ACLU lawyer Jeffrey Robinson wants to educate all (i.e. white) Americans about the legacy of Afro-Atlantic slavery that built and is still helping build that country today. In 2019, the Pew Research Centre surveyed Americans and 58% of white Americans have a general understand of the legacy of slavery. I’m still on the fence if that number is disappointing or if I’ve lowered my expectations to say “hey, it’s more than 50”! So let’s say most people know that slavery took place but saying “slavery happened” still feels reductive. Robinson approaches one of great and ongoing American sins by letting other people explain that system with minute details.
Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America juxtaposes those visits with archival art of enslaved people. And the voice overs contextualize those images with what white auctioneers did those those slaves. They put slaves on diets to make them look healthier for white buyers, among other things. These details make for a great jumping off point to what others take from that legacy. The idea that “sports drafts are similar to slave auctions” is something that Colin Kaepernick popularized. When I heard that idea, it was contextualized within the framework on the backhanded compliment. The stereotype of Black physical superiority. This documentary, while using other words, pretty much says that that white people used that ‘superiority’ in their own benefit. The profits from that idea funded cities and financial institutions that stand to this day.
Racism has its personal effects, that’s obvious enough. To elaborate that point, Robinson also interviews the children of people who were victims of anti-Black murders during the Jim Crow era. One of his interview subjects includes a daughter of a businessman who died under the hands of white men who thought he was too successful. Robinson then asks her what her family’s trajectory was after the murder. Spoiler alert, they bounced from prosperity to poverty to middle class contentment. That seems like a bittersweet ending, but I can imagine the exhaustion that generations of Black people feel. They have to rebuild the wealth that white people take away and keep for their descendants.
History has its major and minor players. And people who study history after high school probably have more interest in how history plays out both the macro and micro levels. Robinson’s life changed because of both his parents and because of legislative changes. He was one of the few Black children who were able to go to white elementary schools. Integration, however, came at a price for him, since some kids used him as a target of anti-Black racism. He undergoes a shamanistic transformation as he recounts those stories old people tell. Regardless of race, some old people remind us youths of their childhood versions.
There are enough people who brigaded this movie calling this movie racist, and I can imagine someone saying that he only started working at the ACLU because of schoolyard bullying. But let me emphasize this part of that anecdote – white kids are old enough to yell racial slurs at Black children and other children of colour. Racism has ingrained itself into North American society and it’s so pernicious that children practice it. Pardon the cliché, but Robinson now does lectures in rooms with enough amount of white adults. He forces them to look in a mirror that they’ve avoided for centuries.
How astounding is racism’s effect on North American society, you might ask. It’s astounding enough that I included North America in that previous sentence. I can’t just pointing fingers at the sins and genocides down south. Documentaries like this are unfortunately perpetually relevant and that’s especially true today in Canada, as convoys of white supremacists are invading Ottawa. Stories like this are also perpetually developing. Regular people are getting conflicting news about how much the police are tolerating these groups. What is certain as that the police and the majority of white people who tune into the news are tolerating this white supremacist movement. They have this tolerance that they don’t have to legitimate groups like Black Lives Matter.
Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler’s Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America is a lecture documentary focusing on Jeffrey Robinson as he also visits unmarked places of Black history and marked places of white history. Watch it on Hot Docs.
- Rated: PG-13
- Genre: documentary
- Release Date: 2/4/2022
- Directed by: Emily Kunstler, Sarah Kunstler
- Produced by: Emily Kunstler, Jeffery Robinson, Sarah Kunstler
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