The Filmmaker Behind ‘White People’ Wants to Teach America About Diversity

Jose Antonio Vargas is launching the ‘Emerging US’ campaign to showcase underreported stories.
Feb 23, 2016·
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

Last year, journalist Jose Antonio Vargas traveled the country talking to young white Americans about race, privilege, and bias in the hope that pursuing tough conversations would improve race relations. The resulting MTV documentary, White People, raised some eyebrows. Critics on the far right flung accusations of racism, while some on the left wondered why we needed yet another movie spotlighting white people.

But his latest project isn't just about any one group or demographic. "In 2016, I want to talk about us—all of us," Vargas said in a voice-over during the promotional video for a new project called Emerging US. He's looking to launch the ambitious video-driven digital platform to expose underreported stories about America's changing cultural identity, and not just the white people who will no longer be a majority population within the next three decades. That's why he's seeking to raise $1 million—half of which will be matched by the crowdfunding journalism site Beacon Reader—through what he's dubbed the largest journalism crowdfunding campaign yet.

"I think the journalistic mission of Emerging US is trying to answer this question of who are we and who are we becoming," Vargas said in an interview with TakePart. "American newsrooms, by and large, are inadequate in terms of trying to answer that question, and it has to do a lot with the fact that there are not a lot of people of color in the newsrooms."

In 2014, minorities accounted for less than a quarter of all television journalists and roughly 13 percent of radio journalists and reporters working at daily newspapers, respectively. That leaves "a lot of stories untold—and a lot of stories are mistold," Vargas said, considering that minorities make up 37 percent of the U.S. population. He said that when he first saw the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, a reminder of the lack of diversity in the Academy Awards nominations, he immediately wondered: Why not journalism so white? "If you work in a newsroom that's mostly white," he said, "a question you have to ask yourself is, 'When are you going to speak out?' "

The Pulitzer Prize–winning former Washington Post reporter has been doing just that for years. An immigrant from the Philippines, Vargas publicly revealed his undocumented status in an essay for The New York Times Magazine in 2011 and has since pursued a number of multimedia projects aimed at challenging biases about immigrants and examining the country's relationship with race and class. His media nonprofit Define American launched in 2011 to spark conversations about immigration and policy. Vargas' 2014 CNN film Documented chronicled his journey to America and his quest to redefine what it means to be an immigrant. Last year's White People pointed the camera on the community that remains dominant in American politics and culture.

Emerging Us, which Vargas envisions as a website housing a series of minidocumentaries packaged together with articles and essays, won't keep white people out of the hot seat either—and Vargas sees that as an advantage. "I think that one of the things that will set us apart is that too often when we talk about race and diversity, we don't include white people in the conversation," he said.

Vargas turned to crowdfunding after launching a version of Emerging US in partnership with the Los Angeles Times last year, but he said the independent funding campaign is a natural fit for a project that must prove "there's an appetite and there's an audience for content like this." The stakes are high. If he doesn't raise the $1 million within the next two months, the project won't happen. For now, he's paying out of his own pocket to support the initial team of six reporters and videographers, based in downtown Los Angeles. But as far as he's concerned, he's got nothing to lose—and the time is ripe for a project of this scope.

"One of the things that we always insist on is that we are facing an identity crisis in this country," he said, adding that the crisis could be exemplified by the debate over the next Supreme Court nominee. "If we don't step up to this moment," he said, "we may look back at 2016 as the moment where we really lost ourselves."