I am white.
But beyond checking the “white” box when asked about my race, I am also quite pale. Freckles give my skin a hint of color, my cheeks flush bright red when I’m mad or nervous, and my green eyes require constant protection from the sun. I burn if I even think about going outside and I reflect the light of flash photography during the winter. Seriously – I’m very white.
As a pale, white woman with a dimpled freckly face, green eyes, and big smile, I do not know what it’s like to have my skin color put me at a disadvantage in interpersonal or institutional relationships. I do not know what it’s like to have to change the way I act, speak, or react to a situation so that others in the room won’t feel uncomfortable because of their incorrect assumptions about who I am, or the threat that I pose to their safety. I do not know what it’s like to have someone cross the street because I am walking their way. When I get stopped by security in the airport, I’m the person they search to show that they aren’t profiling others. No one automatically assumes that my method of payment is fraudulent or will be returned for insufficiency; and when I take my four nephews out to a movie or to the playground, no one wonders how many fathers are (or are not) in the picture. My skin color has never once been a hinderance to my life, the way I live it, or the ways in which others interact with me.
Being white has only ever kept me from one thing: fully understanding what it’s like to not be white in this world; in this country; in this political and cultural climate.
My heart breaks with the injustices that occur against people and communities of color. I get angry. I weep. I feel overwhelmed. I want to fix it. All of it. But because of my experiences and privileges, I am often left completely blind to the totality of what “it” even consists of, the many ways in which “it” rears its ugly head, and the instances when I am guilty of “it”…no matter how diligent or well-intentioned I try to be. Racism is a deeply rooted and finely polished machination of many in our society, and my personal experiences have left me ill-equipped to make a dent in its armor. But that’s okay, because my personal experiences aren’t what it takes anyway.
I must be willing to listen to and heed the experiences of others. I must be willing to make myself vulnerable to the heartache, outrage, fear, distress, and disappointment of those who do experience racism as a part of their daily lives. I must be willing to risk feeling embarrassed or ashamed when I am told, or realize on my own the ways in which I, too, have perpetuated the injustices that others absorb. I must intentionally seek out their experiences so that I can learn. I must bear witness to the totality of it. And I must be willing to acknowledge that the entire breadth of emotion that I will experience in doing so pales in comparison to what it feels like to live it first hand, every day.
I must also acknowledge that it is not others’ responsibility to educate me on this subject. It is especially not others’ responsibility to educate me according to a timeline which I dictate. When I think about the emotional expense of recounting any difficult experience in my life, I cannot fathom being asked repeatedly to relive micro and macro aggressions as anecdotal evidence of a life that the other person can never truly experience. It would be exhausting and painful, and I have no interested in causing further harm. Instead, I must actively seek out the abundant resources that are available to help equip me with understanding, perspective, and empathy.
Thankfully, many persons throughout history have been willing to provide testimony of their experiences. Thankfully, we live at a time when information is easier to access than ever before. Thankfully, there are people in my life and in my circles of community, faith, and friends who can and have helped point me in the right directions. There are resources that I have come across, or that have been given to me, that have helped me develop better understanding and empathy around what it means to not be white in our world. They have made such an impact on me that I would like to make them known to others. I will never know what it feels like to not be white, but there is much that I can learn and do to lessen the negative impact of my words, actions, and attitudes on those who are.
See Beyond Your Point of View
There are lists and lists of books that have helped me move beyond my own point of view – including on the topic of race and racism – and they are available for every age range. Representation matters. There are other printed materials that work well, also, but I’d like to address some other options.
Movies, documentaries, podcasts, videos, and other forms of media also provide a never-ending glimpse into life beyond my own point of view. They allow me to tackle difficult topics that will elicit a wide range of emotion on my own time, in my own space, and in shorter intervals than most books require. These types of safe encounters with seeing beyond my own point of view cannot be the only type I allow myself to experience, but they are helpful in broadening the scope for me, and can be a very good starting point for those who aren’t used to confronting the ugliness of racism and privilege. We have to understand each other better if anything is going to change, and I think movies and other forms of media can help do that.
Film critic Roger Ebert once said: “The purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people, and for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears.” But you don’t have to take my word, or Mr. Ebert’s word for it. Science agrees. In an article he wrote about whether watching movies may help you build empathy, Christopher Zumski Fink explains that part a little more:
“Dr. Jim Coan, associate professor of clinical psychology and director of the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Virginia, says Ebert was right. We ‘immerse ourselves in the perspective of another person,’ Coan said. ‘And in doing that, we start to subtly accrue those perspectives into our own universe … and that’s how empathy is generated.’
Coan says feeling empathy for someone who seems familiar—like a friend, a fictional character, or even a public figure — is ‘almost effortless’ for most people. It’s much harder to extend our empathy to those who seem very different from ourselves. But Coan also says empathy is like a muscle, and ‘the more you use it, the stronger it becomes.’
‘We fundamentally need to have empathy, understanding, shared goals, and cooperation,’ Coan said. When we lack that connection, “our sense of self literally, not metaphorically but literally, is diminished.” In other words, our identity is directly linked to our emphatic connections with others.”
If we are seeking connection with others and a better understanding of their life, we must see beyond ourselves and our own point of view. Mark Twain said that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Movies, documentaries, podcasts, and videos allow us to mentally and emotionally travel through the life and experiences of other people – gaining the same wider perspective that Twain attributes to physical travel and the lessons that stem from those formative experiences.
Movies That Widen the Lens
Before I begin the list, I think it is important to acknowledge that movies, unlike documentaries, sometimes take artistic liberties with historical realities. It’s often done to give viewers a broader understanding of the culture, politics, etc. of the time period that the film takes place in. Sometimes it’s done just to add excitement or drama. And other times, especially in films depicting slavery and/or civil rights issues, it has been done to “lessen” white guilt by either downplaying the impact of racism and discrimination on the persons depicted, OR by creating a white “savior” figure(s) in the film. I would argue, though, that even in cases where these artistic liberties are present, the movies provide a place to begin understanding the impacts of racism and discrimination in our past, present, and future in a relatable way.
I also think it’s important to recognize that movies told from the point of view of persons of color are difficult to find in comparison to movies told from a white point of view. Movies about the lives, histories, and current realities of black Americans, told from the point of view of black Americans, and directed by black Americans are thankfully on the rise. Movies starring and/or directed by persons of color from other races, depicting the lives, histories, and current realities of their race/ethnicity are still quite difficult to find. If you know of any that can be added to the list, please do in the comments.
Below are films that I consider to be a good starting point to help widen the lens through which we see issues of race and racism. In this list, and the list of documentaries below, I have included several films about discrimination against Jewish persons and against Muslims, as well. While religion is not race, given the swell of discrimination against both groups, I felt their stories fit here. Many people are also unaware of the fact that most persons who descend from the Middle East and areas of Northern Africa are classified as white by our census bureau. Given the discrimination that so many face, the fact that they do so although they are classified as white by the U.S government, and that the intent of this writing is to offer a way to encounter the realities of people who are discriminated against, I wanted to include their stories. The films are listed in no particular order, and there are many, many others you could choose from. I chose a mix of old films, classic films, recent films, as well as a few which are lesser known.
Within Our Gates (Oscar Micheaux)
A 1920 American silent film by director Oscar Micheaux that portrays the contemporary racial situation in the United States during the early twentieth century, the years of Jim Crow, the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, the Great Migration of blacks to cities of the North and Midwest. This review is what inspired me to watch it.
The Learning Tree (Gordon Parks)
The story, set in Kansas during the 1920s, covers less than a year in the life of a black teenager, and documents the veritable deluge of events which force him into sudden manhood. The family relationships, the fears, frustrations, and ambitions of the black teenager in small-town America are explored with a strong statement about human values. The Learning Tree, based on Parks’ semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, which was published in 1963, was the first film directed by an African-American person for a major American film studio
To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan)
Atticus Finch, a lawyer in the Depression-era South, defends a black man against an undeserved rape charge, and his children against prejudice.
Hester Street (Joan Micklin Silver)
Gitl and her son arrive on the Lower East side of New York in 1896 to join her husband Jake. While Jake, who has job in a sweatshop and an English-speaking girlfriend, has completely embraced America, Gitl clings to her old country ways. Jake is embarrassed to be seen with her as he struggles to assimilate by shedding his ethnic heritage. As the film progresses, Gitl finds a way to become victor instead of victim.
Amistad (Steven Spielberg)
In 1839, the revolt of Mende captives aboard a Spanish owned ship causes a major controversy in the United States when the ship is captured off the coast of Long Island. The courts must decide whether the Mende are slaves or legally free.
The Pianist (Roman Polanski)
A biographical war drama in which a Polish Jewish musician struggles to survive the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto of World War II. It is based on the autobiographical book The Pianist (1946), a Holocaust memoir by the Polish-Jewish pianist and composer Władysław Szpilman, a Holocaust survivor. The film was a co-production of France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Poland.
The Visitor (Tom McCarthy)
The story kicks off in earnest when dispassionate professor, Walter, returns to his New York City apartment after time away only to find a young African woman taking a bath in his tub. There’s a confrontation, and Tarek holds Walter against the wall as Zainab wraps herself in a towel and shouts in French. The image of a strong, young Muslim man threatening a fragile, old white guy is potent, but the rest of The Visitor turns that potentially inflammatory image on its head.
Woman in Gold (Simon Curtis)
Maria Altmann, an octogenarian Jewish refugee, takes on the Austrian government to recover artwork she believes rightfully belongs to her family.
Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi)
This 2016 American biographical drama film is directed by Theodore Melfi and written by Melfi and Allison Schroeder. It is loosely based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly about black female mathematicians who worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) during the Space Race.
BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee)
Ron Stallworth, an African American police officer from Colorado Springs, CO, successfully manages to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan branch with the help of a Jewish surrogate who eventually becomes its leader. This film is based on actual events.
Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg)
In German-occupied Poland during World War II, industrialist Oskar Schindler gradually becomes concerned for his Jewish workforce after witnessing their persecution by the Nazis.
The Hate U Give (George Tillman, Jr.)
Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil, at the hands of a police officer. Now, facing pressure from all sides of the community, Starr must find her voice and stand up for what’s right.
Selma (Ava DuVernay)
A powerful chronicle of the campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, and led by James Bevel, Hosea Williams, Martin Luther King Jr., and John Lewis.
12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
This 2013 biographical period-drama film is an adaptation of the 1853 slave memoir Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, a New York State-born free African-American man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. by two conmen in 1841 and sold into slavery. Northup was put to work on plantations in the state of Louisiana for 12 years before being released.
Harriett (Kasi Lemmons)
The extraordinary tale of Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery and transformation into one of America’s greatest heroes, whose courage, ingenuity, and tenacity freed hundreds of slaves and changed the course of history.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Justin Chadwick)
This 2013 British-South African biographical film is based on the 1995 autobiographical book Long Walk to Freedom by anti-apartheid revolutionary and former South African President Nelson Mandela.
The Boy With the Striped Pajamas (Mark Herman)
Through the innocent eyes of Bruno, the eight-year-old son of the commandant at a German concentration camp, a forbidden friendship with a Jewish boy on the other side of the camp fence has startling and unexpected consequences.
Green Book (Peter Farrelly)
A working-class Italian-American bouncer becomes the driver of an African-American classical pianist on a tour of venues through the 1960s American South.
Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler)
This film is based on the events leading to the death of Oscar Grant III, a young man who crosses paths with friends, enemies, family, and strangers on the last day of 2008. The story details how he was killed on Jan. 1, 2009 by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle at the Fruitvale district station of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in Oakland.
Just Mercy (Destin Daniel Cretton)
This film tells the true story of Walter McMillian, and his world-renowned civil rights defense attorney, Bryan Stevenson, who works to free a wrongly condemned death row prisoner.
The Big Sick (Michael Showalter)
Pakistan-born comedian Kumail Nanjiani and grad student Emily Gardner fall in love but struggle as their cultures clash. When Emily contracts a mysterious illness, Kumail finds himself forced to face her feisty parents, his family’s expectations, and his true feelings.
Writer director Jeff Adachi explores the portrayal of Asian men in Hollywood films.
Resistance at Tule Lake
This film focuses on Tule Lake, the notorious camp, where Japanese Americans who were labeled “disloyal” were held. Aderer’s emotional, wrenching interviews with the “internees” – some of whom were deported to Japan because of answers to “loyalty” questionnaires – make clear the consequences of race, wartime hysteria and political expediency.
Pacific Gateway: Angel Island VR
Exteriors and interiors of the “Ellis Island of the West” serve as the backdrop to the virtually unknown story of immigrants detained and interrogated after passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned laborers from entering the United States for more than 80 years before finally being dismantled with the signing of the Immigration Act of 1965.
The Chinese Exclusion Act
A deeply American story – about immigration and national identity, civil rights and human justice; about how we define who can be an American, and what being an American means – the film examines the economic, cultural, social, legal, racial and political dimensions of the law; the forces and events that gave rise to it; and the effect it has had, and continues to have, on American culture and identity.
This documentary on the Holocaust is intensely unsettling. It contains few of the traditional elements associated with documentaries. There is no disembodied voiceover nor archive footage – most of the film consists of survivors and perpetrators telling their stories and sharing their memories. Lanzmann, the film’s director, said he was skeptical whether anything but documentary form could adequately express the horror of Holocaust. “Fiction is a transgression,” he wrote, “[Films such as Schindler’s List, 1993] transgress because they trivialize, and thus they remove the Holocaust’s unique character.”
The Jewish Americans
This documentary is a journey through time, from the first settlement in 1654 to the present. It is about the struggle of a tiny minority who make their way into the American mainstream while, at the same time, maintaining a sense of their own identity as Jews. Focusing on the tension between identity and assimilation, THE JEWISH AMERICANS is quintessentially an American story, which other minority groups will find surprisingly familiar.
GI Jews – Jewish Americans in World War II
This film tells the story of the 550,000 Jewish American men and women who fought in World War II. In their own words, veterans both famous (director Mel Brooks, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger) and unknown share their war experiences: how they fought for their nation and people, struggled with anti-Semitism within their ranks, and emerged transformed.
Blacks and Jews
This 1997 documentary film examines the relationships and conflicts between Black and Jewish activists, from the 1991 Crown Heights Riot, to Steven Spielberg’s controversial visit, to the predominantly black Castlemont High School.
Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People
This groundbreaking documentary dissects a slanderous aspect of cinematic history that has run virtually unchallenged form the earliest days of silent film to today’s biggest Hollywood blockbusters.
Muslims in America
The series will begin with the first Muslims to arrive in North America as slaves and settlers, and trace the waves of migration and conversion that have made the Muslim population in the U.S. today the most diverse in the world.
The Muslim Americans
This PBS series explores the diversity of Muslims in America today, focusing on communities’ experience after 9/11, and contrasting life for Muslims here in the United States compared to Muslims in Britain and Europe.
Harvest of Empire
A powerful documentary that exposes the direct connection between the long history of U.S. intervention in Latin America and the immigration crisis we face today. From the territorial expansionist policies that decimated the young economies of Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba, to the covert operations that imposed oppressive military regimes in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador, Harvest of Empire provides an unflinching look at the origins of the growing Latino presence in the United States.
This film chronicles the struggles and aspirations of a New York Puerto Rican family as they contend with the devastating effects of urban poverty.
Latino Americans (PBS)
This series is the first major documentary series for television to chronicle the rich and varied history and experiences of Latinos, who have helped shape North America over the last 500-plus years and have become, with more than 50 million people, the largest minority group in the U.S.
The Latin Explosion: A New America
In 1950, one in 50 Americans were Latino. By 2050, it will be one in three. The country is changing, and Latinos are taking their place at the table as the new American power brokers in the world of entertainment, business, politics and the arts.
In Whose Honor
This film offers a critical look at the long-running practice of “honoring” American Indians as mascots and nicknames in sports.
This film highlights 15,000 years of life, including origin stories, from the earliest Mesoamerican civilizations to more current issues and systems still concerning the native population today.
Teaching Indians to Be White
This film exposes the annihilation of Native American culture.
This series, although it does not focus on Native Americans precisely, has a lot of information about how the settlers and early citizens of the United States interacted with and affected the tribal populations.
We Still Live Here as Nutayunean
This story highlights a more modern quest to reclaim lost culture and language by some of the native people in the USA.
American Experience: We Shall Remain
With depth, breadth and richness, Native American history is told through indigenous eyes in this revolutionary docudrama. Exploring five pivotal periods, the series spans 300 years of Indian adversity, resilience and self-determination.
This film traces the development of stereotypes through 40 years of prime time television.
Diane Sawyer and news crew stage what is basically a “matched study” experiment by pairing John, who is white, and Glen, who is black, and follow them with a series of hidden cameras as they expose racism in a variety of settings.
The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross
This Emmy Award-winning series premiered in 2013 and looks at more than just Black history, it explores Black identity and what it means to be an African American in the U.S. today.
Slavery By Another Name
Did Slavery really end with the Civil War? The documentary Slavery by Another Name explores how in the years following the Emancipation Proclamation, systematic approaches were taken to re-enslave newly freed Blacks in the United States.
Eyes on the Prize
This award-winning series covers all of the major events of the Civil Rights Movement from 1954-1985, including the Montgomery bus boycott in 1954, the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the birth of the Black Power Movement, and the courageous acts of the crusaders that contributed along the way.
Soundtrack for a Revolution
Freedom songs evolved from slave chants, the labor movement, and from the Black church, and were a vital tool as protestors stood up against adversity. They energized and empowered them, enabled them to sing the things they couldn’t say, and allowed them to meet aggression with dignity and non-violence. Written and directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, this 2009 documentary brings songs of the movement back to life again
Dark Girls is an emotional exposé in which black women share painful stories about things their mothers, sisters and friends have said, in addition to what they’ve taken away from mass media. Overwhelmingly these interviews reveal the same thing: To them, Black is not beautiful.
Race – The Power of an Illusion
This series can help us all navigate through our myths and misconceptions about race, and scrutinize some of the assumptions we take for granted. In that sense, the real subject of the film is not so much race but the view, or more precisely, the notions about race we all hold.”
This series offers an overview of the ways that racial and economic inequality are not abstract concepts but hospitalize and kill even more people each year than cigarettes.
Moving Beyond Just What You See
Maya Angelou once said “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
With new information comes the responsibility for me to put what has been learned into practice. I am not simply to love in word or speech but in action and truth. When my lens widens as the result of new experiences and new shared stories, and I become more aware of the micro and macro aggressions taking place all around me, I must respond. But the hardest part can be to know how. This three minute clip has helped me to put my words into action by actually speaking up confidently when it is necessary.
As the video suggests, if I want to have important and difficult conversations, it is imperative that I do so with specific vocabulary and narrow focus. In a person-to-person encounter, not getting caught up in “what you are” when the pressing issue is “what you did” makes a difference. Doing so can help keep the conversation on point and avoid personal attacks and assumptions. It’s also important that I remain specific in my vocabulary when having broad conversations in large groups about issues of race and racism – especially when trying to effect change. Failing to do so can muddy the waters of what we are trying to accomplish and lessen the likelihood of success.
The Way I See It
In our current political and cultural reality, issues of race, racism, and discrimination are as real now as they’ve ever been. In many instances they are obvious, but in so many instances we have become more skilled than ever at hiding aggression and injustice in polite smiles, fancier words (gentrification, for example), half-hearted diversity exercises, and disingenuous platitudes. Each time an act of pointed discrimination or racism occurs that enrages the masses, we cry out! We say that this is the one that will change things! And then we lose steam when we see how high and steep the climb toward justice and equality is. More of our willpower is lost when we realize that we don’t even know how to navigate because the trail is unfamiliar to us. And in so many cases, every last hint of effort is abandoned when we realize it will be painful to even begin the journey.
I don’t have the solutions. I don’t know how to fix it – any of it. What I do know is that I can take steps to learn more and understand better. I can be intentional about speaking up. I can help eliminate barriers that help others navigate the climb. And maybe on some occasions I will figure out a way to lessen the journey – even if just by a few steps.
I wish I knew how to eliminate the necessity of that steep climb by removing the mountain altogether, but I am certain that the biggest step I can personally make is to hold myself accountable. I can decide every day to do everything in my power to avoid making the mountain any higher than it already is for others.
That starts by seeing beyond myself.