(A Documentary Analysis of “White Like Me”)
by Amy Whiting
for Intercultural Comm, Summer 2016
I should warn you in advance, this concept is not new. Evidence of its existence is scattered across everything from your hand-me-down high school history book to a Macklemore song and award-winning movies. In other words, white privilege is not old or outdated. In the documentary White Like Me, anti-racism activist Tim White outlines just what white privilege means and has meant throughout United States history. In this paper, I address how White Like Me discusses the realization of dominant/minority identities and discrimination against black people in the United States. I then analyze relationships between intercultural communication and power. The following sections describe White Like Me, discuss dominant/majority identities and minority issues including discrimination, apply those concepts to White Like Me, and finally analyze the implications and relationship of those concepts to power.
White Like Me details proof of and reasons behind white privilege before and after the civil rights movement in the United States. White begins by narrating his early life growing up in the inner city, when he realized that white teachers were treating him differently than his black classmates. He also discusses his college anti-apartheid activist days. After this introduction, the documentary explores what it means to be white including the historical context of white privilege, “post-racial” thinking, racist implications of the drug war, “reverse racism,” anti-welfare lobbying, the dangers of “color-blind” thinking, and what white people need to do about the reality of their privileged status. Throughout the film he references historical and modern-day proof of discrimination and refers often to students he interviewed and to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, who studies black oppression in the United States.
The documentary deals mainly with course concepts and topics from Intercultural Communication in Contexts related to identity. The words “majority” and “minority” do not refer to the number of people in the groups, but to the privilege that those people experience. (Martin, Nakayama, 2013, p. 180) Another way that the textbook explains this phenomenon is in bonded versus dominant cultures. People consider dominant cultures like “white” the norm whereas bonded cultures have more specific characteristics. (Martin, Nakayama, 2013, p. 191)
The development of majority identities includes naivety towards diversity issues, internalization of a racist ideology, blaming minorities for their own discrimination, and, ideally, appreciation for other cultures. (Martin, Nakayama, 2013, p. 180) In contrast to this, the development of minority identities involves negative attitudes towards their own culture, unequal treatment, resistance of the dominant group, and eventually a strong sense of their own identity.
The struggles for equality between dominant and bonded cultures involve massive discrimination issues, including stereotypes, widely held beliefs about other groups, and discrimination, the denial of equal rights due to stereotypes. (Martin, Nakayama, 2013, p. 291)
White Like Me heavily emphasizes majority privilege and the realization that such a privilege exists. In contrast to systematic advantage of white people, the documentary explores the historical and modern day struggle for equality among black people in the United States.
The realization of majority identity is revisited repeatedly this documentary. It forces white people to examine their previously unexplored identity as a white person. It then encourages them to accept it and move on from blaming minorities for their situations, recognize their privilege, and appreciate the black struggle in the United States, hopefully so that white people can no longer turn a blind eye to racism. This process mirrors the textbook and course concept theories of majority identity realization. Tim White himself explains that he was “blind to his own privileges.” In college, despite attempting to fight against African apartheid, he realized that he was not doing anything to fight for racial equality within his own country. He was not effectively using his white privilege to break the unjust racial barrier that he knew existed in his own country. This is a form of the first stage of majority identity development which Intercultural Communication in Contexts describes — the ambivalence towards your own privilege. Said White, “In a dominant group you don’t have to think about your own privilege.” He later asks students, “What does it mean to be white?” They generally replied that they didn’t know — it just seemed normal, or bland. This demonstrates the dominant ideology. Because white the majority and “norm” for the United States, nobody associated white culture with anything specific. Tim White emphasizes that in order for us to reach the final, ideal stage of majority identity development, we must first accept our own privilege in order to seek to appreciate other cultures.
Often those of a majority culture will go through a stage of blaming minorities for minority discrimination. This is commonplace in our modern world. White Like Me demonstrates this by exploring debates over welfare and claims of reverse racism. Media depictions of people on welfare are overwhelmingly black, despite the reality being that more white people are on welfare. Anti-welfare political views are rampant, with many claiming that those on welfare are choosing to live in poverty so that they can receive welfare. Yet, when welfare was first introduced, media portrayed it as being a white person issue — and so the majority of United States citizens sought to help those in poverty, government interfered, and welfare was put in place. This suggests that there is a negative attitude towards modern welfare systems due to the media portrayal of welfare victims as black. People believe that minorities (black people) are the cause of their own struggles, and so there is less inclination to provide welfare than if media portrayed the majority (white people) as struggling.
Once members of a majority culture are able to recognize their own privilege, what should they do about it? The final stage of majority identity development, as suggested by the textbook, is acceptance of other cultures. Therefore, white people must be aware of black culture and the discrimination against black people. Many people, especially after the election of President Obama, claimed that “racism is dead!” or that an era of “color-blindness” had begun. But, as White Like Me explained, these forms of thinking are fundamentally flawed. Even in 1963, television news recorded white people claiming racism was dead and that anti-segregation laws were unnecessary. I will further explore reality of black disempowerment in the Implications section of this paper.
In the exploration of white privilege, the documentary brings out evidence of anti-black policy and discrimination within the United States. This comes in many forms — from exploring “gut-reaction racism” to the fundamentally racist War on Drugs. The documentary brings up new issues as well — white supremacy beliefs have not disappeared. Their residue, according to Tim White, is found in political rallies when people call for a return to years of segregated America or use racist language when speaking against President Obama. Anti-affirmative-action also demonstrates the racist implications of morphed “color-blind” thinking. The idea of there being no race not only invalidates the pain that minorities endure, it creates no room for change or progress. Without acknowledgment of racial injustice and differences, we can not battle racism.
Because this documentary focuses on white privilege and unequal racial power, I have already addressed the power implications within the previous two sections of this paper. The course concepts of majority versus minority and discrimination inherently carry implications of power. This is because the dominant culture — white people — carry privilege that minorities do not. White privilege includes avoidance of drug busts, less stereotyping or biased expectations, better schools, and historical access to better neighborhoods and job insurance. White LIke Me addresses all of these examples, and more, in depth. Therefore, in this section, I will be discussing what this documentary asks the audience to do. What does the film imply should be done about the issues it addresses? In other words, “now what?”
Obviously, White Like Me carries implications of white privilege, or power. It is, after all, created by a white man for a white audience. But it uses that power to seek out change, not supremacy. And although it somewhat victimizes black culture, that acknowledgment of hardship is necessary for real change. Ironically, Tim White has been criticized for “hating white people.” While some might argue that this documentary gives power to white people for being “rescuers,” the film is more likely giving power to black people for enduring a racist system, including racist language, thinking, drug wars, economic strategies, and politics that are built against their success. White Like Me’s coverage of past racism is not ground-breaking. What is different about its implications is the assertion that racism still exists, a statement that is considered bold in modern times. The details and proof of modern-day racism are so heavily covered in the film that it would be impossible to discuss them all within a short essay.
After learning about so much discrimination, it can be difficult to know how to help. The systemized and historical nature of white privilege can seem overwhelming and ceaseless, but White Like Me does not leave its audience without task. Author Michelle Alexander discusses the need for people to verbally acknowledge and communicate about racial differences. Says Alexander, “I don’t want to say to the young kid who grew up in the hood and who’s being stopped and hounded by the police, ‘I don’t care if you’re black.’ Of course I care! I care about you and your experience. And I see you as you are.”
This documentary affects both black and white culture. White Like Me calls for action from dominant culture to stand up and fight against discrimination. Much of this battle is begun by talking about it — communicating between majority and minority cultures, and tearing down stereotypes. In doing so, the balance of power between majority and minority cultures can hopefully be more equal, which allows minorities to gain more equal rights.
In this paper, I discussed White Like Me and analyzed how it addresses the development of majority/dominant identities, discrimination against minority/bonded identities, and the implications of acknowledging racism in the modern United States. The documentary asks white viewers to fight racism within their own communities. As Tim White says near the close of the film, “The answer is being color conscious, not color blind. It means confronting the truth about race and racism in this country.”
Martin, J. N., & Nakayama, T. K. (2013). Intercultural communication in contexts (6th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Morris, S. (Director), & Wise, T. (Writer). (2013). White Like Me [Video file]. Media Education Foundation. Retrieved June 23, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6SL-iCp-Y4