Race Reels opens new dialogue

Photo by Jackie Merrill

“I think our generation is especially good at connecting the dots and fighting in a way that lifts up all of us,” said Sikh activist and filmmaker Valarie Kaur after a screening of her documentary, Divided We Fall, in the MLK Room on Oct. 17 as part of the Race Reels documentary series.

SWS English teacher Abby Erdmann, who teaches the Identity, Race and Literature course, began the Race Reels documentary series in an effort to spark conversations around the difficult topic of race.

“I’ve been here since 1973, and I’ve felt that a weakness in what we do is we don’t have conversations about race. I thought to do a film series that would be school-wide, would draw different people in to start conversations about race,” Erdmann said. “Race is like a moving escalator. If you don’t walk against it, you’re going to get carried along with it.”

The first film in this year’s series, Divided We Fall, explores an issue that strays from the mainstream conversations about racism. Kaur, at the time a young college student, left school for a year to document post-9/11 violence toward Sikh-Americans, distinct because of their turbans and long beards.

According to Kaur, the media gives relatively little attention to the post-9/11 racial profiling and hate crimes suffered by minority groups such as the Sikh, who are often viewed as anti-American terrorists simply due to their appearance.

By exploring this largely unaddressed issue, Race Reels aimed to leave people with a new awareness, according to Erdmann.

Divided We Fall—the title says it all. We’re a very divided nation. You can watch the debates and see it everywhere. I think it’s going to be our downfall,” she said.

Most recently, attention was turned to the Sikh-American community when a white supremacist entered a Gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs, in Oak Creek, WI, and opened fire, killing six people and wounding three others.

This national tragedy brought attention to the long neglected issue of anti-Sikh violence, according to Kaur.

“It’s not only telling their stories, we were asked to explain our Sikh religion. And the media’s dominant frame was Sikhs are not like Muslims, tell us how you are not like Muslims and how you are mistaken for Muslims, as if there is a correct target,” Kaur said.

According to senior Eva Ackerman, previous Race Reels events focused on African-American and Caucasian issues. She said that the film changed the way she thought about racial profiling.

“American culture legitimizes racism toward people that they deem terrorists or that look like terrorists,” Ackerman said. “Before the movie, I had legitimized it in a lot of ways. In airports, I had thought that it was for my safety that they were racist towards certain people then I realized after the movie how ridiculous it was for me to think that.”

Senior Julian Cranberg said that he found both the film and Kaur’s words moving and compelling.

“You could tell, from seeing her in the movie versus her in person, that it really built her confidence,” Cranberg said. “Like she had said at the end, the process had brought her through a life-changing experience. It was really cool to see how that one experience completely changed who she was and made her into such a powerful person.”

Cranberg said he hopes that the discussion Race Reels opens up will spread throughout the school and draw attention to the topic of race, so that it no longer goes ignored.

“I think it’s commonplace to hear the Brookline stereotype that we’re so liberal and well-minded that there aren’t any problems,” Cranberg said. “I think there are and we need discussions about them. It’s easy to put it off and say it’s taken care of because everyone is accepted here, but they’re not.”

Kaur urged the students to take action while still young and spoke of how she overcame the initial fear she possessed when she first began the film.

“People pay attention when you’re young. When your intentions are clean hearted, when others call it naive it is really an innocence that you lose when you get older. It’s a source of hope,” Kaur said. “You have that now. It’s not time to wait to make a change in the world.”

Yijin Yang can be contacted at [email protected]