Another 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.