November 6, 2015

Racism DiscussionNueva is taking steps to ensure students are socially conscious about important issues facing the United States today, including racism.

Upper School students recently viewed the film I’m Not a Racist…Am I?, a documentary about how the next generation is going to confront racism.

The filmmakers asked 12 New York City teenagers to come together for one school year and one summer to discuss race and privilege in a series of workshops and in conversations with friends and family members. The hope was that by documenting their experience, the film would inspire others to recognize and interrupt racism in their own lives.

The documentary is also a part of a larger initiative — Deconstructing Race, developed by The Calhoun School — to create a platform to encourage people to start talking — and doing — something about structural, systemic racism.

“The goal of this film and this project and this work is to fix our society,” producer André Robert Lee said. “It’s not to make people feel bad.”

During a question and answer session, students said they experienced a variety of emotions after viewing the documentary including guilty, inspired, wary, enlightened, privileged, and confused.

“I thought it was interesting to get the perspective of other teenagers because it’s an issue that affects everyone, but it’s mostly adults who are talking about it,” eleventh-grader Saira Y. said. “It was also interesting they had people of different races and ethnicities talking about it instead of just one group.”

“I absolutely loved it,” eleventh-grader Phaedra P. said. “It really clearly explained the definition of racism. … I liked that it was a very organic and honest discussion.”

According to the filmmakers, racism is defined as prejudice plus power, and based on this definition, only white people are racist in the United States. Any of the other groups of people in the United States who may be prejudiced don’t have power. Power is considered access and the ability to make change, the filmmakers said.

In class discussions, students talked about microaggressions — the things people do or say that they may or may not intend to be hurtful, but they happen — many times each day — for example, crossing the street when an African American male approaches them while walking on a public sidewalk.  The subtle message is that you are dangerous/harmful/scary/aggressive. They also discussed the fact that societal norms are not always synchronized with current behavior, such as using derogatory words colloquially, said Hillary Freeman, the ninth grade dean and an advisor.

“It was an excellent way to start the discussion. The movie was provocative and hit our collective emotional core hard; in different ways,” Freeman said. “The conversations were definitely rich, open and without fear of reprisal, but short. It would have been great if we were able to continue the discussions. On a topic so vast and so deeply routed in our American ethos, it needs to be viewed as a year long or semester-long learning opportunity rather than just a movie and one discussion.

“It was so impactful that regardless of what we do next people will remember that movie, ” she added.

The filmmakers have held screenings at more than 125 schools around the country. The documentary debuted last fall.

“Each community is different,” Lee said. “There is a 95 percent success rate with communities engaging in conversation. What makes it work is they see young people have a conversation. I think that makes people more comfortable.”



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