When a South Carolina judge appealed for compassion for a suspected mass murderer’s white parents—people who likely reminded him of himself—instead of focusing on the nine black lives violently snuffed out and their loved ones left behind, it was a stark reminder that some can connect only with those who look like them.
In fact, this is a resounding complaint of many minorities who wonder why so many white Americans defend the over-policing of black communities and other systemic racism, seemingly unable to put themselves in the shoes of nonwhites.
Now MTV’s documentary White People, which airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. EDT, introduces viewers to several white Americans who have learned a little something about discrimination after inserting themselves into environments where they are the minority.
Dakota, a white student from a majority-white town, is one such example. He opted to attend an HBCU, despite concerns from those in his community.
Samantha has also experienced a taste of minority life. She’s a teacher on a Native American reservation, where her students still cope with the aftereffects of manifest destiny.
“We’ve never had to internalize what white people have done in America,” she admitted. “Here, you can’t escape that.”
In a situation where she’s forced to acknowledge daily that the birth of a nation occurred only because others were obliterated, Samantha and her white colleagues are learning that what happened so many years ago isn’t just something people can easily “get over” in the present day, no matter how many times Fox News pundits urge selective amnesia.
Although Samantha’s occupation forces her to deal with some of the complexities of race in America, during the MTV documentary—part of the network’s Look Different campaign to encourage discussion on race—viewers will meet several other white people who opt for comfort over tackling the touchy subject.
Lucas, who teaches a white-privilege workshop to other members of his demographic group, doesn’t mind talking to a room full of open- or like-minded people, but when it comes to broaching the subject with his conservative, Bill O’Reilly-loving stepdad, he avoids the confrontation.
The documentary is proof that unlike the millions of minority-group members in this country who can never fully avoid the topic of race because they’re confronted with stereotypes, prejudices and racism on a regular basis, some whites—the “default” race, as one young girl put it—choose not to think about it at all.
More than one white person in the show expressed discomfort and awkwardness when attempting to discuss race, like the young man who couldn’t quite get the words out when asked how his life might be different if he had been born with darker skin.
As for Lucas’ stepfather, who had no idea he was offending his stepson with his views, he chose not to even entertain the opinions of others when he Googled “white privilege.” He didn’t like how it all made him feel, so he exercised what is arguably the greatest benefit of his privilege: just opting to ignore others’ struggles. “Most of the stuff that I saw was so slanted against white people,” said one of the oldest people featured in the documentary. “You get a bad, bad feeling. I can’t listen to this person … ”
Life would be easier for many if they could just silence the painful chatter and move on, but there are countless minorities who also experience bad feelings, and not just when they research topics on race. Those emotions pop up when they are denied opportunities based on stereotypes, when they experience harassment by authority figures while engaging in everyday errands and when they’re burying their bullet-riddled loved ones with little hope of justice.
For them, unlike some in the documentary, the effects of racism aren’t just about uncomfortable feelings. They’re about survival. In many cases, they are literally a matter of life and death. That’s a realization that few in the White People documentary will ever likely fully understand.