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The Whiteness Project: Facing Race In A Changing America

Whiteness Project participants were filmed talking about race. The project doesn't use their names, to encourage frankness. (Feral Films, Inc.)

The voices in the Whiteness Project vary by gender, age and income, but they all candidly express what it is like to be white in an increasingly diverse country.

"I don't feel that personally I've benefited from being white. That's because I grew up relatively poor," a participant shared. "My father worked at a factory." These are the kinds of unfiltered comments that filmmaker Whitney Dow was hoping to hear when he started recording a group of white people, and hoped to turn their responses into provocative, interactive videos.

"I was essentially giving people permission to discuss this," he says. "And I believe there's a huge hunger in this country to engage this topic."

Dow discovered he had his own issues with race when he and his frequent collaborator, African-American director Marco Williams, spoke to a group of Chicago students a few years ago. A girl in the seventh grade asked him what he had learned about his white identity through working with Williams. "I realized I hadn't thought a lot about my own white identity," he explains.

It made Dow wonder whether white people might examine their racial identity more if they had a jumping-off point and a safe place to speak. He put out a call for interested white folks in Buffalo to talk about whiteness on tape. He worked with an all-white crew, and recorded without listing names in the hope this would encourage his subjects to be frank.

One participant shared his "honest opinion that today, the white race is the one that is being discriminated against." He goes on: "I've taken exams to get into skilled trade fields, such as electrician, machine shop-machinist. Scored well on the exams and stuff, but didn't get into those jobs because minorities had to fill 'em."

Dow felt that these testimonies show "a real anxiety about the rapidly shifting demographics in this country." He thinks that residents of more depressed areas like Buffalo "feel the economic pinch of the recession, and they feel like they've been left out."

Dow says it was important for him to set the project outside the South in one of the country's most racially segregated cities. "I really wanted to do something in the North or Northeast," he explains. "Because I feel like so much of the time, when you do something on race, people think of it as a Southern issue, and I really wanted to make it accessible to more people."

But do white Americans want to have that discussion?

"It is not typical for white people to think about their race," says Catherine Orr, who teaches critical identity studies at Beloit College in Wisconsin. She says that many white people who don't feel privileged struggle against the notion that race gives them an inherent advantage. "I think white folks are terribly invested in our own innocence," she points out. "We don't want to think about how what we have is related to what other people don't have."

Whitney Dow says the Whiteness Project is a first step for white people to begin to think about how race is linked to privilege — and to consider what they may have in common with the people in the videos. "I think it would be interesting for people to look at it and examine why perhaps some of those things that they may even agree with or wrestle with, why it makes them so uncomfortable," he says.

Dow would ultimately like to travel the country and make videos of 1,000 white Americans talking about race. He hopes the conversation continues even after the camera stops rolling.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Take a group of white people, get them to talk candidly about race and turn their responses into provocative videos. That's "The Whiteness Project" from the POV series at PBS. Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Codeswitch Team has this report.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: The voices in "The White Project" vary by gender, age and income.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE WHITENESS PROJECT")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I don't feel that personally I've benefited from being white, again, just because I grew up relatively poor.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: If we're going to talk about black men in general - very beautiful people - so when you smile and you say hello they take that as a opening to approach. And it's just not comfortable.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm very socially active. Why do I not hang around with or see - or why am I only primarily around white people?

GRIGSBY BATES: Those unfiltered comments are what filmmaker Whitney Dow was going for when he began "The Whiteness Project."

WHITNEY DOW: I'm essentially giving people permission to discuss this. And and I believe that there's a huge hunger in this country to engage this topic.

GRIGSBY BATES: Dow discovered he had his own issues with race when he and his frequent collaborator African-American director Marco Williams spoke to a group of Chicago students a few years ago.

DOW: A seventh-grade girl asked me a question about my white identity. And she asked me what I learned about my racial identity working with Marco. And I realized at that point that despite working on projects that dealt with race, I really hadn't examined my own white identity.

GRIGSBY BATES: That's how "The Whiteness Project" began. Dow believed that more white people might examine their racial identity if they had a jumping-off point and a safe place speak. So he put out a call for interested white folks in Buffalo to talk about whiteness on tape. He worked with an all-white crew in the hopes that this would encourage his subjects to be frank. They were.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE WHITENESS PROJECT")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: It's my honest opinion that today the white race is the one that's discriminated against anymore. I've taken exams to get into skilled trade fields, such as electrician, machine-shop machinist. Scored well on the exams and stuff, but didn't get picked for the apprenticeship program to get into those fields because minorities had to fill 'em.

GRIGSBY BATES: Whitney Dow says some of the people he interviewed feel anxious about the country's shifting demographics and left out of the national conversation about that. They want to be heard. Dow says it was important for him to set the project outside the South, and Buffalo is one of the country's most racially segregated cities.

DOW: I really wanted to do something in the North or Northeast, because I feel like so many of the times, when people do something on race in America, they think of it as a Southern issue. And I really wanted to make it accessible to more people.

GRIGSBY BATES: But do more white Americans want to have that conversation?

CATHERINE ORR: It is not typical for white people to think about their race.

GRIGSBY BATES: Catherine Orr teaches critical identity studies at Beloit College in Wisconsin. She says that many white people who don't feel privilege struggle against the notion that race gives them an inherent advantage.

ORR: I think white folks are very invested in their own innocence. We don't want to think about how what we have is again related to what other people don't have.

GRIGSBY BATES: Filmmaker Dow hopes "The Whiteness Project" will be a first step for white people to begin to think about how race is linked to privilege and to consider what they may have in common with the people in the videos.

DOW: I think it'd be interesting for people to look at it and examine why perhaps some of those things that they may even agree with or wrestle with - why it makes them so uncomfortable.

GRIGSBY BATES: Dow ultimately would like to travel the country and make videos of 1,000 white Americans talking about race. And he hopes that that conversation continues even after the camera stops rolling. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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