What's Race Got To Do With It

I stumbled across some old bits from my “Race and Minority Relations” class. (Old bits. Heh. Five months old – it feels like forever…) Anyway, one of the extra credit assignments was to go to a public viewing of this film (and following workshop) and then write about it. It’s interesting to see the themes that still preoccupy me starting to be developed here.

The film What’s Race Got to do With it? was a documentary of fifteen weeks of an unusual undergraduate course at UC Berkeley. This course – with presumably handpicked students for such a diverse population – was facilitated by two professors. Facilitated is the applicable term; there was no required content shown, no required reading. Instead, the facilitators would ask starter questions if needed, providing the framework for these students to have a dialog about what race means to them, their experience, and their ways of life.

The basic “liner notes” summary of the movie would not contain any surprises, nor are there any major “plot twists”. People talk, occasionally get upset by overgeneralizations about the ethnicity they identify with, and slowly come to a greater understanding of each other.

The film’s students must have been handpicked by the facilitators. As one black student noted, she was one of two black students in an African Studies course – something that was exactly the opposite of what one would expect. From the students’ reactions, the class filmed was easily the most diverse class on the campus.

This kind of handpicking makes sense in a relatively homogenous environment, especially when one of your goals is to illustrate the difference between diversity between groups and diversity within a group. Still, it was interesting to see that these hand-selected students conformed to basic generalizations about race identity. The whites came from upper middle class families, and the people of color came from impoverished homes.

Regardless, the white students had the unpleasant realizations that they did avoid people unlike themselves, that they did have advantages that non-whites lacked, and that they could not pretend that it was not their problem. They discussed the overwhelming whiteness of UC Berkeley, and how many applications were denied every year – and how the two hundred or so affirmative action slots did not make a real difference either in one’s chances of getting in UC Berkeley or in the actual numbers of minorities on campus. They explored how the Greek system was overwhelmingly white, and you could see the white student’s taking the lessons from the class and applying them outside and in their lives over the course of the fifteen weeks.

While powerful and moving – both as an observer and for the students documented – this is not the portion of the film that takes it beyond an after school special.

David, a self-identified Mexican (though born in the United States), was the most dramatic example of this change. David said that he was in college so that he could eventually go back to his community and help them. David clearly saw his mission at school to be arming himself to aid in the struggle against forces keeping his “people” from succeeding. David also began the fifteen weeks wearing “identity” shirts proclaiming his difference. Though none were offensive, they were clearly meant as a self-labeling device, to proclaim his difference.

Then there was a turning point. David had said “The white man is the enemy”, and Mark – a white male – pointed out how hard it was to not take that personally. David quickly changed his comment to white POWER that was keeping him down, and Mark was fine with that. From that moment on, David’s dress began to change. His hats and shirts became less stereotypically “Mexican” and more like the other student’s.

There were no pat answers for the students; most of them actually expressed a degree of confusion at the end of the class. And that is exactly what you would expect to see in any situation where there is a lot of crosscutting speech. That discomfort may make them less of an activist – which is what happened to David – but will allow them to see the commonalities in others rather than the differences.

The film – and the class – is not radical enough. They question the justice of their current situation, but fail to wonder how things got set up that way. They look at inequity in college admissions without considering the greater inequity in grade school funding, or the percentages of people of color in fraternities without examining white flight. They explore the dialogue between themselves – and do not ask why their experience does not occur elsewhere, or how it can be shared with others outside the university setting.

Still, both as a film and as a class, it is a wonderful, powerful first step in beginning the deconstruction of the myth of race.

The crowd who attended the film was interesting for both who they were as well as who they were not. A few black students, a slightly larger number of white students, and then a number of much-better dressed facilitator. The facilitators were themselves a diverse group, including the director of Freshman experiences and the head of campus security, though all presented as white-collar professionals for this event.

After the screening of the film, there were roundtable-style facilitated discussions. Unfortunately, many of the attendees did not stay for the discussions. Still, in my group there were quite a few school officials, a student from Sinclair, a black student who had seen urban decay happen in his neighborhood, a woman from Costa Rica and her mother in law, and apparently the only Indian (sub continental) woman in WSU’s English department. This was also fascinating, hearing an honest view of the diversity – or lack thereof – on WSU’s campus. It was also interesting hearing about the commuter student problem from the angle of a non-commuter student, as we thought about how to get Wright State’s student body more involved.

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