Content Warning: This piece includes mentions of racism and violence.
Whether you’re from the rural country or the city or the suburbs, whatever your gender identity or race or political affiliation, however old or young you may be: Here is a film for all Americans.
It’s called “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America.” And before you surreptitiously click away from this article, I want to say that I hear you. Racism isn’t fun or easy to think about. I understand the sense of trepidation that accompanies heavy topics. But if anything, this documentary reminded me of why it’s so crucial that we don’t turn a blind eye or tune out. There are real lives and real people at stake here, so whether you’re Black or white or neither (like me), you have a responsibility to hear these stories and learn this history — because it’s our history.
The documentary consists of personal anecdotes, eyewitness interviews and lectures given by Jeffery Robinson, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. Robinson opens the documentary by acknowledging that modern Americans are not the perpetrators of slavery in the United States. But he states that it’s still a part of our history, and we need to know our history in order to fully recognize the repercussions that continue to impact our lives. This understanding is what makes “Who We Are” particularly special — it gives a holistic, historical presentation of American racism that puts our modern experience of racism (including police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement, other injustices and our reactions to them) into its proper context.
Robinson also discusses something he calls the “tipping point,” and how it underscores the intriguing parallels in the history of racial oppression. He compares the progress of American racial equality movements to the act of rolling a boulder up a hill. After painstaking work and strenuous effort, the boulder finally reaches the top of the hill, where there are two possibilities: Either the boulder will cross over and roll down the other side of the hill, or it’ll tip backward and fall back down the same side, undoing the progress that was made. The precarious summit of the hill is this “tipping point” Robinson talks about. Throughout his historical presentation, he points out these various tipping points: Reconstruction tipped backward into the Jim Crow era, and when the Civil Rights Movement faltered, mass incarceration surged — with Black Americans now making up nearly 40% of the incarcerated population in America. Robinson paints the history of American racism as a cyclical undertaking and argues that we are currently at another tipping point in history. He calls his audience to take personal responsibility and see that the boulder makes it to the other side of the hill.
“Who We Are” illustrates a history of American racism that is more extensive than anything else I’ve previously encountered. Robinson cites primary sources and eyewitness testimony to corroborate his presentation of historical facts, delving deep into parts of history that are often glossed over in the American public education system. No matter your schooling, there’s undoubtedly much to be learned from this documentary.
Academic aspects aside, the personal anecdotes woven throughout this film are incredibly powerful in and of themselves. In a world where we’ve grown accustomed to hearing about discrimination and violence against Black people in the media, these stories bring us back to the striking reality: Racism is not normal. Racism is evil, the worst kind of evil, one that somehow enables a crowd of human beings to laugh and smile as they brutally mutilate and slaughter another human being. It’s impossible to hear these personal stories of violence without considering: What if it was my brother that they shot and killed, an 18-year-old boy with his hands up, saying “Don’t shoot?” What if my father was Black, and he was found dead in a ditch with his body riddled with bullet holes, because police didn’t want to allow the existence of a successful Black man? And it begs the question, how can racism go on?
“Who We Are” is a powerful, sharp demonstration of why racism is such a big deal. Throughout American history, racism never died; it just took on new forms. Instead of outright lynchings, there are countless Black men and women who have been shot and killed by the police in the light of day. Confederate symbols still abound in the United States, commemorating a war to perpetuate the enslavement of Black people. And yet there are still people who would call this documentary “propaganda” and say that slavery is dead and gone. It might be legally abolished, but there’s no denying that the legacy of American slavery continues to haunt us to this day. Don’t believe me? Watch “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America.” It’ll leave you speechless.
Daily Arts Writer Pauline Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.