Back in June the University of Minnesota-Duluth released an anti-racism PSA that has sparked quite a bit of controversy. It aired as part of Unfair, a university campaign that addresses how white people can combat racial stereotyping and discrimination.
The video is a series of stark close-ups on faces of white men and women. Their cheeks and foreheads are scrawled with statements in black ink such as, "It's not luck, it's privilege."
"We're privileged because society is set up for us," one man says.
"We're privileged, and that's unfair," a woman says.
It's pretty clear that in North America, to be white is to be privileged. But this PSA left a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths, white or not. There's been a strong backlash against the campaign, to the point that the University of Minnesota-Duluth publicly pulled its support, calling the video "divisive." A response video shot in the style of the original was posted on YouTube; it shows ethnic minorities calling the Unfair campaign racist, condescending and offensive.
The last words spoken in the response video are, "It's unfair to make people feel guilty for how they were born." I think this sums up why some people are so angry with the original PSA; the video comes off as accusatory. You could interpret it as saying that white people should be ashamed of their whiteness, not their racism—which implies that being white automatically makes you racist. This sets an oddly navel-gazing tone, with "white guilt" taking centre stage instead of racism.
Even if the original aim of the video is not specifically to make white people feel guilty, it follows that a person will feel guilty if they're reminded that they're hugely privileged because of the colour of their skin. In this way, the video is bold in its approach. It certainly stands out from other saccharine racism PSAs that depict ethnic teenagers talking earnestly about their feelings. Unfair zeroes in on the issue of white privilege without beating around the bush.
The most significant failing of video is that it leaves us thinking, "so what?" Okay, so we've established that white people are privileged and that society is set up for white people to succeed, but what does one do with that information? The video has no answers for us. In 31 seconds, the white viewer is presented with a deeply rooted societal problem, and then tacitly blamed for it, which makes the situation seem pretty damn bleak. Perhaps Unfair's tactic was to rile people up so much that they actually visit the campaign website. It has resources for becoming a "white ally," as well as learning about and accepting white privilege; for instance, one section advises white people to write down all their unearned social advantages—a valuable learning experience, for sure, but not exactly an action plan towards correcting institutional racism.
I know that I almost never visit the websites listed at the end of PSAs, because most PSAs leave the viewer with no questions. The message is so clear-cut, and usually the video's brief narrative (high schoolers tripping ethnic minorities in hallways, anyone?) is resolved on a warm, fuzzy note.
Unfair's tactics may be questionable and divisive, but on the other hand, they might be necessary to cut through the swath of the standard-issue "racism is bad" PSAs.