Light in Shadows Q+A with Penny Rosenwasser
With the rerelease of our film, Light in the Shadows, a roundtable conversation among a multicultural group of women about race, we’re revisiting the most controversial aspect of the movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the trailer for the film.
The women featured were social justice advocates from different racial and professional backgrounds, who spoke openly about their personal experiences with systemic racism.
A major shift occurs when an African American participant, ericka huggins, challenges a white Jewish participant, Penny Rosenwasser. Rosenwasser refers to the fight against racism as her “work.” huggins pushes back, saying that the fight toward racial equality is her life experience, not work, or something that can be released at will.
World Trust spoke to Rosenwasser, more than 15 years after that conversation took place, about her experience during filming. Spoiler alert: She was, and is, just fine. And she hopes more people can open themselves up to conversations that inspire real transformation.
How did you end up at the taping?
I met Shakti in graduate school at California Institute of Integral Studies. I’d been a longtime social justice activist and was studying how people learn and how people change.
What was on your mind when filming began?
There was a poster on the wall from some spiritual tradition, “That which is inside you, you must share.” If you don’t share it will come out in other ways. I remember thinking, may I be authentic and share.
How did you feel about discussing issues of race on camera?
I was nervous and excited. I felt honored to be included. I wanted to show up and be present. I was trying to keep my hands open and was aware of my body language. I wanted to be open in a conversation about race. I wasn’t expecting it to always look perfect or pretty, but I wanted to be responsive.
Were you concerned that you’d be misunderstood?
I knew there was a big chance I’d say something that would be the wrong thing, not that I’d be misunderstood. Pretty early on — I started talking about “this is my work.” Then Ericka made the comment about your work/my life.
Did her comment make sense to you?
That had never occurred to me before. I was shocked, like, what do you mean? The big piece for me is grasping the effect of racism on these women in my life and why it’s in my interest as a white person to end it. That was the biggest piece that stayed with me for days — that for me it was a choice, and for them it’s not a choice.
Can you explain the shock you felt?
Working around racism became a priority for me early in my adulthood. It was a priority in my life and I was saying in “my work” meaning this is who I am. Ericka and the others explained to me that I had the privilege to make a choice about working on it or not — it was humbling and disorienting. It definitely threw me.
How did you feel afterward?
It was overwhelming. I didn’t feel that great about myself. I had done the best I could. I didn’t want to be the white person in the room who was scared of making a mistake. That was one of the things I was learning from my African American friends, the importance of striving to be authentic. Several of the women reached out to me that day and others called me later, to get together and talk. A couple of them became friends of mine.
In your social justice work, did you feel emboldened or discouraged?
I had to lick my wounds, but I was in a doctoral cohort where this was what we were working on. There was no way I was jumping ship. Disorienting experiences create learning environments that make us reevaluate our assumptions and question everything we knew. That was good.
How do you talk to white women engaged in social justice issues, but have limited understanding of systemic racism and how white people benefit from it?
I’ve learned the power of listening. When something comes up, I try to frame it as a question because people can be completely unaware. Like, can you talk more about that? That sounds like racism to me. It’s about having an open heart and having a commitment.