The Pulitzer Prize-winning, openly gay journalist, activist, and undocumented immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas's documentary White People debuted last night on MTV. The film follows Vargas, who came to America from the Philippines at the age of 12, as he travels the country discussing whiteness, race, and immigration in an increasingly diverse America. Part of MTV’s Look Different campaign, the film couldn't come at a better time — as Americans continue to struggle with shootings and killings that are race-based or motivated, the Confederate Flag's meaning is debated, Donald Trump spouts off vitriol about Mexican immigrants (and more), and a woman working for the NAACP gets called out for not being legally "black."
In some ways, the film was aimed directly at the idea of "white privilege," something many people feel uncomfortable discussing or mentioning. When asked about that in a New York Times interview, Vargas responded:
"I think people get tripped up by the word 'privilege.' I’m talking about systematic institutionalized differences. I had a lot of people writing me emails saying, I’m not privileged. For example, this weekend I was with Martin O’Malley in front of progressive liberal activists. Responding to the 'Black Lives Matter' protest at the conference, he said: 'Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter.' And the audience, which was diverse, gasped. They actually booed him. Because institutionally, if you look at incarceration rates, if you look at the criminal justice system, black people are at a disadvantage. So the moment he said that, he took it back and apologized. And some people took offense to that. Why did Martin O’Malley have to apologize for saying white lives matter? And this woman on Twitter was genuinely hurt; her tweet to me was, 'My white life matters.' And I tweeted back at her and I was like, 'Of course it does.' Of course it does, but your life mattering has been a given."
Vargas doesn't equivocate when it comes to the statements Donald Trump, a presidential candidate, made about immigrants: "It’s incredibly irresponsible. It’s incredibly dangerous. And it’s racist, pure and simple." And as for Rachel Dolezal, who passed herself off as African-American for years, he states: "For me, that’s an example of what white privilege is. She can pass. There are many black people who can say that they are white as much as they can but who will never look physically white."
The hashtag #WhitePeople started trending on Twitter on Wednesday night when the film debuted on MTV. And Vargas engaged with his critics and fans via Twitter, often in a sassy way, defending and explaining to those watching.
— Jose Antonio Vargas (@joseiswriting) July 23, 2015
Vargas explained to MTV in anticipation of the film's premiere: “So much of what you learn when you come to this country, you learn it from what you watch, what you read and what you listen to. You get the idea from society that white is good and black is not good and I was fascinated by that. For me, this film has been working in my head since I arrived here.”
So now that the film has aired, what's next? In an interview with ETOnline, Vargas explained that he has another project that will possibly address the LGBT movement:
"This is the second film that I directed but my first TV special, and I hope to do more. Define America has established a presence in L.A. to better engage Hollywood and how producers, directors, screenwriters and actors represent immigrants, both documented and undocumented. We want to help integrate the immigrant story in the same way the LGBT movement did. The battle for LGBT rights started in culture. When the culture shifts, the politics shift."
Watch the full documentary below: