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A documentary on how young people experience racism will be shown throughout the community and in schools over the next 30 days as a way of understanding an issue that has been at the forefront of public discussion.
“I’m hoping that it brings a sense of self-reflection to their teaching, to how they interact with students and how they interact with each other,” said Eric Irizarry, principal of Charlottesville High School. “We have some of the best teachers on the planet in this school. We have a great climate — we’re very accepting — but nothing’s perfect, including our school.”
“I’m Not Racist … Am I?” is a documentary by Point Made Films about 12 teenagers trying to understand racism over the course of a year. The film shows them growing as they attend a series of workshops and have conversations with their friends and families.
A screening of the film that will kick off the discussions is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday at the Paramount Theater. There will be more than 20 screenings, including several at Albemarle, Charlottesville and Murray High schools.
Rusty Carlock, a teacher at Albemarle High, helped to organize the screenings at AHS.
“Teaching U.S. history, a lot of my students this year have been asking questions about race and diversity,” Carlock said. “So, I was really excited about finding a tool that could help us through some of these conversations.”
Carlock said students frequently ask “questions of why are we making choices that divide ourselves up in these ways, that reflect these historical divisions that at one point in time were legal — why are we still doing that to ourselves now?”
“I’m Not Racist … Am I?” came to Charlottesville once before, in 2015. Elizabeth Shillue helped to organize that screening and founded Beloved Community Cville, under the nonprofit Virginia Organizing, to fund more screenings. Shillue has been planning the 2018 screenings for a while, she said, but the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12 intensified the hunger for the film.
“Nearly 800 people came out to see it [in 2015],” she said. “Now, three years later, the same theater is sold out with over 1,000 seats.”
Carlock said that Aug. 12 may have amplified questions about racism in Charlottesville and the nation, but that students have been asking those questions for a long time.
“[Those questions] were there with my mother when she was integrated. She was in eighth grade in Chesapeake, Virginia, when she first went to school with black students,” Carlock said. “Now, maybe there’s a greater urgency to it, or maybe more adults are asking that question, too.”
Similarly, CHS administrators had decided in June and July to focus on the school’s Culturally Responsive Teaching program, which connects class work to student backgrounds.
Jennifer Horne, an English teacher at CHS, said she has long been an advocate for curricula that reflect her students’ interests. Several years ago, for example, she taught Nick Lake’s “In Darkness,” a novel that alternates between the perspective of Toussaint L’Ouverture and a teenager buried in the rubble of Haiti’s recent earthquake.
“… I teach that book, and none of my kids know who Toussaint is. He led the only successful slave rebellion [that led to founding a country] in the history of the world, and … that’s not part of our history,” Horne said. “How influential would it be to our students of color if that was a cornerstone — they don’t even know about this guy! That’s crazy!”
Moderated discussions generally follow “I’m Not Racist … Am I?” screenings. Shillue said one of the first questions is to which characters audience members relate.
“Everybody is relating to a different person, and everybody is challenged by a different person, so then people can speak from their own experience,” she said. This approach works so well that students sometimes start organizing discussions on their own.
“I have a friend who is an organizer in Rochester, New York. What happened in their community is that high-schoolers from across the city, from different high schools, began meeting on a regular basis to address issues of racism in their school communities,” Shillue said. “They have their own website, they’re doing it themselves.”
At CHS, discussions about race have proliferated. One of the next events this month is in partnership with Charlene Green of the Charlottesville Office for Human Rights and the Charlottesville Youth Council. Irizarry wants the event to be a chance for students to shape the direction of the school.
“We’re getting more input from students on broader topics, not only just academics, but also what can we do to make Charlottesville High School a more welcoming place,” Irizarry said.
Public screenings of “I’m Not Racist … Am I?” will be held Feb. 26 at the Crozet Library, March 5 at CHS and March 6 at the Northside Library.
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