Race Reels initiates difficult dialogue


A crowd consisting primarily of METCO families gathers in the Martin Luther King Jr. Room for a monthly Race Reels event. (Photo by Destiny David).

The room was full. Every seat was taken, with some people standing in the back. All eyes were on the screen as Weston High School graduate Kandice Sumner explained life as a Metropolitan Council for Education Opportunity (METCO) student.

She talked about waking up at dawn every day to catch the bus. She talked about being overly-congratulated for getting a good grade, as if her classmates were surprised. She told of the time one of her classmates asked if her mother had a boyfriend, even though her mother had been happily married for 17 years.

Far From Home, a documentary about the METCO program that follows Sumner through her senior year at West High School, was screened on Oct. 23 as part of Race Reels, a program meant to generate discussion on issues of race and racial identity, according to the program’s founder and School Within a School English teacher Abby Erdmann.

Race Reels, currently in its third year, shows a movie and hosts a discussion about race in the Martin Luther King Room once a month.

“Race is really difficult to talk about, and so most of us don’t,” Erdmann said. “I think is kind of a reminder that these are racial issues, and we need to keep thinking about them if we’re going to solve them.”

Malcolm Cawthorne, a history teacher and a member of the Race Reels committee, said that even though people think the Brookline community talks about race a lot, it really does not. He said that Race Reels gives students the opportunity to discuss race.

In the movie, Sumner talked about how METCO students have to work twice as hard. In the movie, she said that she feels like she has two brains: one for all the classes she takes and another to process the fact that “I’m black, they’re white. They’re looking at me.”

“It’s easy to fall through the cracks if you don’t know how to play the game – the white game,” Sumner said in the documentary.

According to junior Taylor James, a METCO student, much of the documentary was relevant to her life. Throughout the movie, she had moments of empathy with the students it follows.

“It was finally like people get to see what I go through,” James said. “It hits close to home.”

Erdmann said that a movie such as Far From Home is important for the people directly connected to it and for those who lack knowledge on the issue.

Far From Home is probably comforting if you’re in METCO, but it’s really important for those of us who are not in METCO to see and to understand,” Erdmann said.

WATCH: The trailer for Far From Home

Senior Marisa Lazar said that she thought Far From Home was great because she got to learn about the experiences of a group that is rarely discussed in the school.

“Race Reels provides a way to learn more about other people’s experiences in America and in the school system and really helps you open your view,” Lazar said.

Though the room was packed, there were very few non-METCO students at the event.

Erdmann said that getting people to attend has been a challenge in the past.

“It’s somewhat the nature of talking about race that people avoid it, which is why we need something like this, but then people avoid it,” Erdmann said.

Cawthorne mentioned this cycle as well. He said that because there is a lot of racial diversity in Brookline, people are afraid to talk about race because it might offend someone.

“I think until we have honest discussions, we’re actually setting ourselves up for more misunderstandings or ignorance, or even at its best, naïveté,” Cawthorne said. “We’re making assumptions about people and not really understanding where people are coming from.”

Both Cawthorne and Erdmann said that the goal of Race Reels is to counter these assumptions.

In the past, it has shown movies like Divided We Fall, which is about being a Muslim in post-9/11 America, Boston’s Finest, which is about policemen of color, and Mirrors of Privilege, which is about white privilege.

“It’s a message to give kids: that you talk about the hard things,” Erdmann said.”The conversations are going to be messy. They’re not going to be clean. They’re not always going to be easy, but they’re still worth doing.”

Maya Margolis can be contacted at [email protected]