What's Race Got to Do with It?



More than 40 years after the Civil Rights Movement, America faces the paradox of being a nation “with racism, but without racists,” as sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has put it. Racial inequality is harder to recognize in a world where it no longer announces itself with white-only signs. Meanwhile, the idea of “colorblindness” conveniently allows us to condemn prejudice and bigotry while ignoring how racism contributes to the vast disparities that persist right under our noses.

Not surprisingly, many of today’s students, born in the post-Civil Rights era, don’t seek out opportunities to engage in diversity programs and interracial dialogue. They feel they’ve heard it all before or wonder why we’re still talking about a problem that ended a long time ago. More often than not in these discussions, structural racism is ignored and multiculturalism gets confused with equality. Even many students of color don’t realize how underlying conditions impact opportunity.

Too few resources exist to help young people scrutinize their own assumptions, beliefs and attitudes about race – using language they understand, spoken by their peers. At a time when campuses are struggling to close achievement gaps, foster inclusion, and promote diversity - while equity initiatives across the country are under attack - we responded to the demand for a new tool that is up to date and speaks directly to students’ doubts and concerns in today’s post-Civil Rights world.

What’s Race Got to Do with It? chronicles the journey of a diverse group of students participating in a 15-week intergroup dialogue program at U.C. Berkeley. As the students share personal stories, debate hot topics, and confront one another about the role race plays in their lives, they make discoveries about their preconceived ideas and assumptions, and in so doing, help us begin to disentangle our own.  The film goes beyond identity politics, celebratory history and guilt trips to help viewers “see through” achievement myths and create a safe space for open, honest exchange, particularly within educational environments.

In some ways, What’s Race Got to Do with It? is a “sequel” to our earlier release Skin Deep, because it highlights an interracial dialogue and provides a window into the different attitudes and assumptions that young people hold about race and equality.However, it goes further by highlighting the unique challenges and obstacles that students from disadvantaged backgrounds face compared to their peers (e.g., isolation, discomfort, underrepresentation, lack of encouragement and support, financial and emotional stress, societal disparities) and helping us understand the structural and institutional conditions underlying those difficulties.

In addition, the film focuses not just on what’s being said but also what’s not being discussed openly – the underlying fears, frustration, ignorance and confusion that render unproductive so many of our conversations about racism. The film spotlights the stories young people use to rationalize (to themselves and others) the persistence of racial disparities as well as the rhetorical strategies and often-loaded language they employ to evade, resist or deflect ideas that are unsettling. And it reveals just how different our experiences and perceptions can be of the world we ostensibly share – how something that is painfully obvious to one person can be invisible to another.

What’s Race Got to Do with It? does not attempt to replicate the experience of the class nor does it supply easy answers or address the concerns of every group. What it does provide is a starting point for a deeper, more productive level of conversation – one grounded in real-life issues and experiences. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the students on screen, their stories help get the “high stakes” topics out on the table, in a manner accessible to individuals who have never thought much about race as well as long-time activists. Perhaps most importantly, the film challenges each of us to reflect on existing disparities and the responsibility we all share – individually and institutionally – to create more equitable conditions for everyone.