Elevate Difference

What Makes Me White

Directed by Aimee Sands

In America we have seen a lot of victories in the battle against racism. An African American leader in the White House is a prominent sign of this progress. However, we still have far to go.

The recent arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Gates has made many rush to judgment saying he is using the “race card” to dismiss any wrong action he may have taken during the incident. On the other hand, some are calling the actions of the police officer overtly racist. Accusing either side of using or dismissing race is an easy way out of a difficult discussion. Thus, this news story provides an example of how society still has more work to do regarding racism.

What Makes Me White, a short film by Aimee Sands, presents the audience with a lot of questions and anecdotes about race and our places within the complex issue. It attempts to reveal the subconscious biases that we—all of society, but especially white America—have been taught to conceal and repress for the greater good. But what good is denying bias when it turns up in our actions and thoughts anyway?

The film features interviews with people recalling their experiences with race, including when they first became conscious of its existence. White people in the film tell stories about recognizing their own prejudices and learning about the prejudices of those around them. Susan Brigham, co-founder of Wayland Diversity Network, recalled when she first began to see her housekeeper as more than just a housekeeper. Unfortunately, this recognition didn’t happen until the woman’s funeral. This experience encouraged her to begin looking at diversity and establishing connections with people of all backgrounds.

I commend the list of people that were interviewed for the film. One such person featured is Peggy McIntosh who wrote the oft-cited essay "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." McIntosh imparts excellent insight into the concept of White privilege, which the film is steeped in. It recognizes that White people don’t have to think about the reality of being White. When we wake up, most mornings we face the world as a "normal" person, not specifically a White person.

Concepts and ideas about race given during the interviews are punctuated by narratives by the filmmaker about her own experience of being White and how she was trained not to speak about race. Through the artistic visuals and narration, the audience can feel her genuine thirst for understanding.

My main criticism of the film is that it doesn’t push far enough. It does start the conversation about race and allows White people to begin the process of acknowledging their relationship with race, but more needs to be explored. The film speaks mostly to upper middle class educated White populations, in particular those living in the northeast. A broader audience should be asked these same questions and brought into the conversation.

Perhaps, this film is the first of a series. Talking to average Americans of all ethnicities across the geographic boundaries of the US would bring another dimension to this relevant topic. We all want to believe this issue is behind us and that there isn’t discrimination in the actions of leaders and neighbors, but the truth is murkier, and prejudice does exist, even in the most empathic people. It’s hard to admit our bias, accept our experiences, and celebrate differences, but we must do all these things in order to get to the finish line in the quest for equality.

Written by: Andrea Hance, September 20th 2009