June 28, 2010
Author: Sean Maher, Oakland Tribune
OAKLAND — Activism for racial justice is a worthy endeavor, but like any other well-intentioned effort, it can lack long-term impact if its champions aren't careful, a local filmmaker cautioned as she works to complete a movie about exactly that. World Trust Educational Services is an East Bay nonprofit that examines social justice through film, holding screenings of self-produced work and engaging the community in conversations after each screening. Its annual fundraiser was held Sunday at Samuel Merritt University, drawing more than 100 people to preview footage from the latest film.
"We're trying to shift and deepen the framing of race in this country," Executive Director Shakti Butler said. "The conversation right now is supremely shallow. It's stuck in, 'Am I racist or not a racist,' which is irrelevant. You also hear, 'I don't see color,' which is born out of the need to really be a good person. It's all looked at individually, when the major problems now are systemic." The third World Trust film, a work in progress titled "Cracking the Codes: Race, Relationships and Healing in the 21st Century," is an effort to inspire exploration of the structure on which today's racism is built, Butler said. "For example," she said, "if you ask my son, 'Why did you think that to be cool in high school, you had to hang with the kids who were not doing education, but you'd come home and do your homework?' He couldn't tell you. But it's based on how people fit in."
Understanding the structure behind that social and societal pressure is critical to making any real impact, Butler said. For example, she said, a group of parents could raise funds and buy books and computers for a low-income school, buying paint to fix it up, but without establishing long-term changes to the system that funds that school, it would fall back into disrepair. "Would that be a wasted effort? No. Would some people benefit? Yes. But would it produce change in the long run? No," Butler said. "It's time for us as a nation to look at how complex racism is, so that we're not just putting paint on the problem. That means understanding the systems that keep it going, and also how we absorb false boundaries into our own personalities." Ericka Huggins, a former leader in the Black Panther party and now a college educator, is interviewed in the new film and said she hopes it inspires not just action, but introspection. "Activism without reflection is not really serving," Huggins said. "(Butler) is setting it up so we can look at ourselves in the mirror and also look at both sides of the coin. I think it's ab eautiful construction. "It's about how each of us can lift the veil of denial about the impact of race on our lives in the U.S. and begin healing the trauma that is the result of racism. The way to do that is begin to have honest conversations about what we can do to heal and how we can practice reflection so we don't pass this on to the next generation."
Oakland performer, teacher and author Ise Lyfe, also a part of the film, echoed Huggins' generational concern. "For my grandfather, he tells me stories of being 22 years old in the south and an 8-year-old white boy walking past. He'd have to step off the sidewalk to let the boy go by," Lyfe said. "That's different from what I experienced growing up in the crack epidemic in East Oakland." "We don't talk about that in history classes," Lyfe added. But its aftereffects are huge and include a new, unnatural view whereby black families are seen as almost naturally ripped apart, he said. Among the results are a new set of boxlike identities available to young blacks: being a rapper, an athlete or a drug dealer. "I don't think we've created those boxes within our community," Lyfe said. "It was passed to us, and we accepted it. It's like the radio: They choose what 10 songs are the hot songs, and we choose our favorites out of the 10. "I see that as an obstacle in every oppressed community. We don't take the initiative to find ourselves and who we are." "We are being given these slots, and we all compete for them without defining our own space," he said. "At some point you absolutely become subservient — you don't have a choice. "There's no way out if someone is always telling you how to gauge what your boundaries are, what you have to overcome a choice and also what are the things that bring home prestige, that qualify you as successful. In the long run, we're not defining ourselves."
Samina Sundas, founder of a Palo Alto-based Muslim organization seeking to bridge gaps between cultures and religions, attended the fundraiser Sunday. "I think the event was very timely and really wonderful," Sundas said. "If we don't stand together, there's no way to change. It's time we break down these barriers and really work together — it can't just be black for the blacks, Muslims for the Muslims and so on. That's the message I came away with."
Contact Sean Maher at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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