"It's like a subtle undercurrent," the black woman claims, in response to a question put to her by Craig Bodeker about whether she experiences racism in Denver. It turns out that the "undercurrent" is so subtle that none of the blacks or whites interviewed could pin down specific instances of meaningful, substantive bias that affected their daily lives or those of other non-whites. If your life is not impacted in some negative way, that is, if you are not prevented from going about your business, whether work or social, just what are we talking about, when we use the word "racism?" This term surely doesn't seem to mean today what it probably meant to a 1930s black sharecropper.
Bodeker, who is white, decided he wanted to follow up on presidential candidate Barack Obama's Philadelphia speech, delivered this past March, in which Obama claimed that it was time for the country to engage in a conversation about race. Hence, the title of this thoughtful documentary film, A Conversation About Race, in which Bodeker interviews what looks like a diverse group of people – 20-somethings, individuals who look to be in their 30s, 40s and 50s, blacks, whites, and Hispanics.
Belief in "racism" today, in most cases, is exactly that – a belief. Bodeker opens the film citing his suspicions about the term itself and the people who use it frequently. He says, "I can't think of another issue that is more artificial, manufactured and manipulated than this whole construct called "racism."
Several of the interviewees claim, "I see racism every day," and then hem and haw when asked to be specific, or else talk in generalities. Or they offer some of the most tenuous examples and digress into platitudes. A 50-ish white woman, who appears to be overly careful and self-conscious in her response to the request for her definition of racism, declares, "Racism is when we chop ourselves into categories." She then wanders off into philosophical convolutions about how there is no separation. "I am you. I'm the chair. I'm the wall. I'm the rock, I'm the tree, I'm everything." Okay, but what is racism?
A black man (in his 40s, perhaps?) is sure he knows what racism is, and offers what he considers a couple of examples. One day, when he went to a local library to use a computer, "I noticed that one of the guys who worked in the library is staring at me. He's pretending that he's going to get coffee, but he's staring at me, while I'm using the computer. So, then when I leave, he and one of the other librarians said, 'Well, goodbye now [he does a waving gesture].' They gave me the impression that they were saying good riddance now."
Did anyone interfere with his use of the computer or the library facilities? Apparently not. But he got those "impressions," and that's good enough to earn for the library staff the reproach of "racist."
This same black man, after informing the interviewer more than once that he "prefers to date white women," tells of his experience on this front. "I get stares from white guys. I was at a night club not long ago and I'm out dancing, and a white guy walks by and says, 'You're a good dancer.' I don't need to hear that. Then he gets on the dance floor by himself and he starts dancing like he's some kind of great dancer, apparently trying to show me up."
One wonders, is this a case of imagining that white men are jealous of him for his prowess with white women, which is, perhaps, the very emotion that he wishes to incite? Is being told by a drunk on a dance floor that you're a good dancer a clear sign of racism? And how exactly does that affect one's life?
The whites interviewed are so typical in their vehemence about the existence of racism. Like a great many whites, they enjoy beating up on themselves, as they tell stories of how they "conquered" their former conditioning. A 20-ish blonde woman, apparently very sincere, tells about a black who was being loud on the train she takes every day, and how she instinctively felt critical about this behavior.
She condemned the thoughts that came into her head during the rowdiness. "Oh, black people, they're so loud. Or black people this, or black people that. And it's wrong. I realized it right away. The culture I grew up in was white culture, and the racist culture that we live in is just bound to get you in one way or another." One assumes that the "white culture" that upsets her so now was one where she was taught to behave with civility in public. However, to expect that of others is, I guess, intolerant. So now we have another white person who has seen the light and overcome her intolerance and, hence, her "racism."
A white man, who could be in his late 20s or 30s, claims to see racism constantly against non-whites: "I see how my friends have to struggle just getting through the day and struggling with the people in their lives." What? His remark reminds me of one made by New York City's former Mayor Ed Koch on a radio talk show. Now, if anyone knows better, Ed Koch does. But on this occasion, he got carried away in a discussion on racism, and described a terrible society that "all blacks" face every day. From the minute a black leaves his home in the morning to go to work, according to Koch, he encounters ugly, persistent racism, which goes on throughout the day. Just where is this going on, I wanted to ask him. In New York? In Chicago, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Houston? Where are blacks being tormented openly, and on a daily basis, in this country?
I wanted to challenge Koch, to pick any black man, go off to work with him, and spend the day on his job, and wherever he goes in the evening. And then come back and report on the terrible, racist encounters that the black man suffered. There are whites who, for reasons that might only be explained by psychiatrists, persist in living with the fixation of the "persecuted black" who is still in a relentless struggle with bad white folks. The whites who hold such beliefs are, of course, the "good white folks." What psychic need is fed by this over-the-top, melodramatic view of life in America?
Getting back to the interviews, there is, of course, the black with the complaint about shopping in stores, although he/she might not have encountered the situations they portray. A 20-ish black woman, in her interview, relates: "Say you have a white person walk in; they won't greet the white person. But when a black person comes in, they'll get on you and ask you if there's something I can help you with, can I interest you in something. They'll pay closer attention to the black person."
And here we have the damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario. Blacks have been so conditioned to crave the acceptance of whites that mere indifference on the part of a white person to the presence of a black is a stamp of "racism." Whites must be conscious at all times of the neediness of blacks, and behave appropriately, if they are to escape the damning charge of "racist." Giving no attention in a store or restaurant gets whites in trouble, and offering "too much" attention also gets them in trouble. Don't ignore me, but don't pay too much attention to me either. If you do, you're a racist.
A light-skinned black man, 50-ish, whom I would have taken for a white, tells the interviewer about a "vivid recollection" he still has about a "racist" encounter. He was standing on a ski lift line, as a teenager, where members of the family in front of him were laughing and talking together. "I made what I thought was a curious comment, and the father turned around and looked at me, and as soon as he realized that I wasn't just like him, his face froze. The whole family, everybody stopped laughing, because it was immediately not funny."
So, not responding to a stranger's remarks is racist. To whom has this not happened – black-on-black, as well as white-on-white? You miscalculate entering a private conversation and get the cold shoulder. Considering that this man has carried this memory around with him for decades, and this is the story about "racism" he chose to tell, one wonders if this is the worst incident of its kind. Over all these years, has he not suffered anything worse than silence from strangers?
I found these interviews fascinating, and I could go on with commentary about more of them. However, it is far more effective to see the interviewees and to watch the body language, along with their responses. The DVD of this film is well worth buying, since it is unique for its frankness on a subject that most people try to avoid. Although I hope I'm wrong, I think it would be unlikely to see this documentary presented on PBS, which is where it belongs. It might be too politically incorrect for the likes of Public Television's multicultural zealots.
Craig Bodeker's low-key narrative is superlative, as he ties the various themes together, and explores what he calls "multiple disconnects, inconsistencies, and double standards." He gets his respondents to discuss whether they believe particular groups excel in certain fields; why Asians tend to outdo everyone else academically; whether whites have a right to be advocates for their own racial group; and attitudes towards immigration.
A black man, in one of the interviews, condemns Bodeker's supposed forefathers, who "came over here and did their dirty deed," i.e., deceived the Indians and took their land. In his concluding summary, Bodeker calmly speculates on why it is acceptable to assign collective racial guilt to all whites, for the actions of a minute fraction, who operated hundreds of years ago, and yet it is not acceptable to assign collective racial guilt to blacks, for example, for the crimes they themselves have committed in this decade alone.
He informs the viewer that, like millions of white Americans, his ancestors came to this country after the Civil War. "No forefather of mine ever killed an Indian or owned another human being." Yet he, along with millions of other whites, still gets blamed for crimes his forefathers never committed.
For further information on A Conversation About Race, and to learn how you may purchase the DVD, visit Craig Bodeker's website.