What Makes Me White? Directed by A. M. Sands. Boston: Center for Independent Documentary, 2013. 40 minutes.
White Like Me: Race, Racism, and White Privilege in America. Directed by Scott Morris. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2013. 69 minutes.
Trying to teach white students about racism is challenging for many reasons.1 Typically, they’ve grown up in predominantly (if not exclusively) white environments and so they haven’t necessarily had to think about racism—or even race—very seriously. To the extent that they’ve considered the question, they often believe that racism is nothing more than a particularly hateful form of prejudice, and so they also tend to believe that, as long as they aren’t openly bigoted themselves, racism isn’t a problem that concerns them directly. And, with some regularity, their sheltered upbringings make it possible for them to believe that racism is mostly a thing of the past. They’re wrong about all these presumptions (which, perhaps not surprisingly, is one of the reasons why it’s good for them to learn more about racism in the first place), and a large part of the challenge is to help them see racism as a contemporary structural and institutional problem that affects us all, without pushing them into confused helplessness (“the problem is too big to fix”) or letting them wallow in white guilt. Both films reviewed here aim to teach white audiences something useful about race, though they take very different rhetorical and stylistic approaches to the subject, and they aim for very different goals.2
A. M. Sands’s What Makes Me White? comes at its subject with a gentle, reflective, meditative tone. The director is primarily interested in trying to figure out how she (and other white people) learned about race in childhood, and she poses far more questions than she tries to answer. As a result, she frames the question of race largely as a matter of interpersonal relationships—and, since most of her subjects (including herself) are white, the stories she tells are mostly ones of innocent curiosity and naive ignorance, such as white children not knowing anything about their black classmates’ home lives because they only interact with one another in white-dominated spaces.
Sands’s intentions are noble, and there are some potentially valuable insights to be found here. It’s easy, for example, to imagine many white students coming away from this film realizing that they, too, have never really considered how different students of color’s lives must be from their own—and those are worthy awakenings to provoke. Nevertheless, in the end, What Makes Me White? is too gentle—to the point of actually being apolitical. Although race is a constant presence, racism is nowhere to be seen, even as a mere synonym for personal prejudice and bigotry. There’s no hate or animosity to be found here, and no institutional or structural barriers between the races either. The film makes it clear that the “nice” suburbs of New York and Boston are predominantly white spaces, and that the black children whose presence provokes Sands’s questions live in Harlem and Roxbury. But the film doesn’t address the questions of where racial segregation came from in the first place or why busing was ever presented as a solution to that problem.3 And given how much of the film focuses on people from greater Boston who experienced something that looks a lot like desegregation busing, it’s surprising that the broader politics of that phenomenon are completely invisible.4 Everyone Sands interviews is calm, polite, and seemingly open-minded. There are no rock-hurling bigots here. No bullies. No tears. There’s not even a sense that such things might have been in the air when her subjects were in school.
The implicit moral of the film is that the world would be a better place if we all just knew each other better. It’s not a bad goal, of course. But it’s also not exactly adequate to the task at hand. Even if all Sands wants to do is to address the personal question that she uses as her film’s title, there are historical and structural answers to that question that she doesn’t consider. Race as we know it, after all, is a relatively recent invention.5 Human beings didn’t start using race as a major way to identify and categorize each other until the rise of European imperialism—and that timing isn’t coincidental. Sands is white because she lives in a nation that actively uses race as one of its major sorting mechanisms to create and maintain a hierarchical social order, and because her ancestors were fortunate enough to find themselves on the privileged sign of the racial divide. But without historical context Sands’s whiteness wouldn’t matter enough for her to raise it as a question.
If we want a clearer sense of that history—and the ways that it continues to shape contemporary US society—we can find it in White Like Me, a film featuring antiracist activist Tim Wise that covers some of the major issues raised by his book of the same name. As one might expect from a Media Education Foundation (MEF) production, the film doesn’t pull its punches. It insists that racism is an institutional and structural problem. It points to the ways that racial discrimination has been baked into the law, how politicians and journalists have successfully promoted deliberately racist policies by couching them in ostensibly race-neutral terms (e.g., welfare queens, inner cities), and how white people (regardless of their own level of racial animus, and whether they are aware of it or not) routinely benefit from such policies.
More crucially, it succeeds at the extraordinarily difficult task of taking concepts that white students often have a difficult time accepting, and presenting those concepts clearly and carefully enough to minimize the degree to which such viewers will reject such ideas out of hand. In part, this is the result of Wise’s activist experience, and how well versed he is at explaining structural and institutional racism to potentially resistant (and even antagonistic) white audiences in ways that they can actually hear (and maybe even accept). The film’s real persuasive power, however, depends on the “fair use” incorporation of media texts as supporting evidence. As smart as Wise’s words are, White Like Me is at its best when it uses a broad range of photos, newspaper clippings, Hollywood movies, newscasts, and political talk shows dating back to the Civil War to show both the horrors of institutional racism and the willfulness with which it was maintained by people in positions of power. And the film packs a lot of this sort of evidence into a relatively short time frame.
There are, of course, no guarantees when it comes to teaching race and racism. There is no magic reading list, no irresistibly compelling classroom exercise, and no bulletproof film that one can put in front of a room full of students and be certain that it will help open their eyes.6 If racism were that easy to solve, after all, it would be a thing of the past. Both these films offer something useful to the broader struggle, even if the ultimate payoff each delivers is very different. Sands’s film has the potential to teach students (white ones anyway) that they need to change themselves. Wise’s film, on the other hand, can teach students (of all races) that they need to change the world.
1 To be clear, teaching racism is challenging regardless of the races/ethnicities of one’s students. But students of color typically (and unsurprisingly) come into our courses with a lot more direct experience with racism than their white classmates, and they are less likely to feel defensive or guilty when confronted with the ways that racism shapes the world around them.
2 What Makes Me White? is more explicit about this, though perhaps only accidentally so. At one point, Sands’s voiceover narration poses the question, “What makes us white?” (emphasis added), a query that only makes sense if she’s assuming that the bulk (if not the entirety) of her viewers is white. White Like Me doesn’t make this sort of obvious slip-up, but it does embrace a few argumentative strategies that make it clear that the filmmakers anticipate resistance from white viewers. Audiences of color, for example, are not likely to assume that Tim Wise’s discussion of white privilege means that he “hates white people,” but Wise’s insistence that he doesn’t is a sign that he’s trying (not unreasonably) to keep white viewers from rejecting his argument prematurely.
3 Some useful readings on institutional racism and racial segregation in the United States include Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, rev. ed. (New York: The New Press, 2012); Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” Atlantic, June 2014; George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998).
4 Purporting to address racial segregation, busing became a practice of transporting students to make public schools more racially diverse.
5 A classic resource on the historical invention (and ongoing reinvention) of race is Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 1994).
6 It is admittedly awkward to suggest a book that I edited as a potentially useful resource for further reading. Nonetheless, by design, The Race and Media Reader (ed. Gilbert B. Rodman [New York: Routledge, 2014]) is a compilation of many of the readings I would suggest otherwise. Additionally, I would recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spigel & Grau, 2015)E and Jesmyn Ward, ed., The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race (New York: Scribner, 2016).