I hear why can’t we just all pretend to be white people? I’ll pretend you’re a white person and then you can pretend to be white. Why don’t you eat what I eat, why don’t you drink what I drink, why don’t you think how I think, why don’t you feel how I feel?” – Victor Lewis

I just watched this documentary after friend after friend in Black Feminists talked about how absolutely wonderful it was. It looks at race in America and explores what it means to be American, the idea of whiteness, racism among and within black* communities, the desire for whiteness – and try to convince one white man about the realities of racism.

The idea of 8 men sitting in a room talking for 1 1/2 hours does not sound immediately enthralling but watch it and it will draw you in.

I do wonder how the conversations would have changed if half the people had been women. There would have been discussion about the exoticism of black women’s bodies, the numbers of black women disproportionately dying during childbirth, the tension between speaking out against violations of women’s rights while not playing into racist stereotypes, the phenomenon of white women ‘saving’ black women from black men and so many other issues. Once again, we see a symptom of all the women are white and all the blacks are men syndrome and racism being viewed through a masculinised prism.

Saying that, the richness and depth of conversation the men were able to achieve over the weekend was remarkable. What is remarkable about the documentary is that you have black and white men talking about racism in dialogue with each other.  They all share their thoughts with honesty, even when thinking is diametrically opposed. You can see them on film really trying to grapple with the nuances of racism as it manifests – and their frustration in doing so. I am not particularly predisposed towards the white man in the group who keeps questioning the realities of the black men as they express them but even he tries to listen and understand – to an extent.

I am amazed at the patience and openness of the black men in particular. They kept trying to explain and trying to explain and it just was not getting through. I am surprised that nobody got up and walked out of the room, even when they were challenged and being told things like ‘Your problem is that you don’t see the world is open to you when it is. You think the white man is a block to your progress. He is not, you are.’ – David Christensen

It made me sad to see how much effort is needed to earn a slight shift in the thinking of one (more or less well-meaning) man – for a time. As Hugh Vasquez said, “I believe his ability to struggle against racism will wear off – unless he has other white men with him, unless he has other white people with him saying – keep going. If David and people like David are going to depend on people of colour to keep him going against racism, he won’t change, racism won’t change.”

This documentary was done in 1994. Almost twenty years later if this was done again and in the UK, I wonder how much would have changed? The answer I think is some of it – but not nearly enough. I hear so many echoes in what David Christensen was saying in conversations I have had about race over the years. In fact, some of it may have even intensified now.  Many believe we are living in a post-racial world where there is no such thing as race: there are (some) black people  who are MPs, in the House of Lords and in the Cabinet, are lawyers, doctors and judges and in universities who prove that you can achieve anything if you just try hard enough. That is the myth of an equality that looks just at opportunity and not at institutional and structural inequality and difference. As we can see from current immigration policy and rhetoric, the terrain of the struggle both has shifted and stubbornly remains the same.

If I was facing a white audience and they were asking me what I wanted from them, I would say justice. Because I cannot love you until you give me justice first.” – David Lee

* I use black in the political sense of the term. It denotes strength and solidarity in the shared past and continuing experiences of imperialism, slavery, resource extraction, inequality and power imbalance of all those descended (through one or both parents) from Africa, Asia (i.e. the Middle East to China, including the Pacific nations), Latin America, the original inhabitants of Australasia, North America and the islands of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean. It does so while acknowledging and celebrating our difference and diversity.