Media Education Foundation film screening explores how racism hurts white Americans

Last modified: Friday, January 25, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — Will Syldor drove from Great Barrington to Smith College Monday evening for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day film screening he hoped would spark a different kind of conversation about race.

“A lot of folks conceptualize racism as an issue that only affects people of color,” said Syldor, who is an AmericCorps fellow at the Railroad Street Youth Project in Great Barrington. “But if folks don’t identify it as a hurt, that’s how they rationalize supporting it.”

Northampton resident Sarah Lince was also drawn by the film’s topic, “How Racism Harms White Americans.”

“This is the piece of the conversation that never gets talked about,” said Lince, an academics program coordinator for Five Colleges Inc. in Amherst. “That’s what brought me here.”

The 45-minute film, produced by Northampton’s Media Education Foundation, shows a lecture given at Smith last summer by John H. Bracey Jr., a former civil rights activist and longtime professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The event was co-sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee and the Smith College department of anthropology.

More than 100 people braved an early evening snowstorm Monday to attend the film’s MLK Day debut at Stoddard Hall on the Smith campus.

“MLK Day is my favorite American holiday,” said Sut Jhally, executive director of the Media Education Foundation and director of the film. “Part of the reason we did this is we wanted to offer an evening event for MLK.”

In the film, Bracey describes the economic, political and social costs of racism that white Americans — particularly poor whites — have paid since the country’s founding.

From the millions of white soldiers who died in the Civil War to the depressed wages of white workers who failed to include blacks in their early labor unions, Bracey recounts how racism and white privilege have been a brake on democracy and progress.

In his view, racism is also an obstacle to understanding the country’s history.

“One of the costs of white racism is you don’t see the contributions of black people,” Bracey says in the film. “You don’t know who is important and who’s not.”

His lecture also explores the racist reactions of some whites after the election of the country’s first black president.

“Obama is the perfect president for white people but white people don’t get that,” Bracey says in the film. “You’re treating Obama like a servant. He’s not the help. He’s the president.”

In a discussion after the screening, audience members picked up on that present-day thread.

“Did you foresee we would be having a second Obama inauguration?” one man asked.

“Anyone who says they could have predicted this would be lying,” Jhally replied. “Even those of us who are critical of what Obama has done can’t deny the importance of him being a black president.”

Others wanted to know what can be done to address the continuing costs of racism.

“We’re fighting amongst ourselves, we the 99 percent, while the other 1 percent goes on vacation,” noted one man.

When asked why Bracey was not at the screening, Jhally explained that the professor was in Washington at Obama’s inauguration, which also took place Monday.

“John told me that he wasn’t sure when there would next be a black president, so he wanted to be there,” Jhally said.


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