Documentary screening aims to get people talking about race

"I'm Not Racist... Am I?" screens at the Paramount on February 26. Publicity photo “I’m Not Racist… Am I?” screens at the Paramount on February 26. Publicity photo

How do you get teens to talk about race in a way that prompts action and meaningful change? That’s a central question posed in the 2013 documentary “I’m Not Racist…Am I?,” which follows 12 New York City teenagers from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds as they go through a series of workshops and conversations on the subject over the course of one year. The organizer of an upcoming free screening of the film at the Paramount theater on February 26 is hoping its impact will spread well beyond the audience in attendance that night, and with cooperation from area schools, congregations and the Charlottesville Office of Human Rights, it appears she’s making headway on that goal after being influenced by it herself.

“It raised my consciousness about institutionalized racism and white privilege,” said Elizabeth Shillue, a lifelong Quaker and mother of two children at Tandem Friends School, who watched the film at a Quaker conference last summer and was inspired to bring it to Charlottesville.

“I was struck by the students, the level of dialogue that they were able to have with one another,” she said. Although they tackle heated and controversial issues, including use of the N-word, “They were able to speak from their hearts and listen to each other,” said Shillue.

Initially, she said, she planned to simply have the film show at Tandem, but as the police shootings in Ferguson and elsewhere across the country sparked riots and protests in other cities throughout the fall, Shillue said her sense of urgency around the issue of race grew. With funding from Tandem and from private donors, she was able to schedule the event at the larger venue and bring the director and producer to speak. She reached out to other community members, including Charlene Green, community outreach specialist for Charlottesville’s Office of Human Rights and the organizer of the Dialogue on Race initiative, who agreed to help plan discussion events after the screening.

“We are asking folks to bring teams of people from their organizations, schools, offices, faith based congregations, book clubs, any gathering of people who feel they might be interested in creating an ongoing conversation about race with people they know, and then expanding that out to people they don’t know,” said Green of the free screening.

The film’s director, Catherine Wigginton Greene, said the most frequent question people ask following screenings is, “What am I supposed to do now?” The answer, she said, is different for everybody. Employers may be more aware of racial issues in their hiring practices; students may recognize that the groups to which they belong lack diversity.

“Once you start to educate yourself, opportunities start to present themselves all the time,” she said.

Some opportunities for ongoing conversation have already been planned, said Green. In addition to a discussion between Tandem and Charlottesville High School students the day after the screening, groups of students from all area schools will convene at City Space on March 14.

A planned group discussion for adults will take place on March 21, location TBD. Green said anyone interested in participating should contact the Office of Human Rights at 970-3023.

I’m Not Racist…Am I? screens at the Paramount on Thursday, February 26, at 7pm. The event is free with suggested $5 donation.