How do we talk about race and racism in this country? Not as deeply as we should, according to filmmaker and educator Dr. Shakti Butler. On this edition, we hear excerpts from Dr. Butler’s film “Cracking the Codes”, and speak with her about using the medium of film to start conversations around the thorny issues of racial inequity.
Dr. Shakti Butler, World Trust founder and Creative Director; Humaira Jackson, Hugh Vasquez, Y. Jelal Huyler, Aeeshah B. Clottey, Ise Lyfe, Cracking the Codes interview subject.
Thank you to production intern Lisa Barfai and to “World Trust Educational Services.”
Jen Chien: This week on Making Contact…
Peggy Mcintosh: So these white women, breaking up over their first experience of hearing about racism. They are basket cases–partly because of their bad, bad education.
JC: How do we talk about race and racism in this country? Not as deeply as we should, according to filmmaker and educator Dr. Shakti Butler…
Shakti Butler: So we point to the people who are individuals who are people of color who have quote, end-quote, “made” it in this society and of course we have Barack Obama therefore everything is fine. But in fact, that’s not the case.
JC: On this edition, we hear excerpts from Dr. Butler’s work, and ask, why she uses the medium of film to start conversations around the thorny issues of racial inequity.
I’m Jen Chien, and this is “Making Contact”, a program connecting people, vital ideas, and important information.
JC: Dr. Shakti Butler and her organization, World Trust, use documentary film, dialogue and education to address the deep complexities of race and racism. Her latest film, Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity, looks at the structural and institutional nature of racial injustice by using engaging personal stories, anecdotes, and insights from a variety of people. Let’s listen to a few clips from the film.
Humaira Jackson: When I was really young probably up until the age of about eight or nine. The social network the relationships the family friends were all mostly people of South Asian-descent. I wasn’t so aware of myself as a racial being. And then something shifted and at that point I started rejecting my own culture, community. Quite, I think quite drastically. Although there were a lot of people of color around me I really wanted to be accepted and assimilate with white people.
Hugh Vasquez: I think one of the biggest disturbances I have about my dad in particular has to do with his upset with how dark he is. I remember about ten years ago, and I am 54 so this wasn’t that long ago, ten years ago he was visiting and he showed me a picture of himself when he was four years old. I had never seen pictures of him when he was young before. He never showed any photos of himself to us. I look at the picture and there’s this cute, beautiful four-year old boy, dark, dark, dark. They lived in the desert so they were even darker, right. They live out there in the desert dark picture of this cute four-year old. And I say, “Dad you are so cute, how come you’ve never showed me these pictures before? This is the first time I’ve seen them”. He said,”Well, look at it! I look like a goddamn piece of charcoal”
Y. Jelal Huyler: Fact!
Racially we are almost completely the same. Ask an anthropologist.
We are all, every people less than .1% different.
Other 99.9 is what makes us humankind.
But the human mind,
is a master at building barriers.
The human psyche will do almost anything to remove dissonance. Dissonance means that which is outside of your comfort-zone.
JC:That was Humaira Jackson, Hugh Vasquez, and Y. Jelal Huyler from Dr. Shakti Butler’s film Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity. I sat down recently with Dr. Butler in Making Contact’s studio, for a conversation about filmmaking, creating community, and challenging racial oppression.
JC:Thank you Shakti Butler for coming on to Making Contact! Your new film Cracking the Codes very specifically looks at racism as a systemic and structural issue. And um I’m just wondering if you could talk a little bit about how that orientation towards racism is different than looking at it from an individual perspective?
Shakti Butler: Well I think that most of us are trained to think about race in terms of whether or not I am a good person or whether or not I would do that. I would never do that so therefore that would be my individual position. It’s what allows for a lot of people to talk about or consider that we are “post racial:” Well in fact racilization which is a word I am going to use, coined by John Powell, as a noun meaning it is a process that goes on. Racialization is filled with economic barriers that are part of a system, a larger systems um that turns out disparities and if we don’t understand the system and how it functions then we can’t really address it in any kind of way that is sustainable.
JC: Who’s the intended audience? For this film and for other films that you make.
SB: Anybody who’s interested in creating an equitable and just society could be interested in this film. Who buys the film and works the film primarily are educators and faith based organizations and government agencies and nonprofits or and that kind of thing. We all make up the system so therefore I assume that everyone can benefit from understanding how it functions.
JC: And so when you make a film what is your idea of where it’s going to be seen? It doesn’t strike me as a type sit down, going to the movie theater kind of film. When you imagine the ideal place and way for people to watch your film.
SB: Ideally people will watch it with the purpose of being able to have a conversation. It’s not meant be watched alone or be watched without a conversation. So build into this film explicitly are places where you can stop and talk.
JC: Let’s talk a little bit about World Trust. That’s your organization that’s an educational organization. Can you talk about the mission statement?
SB: Yes, Our mission statement is ”Through education rooted in love and just World Trust Is a catalyst for racial equity. So World Trust really is about transformation. And its about transforming minds and hearts. Some people might add souls depending on your perspective. But when you look at the conversation around race which is typically individual. And you look at the conversation through an organizational lenses people who do organizational work who understand systems and structures you also understand we human beings have been killing each other since time immemorial. The deeper meaning of World Trust is that how do you not only go to the roots which is understanding the system but go to the seed? Like what is it that causes us as human beings to be so afraid that we cannot see that there really is enough for everybody. And that everybody benefits when all boats are lifter. So our purpose is to create films that transform but they are also designed to invite people to ask new questions because really that’s how transformation can happen.
JC: Now this is a big question but it sort of begs to be asked. What are some of the answers to that question? What is it that makes human beings be that way? And how is it that we can help to make that better?
SB: I believe that we are paradoxical beings. That we are capable of greatness and we are capable of the antitheses of that but we tend to want to look at only where we shine and where were do a good job and all efforts are towards mmm getting answers and being the best that we can be. But in fact we all have shadow sides and if we don’t investigate that and if we don’t look over there and see what is actually going on then we can’t address it, so we have to be willing to question who we are individually and collectively and how we show up in the world and I think that is something that I am deeply interested in from lots of diff persp. Does that make sense?
JC: Definitely. It seems like that with your film work you want to put your light on the shadow side so we can crack it open.
SB: People who are willing to look I mean sometime you don’t even know you are willing to look until you realize its not just about you personally. Its not just about how you show up in the world its about how we show up in the world and what we create in our institutions and that’s rooted in histories and culture and identity but it’s moved by power and economics. So if we don’t really understand that part we can’t really look at how to make sustainable change.
JC: I am wondering about your own background as a filmmaker and doing this kind of transformative educational work. Where did that come from?
SB: Well, right of the top I have the good fortune to be married to a four time Emmy award winning cameraman so that when I said, “Hey Baby, I have this idea” he said, “Ok”. Basically the content and my interest in the content comes from the fact that I am a mixed race African American women. Meaning, When I was born there was no such thing as a mixed race, you were either black or not. And I grew up in Harlem understanding very clearly what it meant to live where I lived and then go to private school from 3rd grade on being the only young girl of color in that school. I then I learned I had to have a different language different ways if being going back and forth between those two worlds. It was also the height of the civil rights movement and I also lived close to Malcolm X and I got to hear him speak all the time and I understood the issues I saw my people suffering and I saw the unawareness of that suffering and didn’t understand it. So I think just by how I am and having a deep yearning for justice. And having a deep interest also in love. The power of love. Not personal love or romantic love but the power of love to make change. How do I play a part in making the world a better place? And the rest of it just kind of unfolded.
JC: How did you hit upon film as the best medium for your message?
SB: Aside from the fact that was available to me its people are moved by film. Film can express so much more quickly and fully an idea or series of ideas. It’s really a prime opportunity to reach people at a lot of different levels. So you can’t just work with the intellect and you can’t just work with the heart. You have to include both and people has to be motivated to work with you And film has the potential to do that because you can relate to the stories that you see. That you might not ordinarily be thinking about but then when you see it, it resonates with you. When people have that experience as a shared experience then it’s really a setup for connecting and becoming motivated to actually do something.
Jen Chien: So, let’s hear another clip from your film, Cracking the Codes. This one is a Black woman telling a story about going to a Chinese restaurant with her daughter. Can you set this one up for us?
Shakti Butler: Okay, so what you are about to hear is a clip where the person who is speaking is Aeeshah Clottey. She’s describing a situation whereby she has already made a commitment to healing herself from the disease called racism, so she considers it a disease. And in the clip speaks to how she found herself in a position where she reached out to someone who was rejecting her and her people. And how she found a way to make a connection with this woman.
Aeeshah Clottey: Waitresses were passing by us, nobody was really stopping. I called one of them and said, “I’d like to get an order to go” She said, “Wait a minute”. She left and never came back. I was sitting there, and two minutes had passed and I said, “Wait a minute!”. Finally an elderly woman was at the counter so I said, “Let me go up and talk to her”. I walked up to her and I was reading some stuff off and she wasn’t writing anything down. So I finished my order and she looked at me and she said, “We don’t serve you people”. I looked at this woman and said, “Look it’s ok. You don’t have to serve me. But I really want you to think about what you are doing” I said, “There are all kinds of people in the world.There are good Black people, and bad Black people. There are good Chinese people, and bad people. Good white people and bad white people. It was like I was having an out of body experience. I was looking deep into her eyes. It was like I had captured her, and she was listening and I was sharing. I just want you to think about the message you are sending to young people by saying, “We don’t serve your people. Who are you people?”
Jen Chien: I wanted to ask you about what is happening visually while Aeeshah is telling her story. The audience sees and image that goes into a black studio space and an image of an Asian woman dressed in black and a Black woman dressed in black exchanging colored scarves. There’s this theatricalized or abstracted image to this story that she’s talking about. I wanted to ask you about how you came up with that kind of visual idea for the film?
SB: I wanted the film to have theater and art and music and a way a away to touch people and kind of shake up our preconceived notions of who we are and how we can interact with one another. The power of that story is it’s a story literally of transformation that we get to see. Because people are moving physically across the stage but they are also moving physically through the exchange of the scarves. And so transformaitive learning really is my field and what it says is that every human being has an embedded assumption of how they think the world works. When that gets interrupted we have a chance for deep learning and change. And, so the theater is a tool to help amplify the words that are being said on a lot of different levels.
JC: How else did you use visual imagery in the film to get at that?
SB: Well we had several theater pieces in the film. So each place where we decided to use theater were stories that were really poignant that could benefit from people seeing them in a way that is amplified. So for example we have Ise Lyfe who is an African American man and an educator. Who is talking about how he felt that he was trapped in a box based upon peoples expectations of what he could be.
Ise Lyfe: So let’s say you grew up in the suburbs, or you grow up in an affluent area in a city that has an affluent area and a ghetto. But your Black, a Black boy. You get to school and you get to school and there’s a box for you. That box say you rap, your an athlete you’re slightly to highly misbehaved, you’re not involved or into your education that much. you sell and/or use drugs. That’s the box you are accepted in. And in order to pay ball, no pun intended, that’s how you interact with yourself, your own identity. And that’s how you are cool. But you feel like the box that it traps you in, is you feel like, that to be healthier, to be in a more sound mind-state, to think and know, to come from a place of foundation in your life i s something you have to be ashamed of and it can drive you crazy.
JC: And so the visuals for that part of the film is, can you explain that, describe what’s happening, that theatrical moment?
SB: Yes the theatrical moment is that there is a young African American man who is surrounded by four people making a square that are saying you know Rap! Crack! etc. Over in the distance is a young man who is graduating from college and he’s saying “No, I want to get over there. I want to be over there.” You get to understand you think at a visceral level what it means to have to buck the system of how you are supposed to be.
JC: That sounds like this is an example of what you were saying about film being able to reach people on different levels. You’re hearing his words you have seen his face already the interview subject but then you also get a different way of receiving that information.
SB: Right, right.I think that the other thing that you know that we remember stories. Some people are really good at remembering facts but the facts by themselves don’t make change. If that were true then the progressive party would be far ahead of where we actually are. So it’s not about just the intellect or the intellectual understanding. It’s about really being able to put yourself in somebody else’s position and be able to feel that emotionally. And all kinds of ways that can help you move that side of your own lived reality and accept someone else’s as valid.
JC: So what happens when you do show this film in groups. When you yourself present it and start the conversation? What kinds of questions do you use?
SB: I am a very simple person and so typically what’s been happening we’ve been showing this film in various part of the country to audiences anywhere from several hundred people to three hundred people of course there are smaller groups too when people just hire me to come in. The event itself of watching the movie is typically two hour long which is not very much time. There are three spaces in the film where we stop and people can talk to each other. Let me back up just a little bit. The beginning is very important. We always begin with conocimiento, building community that comes from the Latino move. Understanding what your strengths are first. People often want to dive into the topic. But I need to know who you are and you need to know who I am. So we build community first people watch the first section of the movie.
JC: How do you build community?
SB: Aah! Well there are lots of ways to do it I use visualization and [Laughs] I don’t know what this sounds like but we breathe together first. As simple as being anchored in the body and breathing together. We do that first, we watch a film and we stop I ask people very simple questions like, “What stood out for you and why?”. Because we are attracted to things that either pull us in that are very much part of our own lived experience, or things that we are rejecting because we have never considered it before. Both of those are valid doorways into deep change. That’s what we are trying to do. My goal is very simple, it’s to have people leave asking themselves a new question.
JC: This is a question about those gatherings where you watch the film but also about your interview subjects. How do you get people to talk about things that are so uncomfortable, that can be so painful, that can be so secret for a lot of people?
SB: So let’s make a distinction between the interview subjects and the people who are having the conversations. The interview subjects are people who are very versed in understanding the topic. People often ask me, “Why don’t you interview people at all different levels of the spectrum in terms of their understanding?”, because this is a teaching movie. We want people to understand deeply how this system actually functions for many reasons. One is because if you understand race you can understand any form of oppression. They all operate exactly the same way and they are also completely interrelated. When you understand how this kind of system works and you address it, it actually makes you a better human being. You have to be a better listener, you have to be one who is willing to understand something that is different from your own living experience you can consider how you might address it. I want the best of the best on camera because they are teaching. People who are in the audience are all levels of understanding and people will leave with all different levels of understanding. I am a seed planter. The film is a seed planter. It’s designed to take you to another level wherever you start. You may end up completely in resistance – that happens. But I don’t worry about that. I am looking at how can we support people who are actually curious and want to be part of making world that they are going to pass on to their children and their children’s children where we can actually thrive. That happens a lot because people get curious they get excited they understand something they didn’t understand before. They become committed to struggling for justice. That’s what I am after. Those people.
JC: I’d like to ask you about something that you said, that I think I read in an interview, that film can create a sense of disorientation. I think you said disorienting dilemma. Can you speak about that. How film can create disorientation that is actually useful.
SB: Now we are back to transformative learning theory which says when you have an epiphany about something or when you have engaged in a process so that some fundamental understanding that you have that shifts it often shows up in a form of what’s called a disorienting dilemma which simply means that the world is not the way you thought it was. It’s like someone pulled the rug out from under your feet. When that happens you are in a position to make a lot of new meaning, to re-order how your brain actually organize and labeled different schemas so the way your brain organizes information. It’s very powerful. It is required because we human beings are very good at justifying and manipulating our ideas, defending our ideas and so the disorienting dilemma or what some people in psychology call a cognitive dissonance is required to kind of shake things up.
JC: How do you use film specifically to create that?
SB: I feel like you know that people who watch the film are at some level almost like voyeurs because they are getting to see experiences from lots of different people that are from lots races and cultures that they have not been exposed to personally. But they get to hear the truth of those people’s stories. And that may be a direct challenge to what they think they know. You know the mind likes to fill in the blanks. We think we know when really we don’t.
JC: Do you feel like there’s more of a demand for that type of material?
SB: I do, I do. I have been working on the issues of race now for a long time and I am seeing some shifting I see more people being able to use language that actually articulate some of the dimensions of race, gender, class and so on. I see young people really and young people you know thank god for young people! Young people how are really interested in changing how the world is actually functioning and engaged in wanting to be part of larger and larger communities. That’s where I get my hope from, you know.
JC: So things are changing.
SB: Things are always changing. The status quo would like to keep us in the dark, and by the status quo I mean the way things have always been done. Let’s take education for example. When we look at history and the way history is taught. We are not taught history. We are taught by the perspective of those people who won, and that’s not enough. So there’s a push some people are really pushing to expand what’s being taught in history. There are people who are embracing the idea of talking about other culture and other responses to the main story. Um, and that’s you know as it should be. We are disconnected from ourselves. We are disconnected from one another and we are disconnected from the earth. Till we can find a way back to some kind of connection we would continue on a path to self-destruction so this is very important that we find ways of connected to other peoples stories and other ways of being so that you are my other me. My destiny is bound up with yours and I need to understand that and you do too.
JC: Thanks for coming on Making Contact!
SB: My pleasure thank you for having me!
Jen Chien: And that’s it for this edition of Making Contact. You’ve been listening to a conversation with Dr. Shakti Butler, director of the film “Cracking the Codes: the Systems of Racial Inequity.”
For a CD copy of this program, call the National Radio Project at 510-251-1332 x108 , or check out our website, radioproject.org to get a podcast, download past shows, or make a difference by supporting our work. Like Making Contact on Facebook, or follow us on twitter—our handle is Making, underscore, contact.
The Making Contact Team includes: Lisa Rudman, Andrew Stelzer,George Lavender,Irene Florez, Juanita Carroll Young, Lisa Bartfai, Salima Hamirani, Dorian Roberts, Dan Turner, and Barbara Barnett.
I’m Jen Chien. Thanks for listening to Making Contact!