WORLD Channel, in partnership with PBS’ Independent Lens, presents a new animated musical series about America’s reckoning with race and injustice. The History Of White People In America takes the audience on a journey through American history, starting in the 17th century, and in particular looks at how the crafting of the idea of the white race — of whiteness — helped shape the nation’s history, designating other groups for subjugation and having wide-ranging ramifications on social class and life experience that exist to this day.

Episode One, "How America Invented Race," explores how the white “race” was invented by rich Virginians in 1676 in the aftermath of a populous rebellion of impoverished, indentured, and enslaved Africans and Europeans now known as Bacon’s Rebellion.

I spoke with producer/writer Jon Halperin and animator Ed Bell to learn more about how they created this series and developed its unique visual style.

How did you decide on these specific moments in history for the series?

Ed Bell and Jon Halperin: Each episode in the series illuminates a crucial moment in the American story where “American” and “white” were conflated. This is about the struggle to make “American” mean more than “white.” We have twelve more episodes in the series. In the series, we will bring the history up to the present moment — this incredible moment, which could be white people’s great awakening to the nation’s racial sins.

This line from the episode is so powerful: “How skin became color, color became race, and race became power.” Who benefits from not teaching the origins and creation of race and racism in America?

Ed and Jon: The History of White People in America will reveal who we are as a nation and how we got to this moment of crisis — of the 400-year transmogrification of skin color into an economic, political and social caste system with whiteness at the top of the pecking order. Race as we know it in America was invented by wealthy colonialists — of European background — as a means of social and economic control. They divided poor people by skin color. The wealthy benefited from this division, then and now.

Building on more than 30 years of scholarship on the creation and evolution of racial categories and identity in the United States, we explore the combination of ideologies, laws, policies, scientific theories, and even “racial performances” that created what we now understand as “white” and “non-white.” Irish, Italians, Germans, Jews, Catholics: until recently in our history, none of these groups were considered white by law, custom, or culture. Whiteness has always been an ever-shifting notion. What does it mean in America to be non-white today? What will need to change in our country for Black and brown people to have the power of “white”?

This animation style is so unique in how it brings together movement, color, and text to tell a story set to incredible music. How did you develop that style, and what artistic inspiration did you pull from? Why was animation fitting to tell this specific story?

Ed and Jon: We are attempting to communicate some of our own cognitive dissonance with being animation artists in this culture. Animation dares to go to those uncomfortable places we all need to deal with. We dare to use animation to lift an audience out of the shameful ignorance of our own culture.

Ed: The visual universe of The History of White People in America is born from the visual media that the creators grew up with. As an African American boy I lived for comics, manga, games, New Yorker covers and animated features. At the same time as I was forming an identity as an artist — an artist in a world that keeps telling me I’m a second-class citizen.

Most media placed me in a pretty bleak place in the world: Stamped from the beginning as “less-than,” despite my people proving our excellence in every area of American life. Stamped, in part, by powerful visual propaganda throughout the 20th century. But some of that same media pointed me to profound truths that opened my heart and increased my empathy. So this is what the artist does with their life conditions — we use the existing tropes to express our pain and passion.

Drew Takahashi [the series’ animator and editor] and I are students of 20th century illustration, graphic design and animation. We see it in all its glory and ugliness, and make it our own. These forms of media had everything to do with how the current culture views people, both inside and outside the “normal” world of affluent white life. So we make them colors on our digital palette and paint the picture the historians plugged us into.

Is there anything else you want the audience to think about as they watch the series?

Ed and Jon: Since before the Revolution, “American” has equaled “white.” Enslaved African people understood this. Indigenous people knew this. And wealthy “white” landowners made sure that each new wave of immigrants knew it too. For America to fulfill its greatest ideals — justice and equality for all — “American” has to be more than a code word for “white.”

Those early ideas, which were codified into laws, led to generational acceptance of a false hierarchy, an illusion of superiority and inferiority. If there’s to be a reckoning for America, it starts with breaking that illusion. We know that the public always benefits from confronting the hardest truths about our way of life. In the case of the Black filmmakers on our team, this confrontation with hard truths will be the difference between being allowed to live or die at the hands of police. It’s urgent that we face the issues at the heart of injustice.

Episodes two and three will premiere here and on WORLD Channel's YouTube page on Tuesday, July 7 and Wednesday, July 8 at 3pm.