thinking of themselves as a group and tend to focus on individual actions and consequences. So for example, some white Americans saw recent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, as the result of the deadly confrontation between Michael Brown and officer Darren Wilson in 2014, which many of them felt resulted in a justified use of force, when in reality the predominantly black community was reacting to years of discriminatory police practices that had finally come to a head.

When it comes to this year's election — during which the Trump campaign in particular has made racially tinged appeals to what he calls the "silent majority" — there are white voters who think they are the more racially oppressed segment of society, despite earning higher wages on average, for instance. These people appear to view conversations around white privilege as a zero sum game, where the inclusion and success of minority groups will somehow detract from their own.

"The perception is at odds with reality," said Dow. "That does not mean that there isn’t a certain portion of the [white] population that isn’t being left behind." According to Dow, these white Americans are "looking for reasons why this is happening to them," and while older generations may be scapegoating external factors for their own economic malaise, millennials are much more conscious of intersectionality and structural racism.

The experience of interviewing 15- to 27-year-olds was edifying for Dow, who grew up at a time when white privilege was not a commonly used term and there was no discussion about gender being fluid. These young people have a diversity of thought, but they all share a desire to have their identities accepted and valued on their own terms, which may be a break from generations past. And the nature of the footage, which is minimalist and only features the subject's voice, provides audiences with an intimate ability to witness moments of self-discovery firsthand.

While Dow admits to having some trepidation about shining a spotlight on subjects who are so young, he argues the focus from criticism and skepticism should be on him, not the people he interviewed. "This is really my statement, if you want to come after someone, come after me," he said.

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Dow has been making films on the thorny subject of race for decades but he embarked on this venture two years ago because he "wanted to do things that related to me and my community and how I fit into the equation." When he first approached potential funders about the concept of an investigation into whiteness they presumed it was a "joke," but when the first installment debuted — which featured white residents of Buffalo, New York, sounding off on race — he appeared to strike a nerve. The interviews, and the subsequent coverage they received, brought forth an outpouring of messages from viewers who had their own racial epiphanies.

"White people’s relationship to their own whiteness is very complex, and it's in flux and they’re trying to process it," said Dow. The revelatory nature of the project us personal for him, too. "Most white people hold pieces of even the worst things said in the videos in them," he added. "I see myself in almost everybody up there. You can be guilty for the way you live your life, not necessarily the way you’re born."

His goal has been to engage his own community, which hasn't historically seen themselves in a racial context, and provide them an opportunity to reframe their identities in a rapidly evolving environment. "Intersection of I," which will be featured in an interactive installation at the Tribeca Film Festival starting this Thursday, could provide another opportunity to bridge cultural divides.

"I really hope that it’s transformational in some way," Dow said. "At the very most basic level ... I'd like for white people to recognize that they live racialized lives. Having that recognition really transforms your experience in the world."