September 21, 2020

‘Whiteness Project’ prompts racial talks

Dow uses film to change students’ perspectives. (Kim Iannarone / Staff Photographer)

By Kaitlyn Njoroge
Staff Writer

Filmmaker Whitney Dow shared his interactive documentary, “Whiteness Project,” with the campus community on Thursday, Feb. 15 to prompt discussion amongst the campus community about what it means to be white.

Before showcasing the project itself, which is a culmination of video interviews of white people talking about their racial identities, Dow told the audience how he got to this point in his career.

“I didn’t just arrive here fully formed,” Dow said. “Like everyone, I have a history.”

Dow was raised by academic liberal parents in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father was an ethnographic filmmaker. When Dow was young, he spent a summer working as a counselor at a local YMCA, where most of children were black or Puerto Rican.

One day, Dow decided to take his friends from the YMCA on a trip to a public swimming pool in the north end of Boston. Before the children could even dip their feet in the pool, a group of men surrounded the children and told Dow that if those kids went in the pool, they would get hurt.

“And they didn’t use the word ‘kid,’” Dow said.

This triggered Dow’s self-described “racial epiphany,” when he realized that the narrative he told himself clashed with reality.

“I think that a lot of faculty could relate to that moment of epiphany,” said Susan Ryan, an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies. “Those moments when you realize ‘Oh, the world is not what I thought it was.’”

Dow’s eye-opening moment started his transition from a career in advertising to one as a documentarian, which is how his linear storytelling documentary, “Two Towns of Jasper,” came to fruition.

Dow tackled this film with his black filmmaking partner, Marco Williams. They decided to shoot two different films, one with an all-white crew who would live on the predominantly white side of town, and the other with an all-black crew who would live in the predominantly black side of town.

Dow’s film starkly contrasted Williams’, and the final film was created by interweaving the two together. The filmmakers felt like that was the only way to create scenes that accurately reflected reality.

Dow made it clear that he was not trying to argue that white people are only capable of understanding the white perspective, and that people of color are only able to understand the black perspective. Dow wanted people of different ethnicities to engage in a discussion about how race affects them every day.

Dow never thought he had a racial identity. It wasn’t until a seventh grader asked him what he had learned about his racial identity after working with Williams for so many years that Dow realized he had one. He described it as his “red pill in the Matrix moment, where I could suddenly see how my race was impacting all of my social situations.”

From that moment, the Whiteness Project was born. Dow wanted to ask white people questions about racial identity that they had never been asked before.

Dow then asked if a member of the audience could choose one of the video interviews to watch. The audience chose to watch a video of a 22-year-old man named Wade. The video’s thumbnail depicted Wade, complete with his long dreadlocks, piercings and ear gauges, staring directly into the lens, thanks to Dow’s use of a camera called EyeDirect, which came equipped with a series of mirrors that reflected a face in front of the lens.

By filming the videos this way, Dow was able to maintain eye contact with the person throughout the interview, by getting them to look directly into the camera instead of off to the side.

“Somehow, it’s even more intimate than talking to somebody in person, because you’re really focusing on their eyes,” Dow said.

Dow posed a question for his audience after the video played.

“Is having a discussion on whiteness beneficial? Or is it elevating a voice that’s already elevated?” Dow asked.

A member of the crowd who identified herself as a woman of color, believed that a discussion on whiteness was not only beneficial, but important because of its ability to humanize people.

The majority of people who participated throughout the presentation were people of color. Dow saw this pattern during his every presentation he has given on college campuses.

“I would like to have more white people talking, but I think that it’s really hard,” Dow said. “If you’re a person of color, then you’re in the right in the conversation. If you’re white, and you haven’t thought about it, there’s a good chance you’re going to say something stupid. In the social environment of a college, that’s a big risk to take.”

One white male, sophomore communication studies major Johnny Arnao, did raise his hand to speak.

“See how all of you just turned to me when I rose my hand?” Arnao said. “Now I’m the minority in the room, because all of you are looking at me. The white people in the room, we will never understand what it feels like to be in the minority or black.”

After the event, Arnao confessed that this was the first time he had participated in a controlled discussion about race. He expressed his discomfort about how the conversation would settle with his peers.

“I can guarantee you that I’m not going to go up to my group of white friends and say, ‘Hey everybody, be thankful you’re white,’” Arnao said. “It’s just not something that I’m going to say.

Dow is currently a professor at Columbia University, focusing on teaching oral history, documentary and visual storytelling, according to the university’s website. He is also working on a film for documentarian Alex Gibney.

What Dow has already produced for the Whiteness Project is only the beginning. Besides the two towns featured on the website, Buffalo, New York and Dallas, he’s taken his crew to other places with a predominantly white populations such as Battlecreek, Michigan and Richmond, Virginia.

“I like the places to have some sort of a narrative themselves,” Dow said. “They give me an organizing principle around why I’m there.”

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