“So you want to make a movie.”
“What qualifications do you have?”
“What experience do you have?”
“What education or training have you completed?”
“Well great! You’ve got the job.”
So it seems this movie thing might actually happen. I have absolutely no idea what madness latched on to my brain to convince me that I can make a film. We met with the Director of ITS yesterday though, and he is giving us an initial green light. We get to make a “pilot,” completed by the end of this fall, to then hopefully generate a more specific vision of the larger, final product.
Have I warped into an alternate universe? There is something slightly bizarre in all this. I’m the person who never won a part in a play my whole life. I can’t take good home movies. Script writing doesn’t make sense to me. And yet, everyone seems to think this film idea might work.
What started a few months ago began as a tiny little speck of light in my head; an idea formulated from a chance classroom discussion and my own daydreaming. For several years now (started back in what, 1999?) I’ve taught the multicultural counseling course. It has developed from a highly naive, institutionalized, bland structure to a dynamic, organic, experiential environment. Big words to say I used to teach it the boring way, where you give facts and figures, lots of lecture, and just presume people get it. I used to get completely blasted by students when i first taught it. I admit I initially did not think there would be any difficulty in talking about issues of race or cultural differences in graduate classrooms. That was the naiveté. I was also at a different point in my own awareness, one that could acknowledge racism and oppression, but didn’t quite know what to do with it or even fully grasp the ways it touched my own life. Being biracial has made me a stranger in several strange lands, so I knew from experience that understanding culture was difficult for most people. But I did not anticipate that it would be down right offensive to others, as well as an incitement of antagonism for many.
So after getting yelled at for a few semesters, I redesigned the course. I think this was one of my first professional acts against oppression, now that I reflect on it. Because not only did I change things so that I hopefully wouldn’t keep getting yelled at, I decided that what was critical for all students in the field was an honest dressing down of one’s self. How had I learned to confront my own prejudices? How had I learned to accept my own actions against others? Step 1: By asking myself that difficult question: “am I a Racist?” Step 2: By answering, “Yes.” So I reconstructed the course to create an experience where people could confront their own “-isms”, identify their own forms of societal privilege, in order to understand how they would then enact these ingrained beliefs and views on others. In other words, I wanted to show well-intentioned, typically “nice” people that they were just as capable of oppression as the likes of Stalin, Hitler, and the occasional member of the Bush family. This became an act against oppression because of the obvious content switch, but also because it was clearly UN-institutional. I knew there would be those in academics who would directly oppose these views, and I decided to do it anyway, even if it meant career suicide.
But it didn’t result in career suicide. It did result in many students now saying, “wow, I never saw that before.” Ok, sure they still yelled at me. But now the yelling included cries of outrage at never having noticed the system of oppression that infiltrates the very air we breathe. And slowly, people started recognizing that their good intentions were not enough of a buffer against racism, sexism, homophobia…that they had engaged in behaviors that communicated others were inferior just because of something like skin color.
This was all very exciting, from a teacher’s point of view. Classroom discussions became meaningful and heartfelt; students started to learn how to talk to each other about stuff that mattered! And I could watch them start to learn things, and then apply things…all very cool. I got better at teaching it, better at understanding what makes it hard to learn this stuff (it’s not intelligence, but rather experience) and better at understanding myself as well. While I did go through a phase of “stick it to them” attitudes towards dominant society, I grew tired of it, and began wondering how to include non-confrontational, non-aggressive, more reconciliatory aspects into myself and therefore the classroom. And that’s when I started really noticing how clever Oppression is.
We’d long moved beyond the notion that Privilege can fool people into believing difference doesn’t exist, in making especially those in dominant society blind to the inequities in society. People could see this, accept this, recognize how they benefitted from it. But what I started to see in my students was also how Oppression used Privilege to undermine personal agency, how it was very crafty at convincing us that there was nothing we could ever do to change it. “It’s just the way things are,” is Oppression’s slogan. And I saw this in the students, how they became good at identifying the problem but demoralized at thinking there was no solution.
So back to this chance classroom discussion, one where a group of students spontaneously brought up their feelings of sadness and humility at recognizing acts of racism. People can get very good at calling out others, but these students in particular were talking about what they had found themselves doing – thinking a racist thought about someone on the street, laughing at a racist joke, standing by as a family member called someone a racist name. And even recognizing bigger acts like treating someone poorly because they couldn’t speak English, talking to a family like they didn’t count because they were of lower SES. It was one big confessional, and the two things that stood out were: 1) I do these things, and 2)I didn’t notice it until now.
I thought that was amazing. Not #1. Number 1 is great and all, because it is an important step, but this time it was #2 that hit me. Why notice it now? What was happening before that it couldn’t be noticed? I mean these were things they had seen or done prior to this point. So what made now so different that racism could be seen, could be identified, and could be identified as wrong? What opened up the space for them to notice, and what gave them the courage to actually call it racism, instead of thinking, “oh, I’m reading into it.” So that’s what we talked about next. And what I really noticed was how so many of them were ready to discount this ability to notice, were ready to think they hadn’t really done anything special.
But it is special, I cried, because calling it out is your first act against it!
And the room changed. These people suddenly realized that they had actually DONE something. Now we just had to figure out how to keep doing it.
That’s a whole lotta words to explain half of the source of that little brainstorm. The other half is easy to explain: I watch too many movies. I’m a film junkie, a star-struck celebrity watcher, and a storyteller. Movies are how I unwind, how I transport myself to other places and how I turn my brain off. I still daydream about movie stuff, especially the one where I get discovered and they give me a million dollars. Ok, that’s probably more about the million dollars than a desire to act, but I had a daydream about interviewing famous people. Sort of like doing those dumb celebrity expose’s, but with good interview questions for a change. So that goofy little daydream merged with my true life experience, and turned into something like, “what if I interviewed celebrities about racism….well heck what if I interviewed celebrities about anti-racism….who cares about celebrities, what if I interviewed ordinary unknown people about the ways in which they resist racism?”
Heyyyy, that’s not a bad idea. So my fantasy life and my real life collided. I thought maybe I’d had a minor psychotic break.
But I tossed the idea around to a few people, and sure enough they thought it sounded good too. So now, it’s turned into myself and my darling partner, doing what we know how to do – interview people. On film. To create a counter-oppression story, to give voice to those who are used to ignoring their voices. To expose this trick of Oppression’s, the tendency to make us silent, and make loud a new narrative that says regular people, students even, can and do resist oppression all the time. And in that lies the key to building an equitable society.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m excited but still terrified. Back to the beginning – I have no idea how to actually make a movie. But we have enlisted some folks who do seem to know how to do that: some students who have experience in this area, and Information Tech Services, who have knowledge AND equipment. The next step is to get our interviewees and, well, interview them.
And I’m going to write this stuff down, because part of me still thinks I’m either dreaming or crazy. I guess you can draw your own conclusions.