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Remember in high school when our English teacher wanted us to read Shakespeare? Perhaps she had us read Romeo and Juliet, hoping it would be less painful. But nope, it was excruciating. Or how about when our history teacher had us do a report on the Great Depression? Boring.

Confronting White Fragility

For many people, learning about our country’s tradition of inequality isn’t only emotionally threatening but also promises to be dreadfully tedious, just like almost every other assignment to “learn something important.” But there are ways to make the venture less intimidating, so we don’t have to fear being tested on our new knowledge or expected to act on it immediately.

“White Fragility” may feel like an offensive term, but it’s not inaccurate. Still, if we are sincere about addressing injustice, we need to find ways to progress without shattering our sense of self-worth.

Perhaps folks facing daily oppression won’t approve of this slower approach, and certainly, if we can learn faster, we should. Hopefully, as we learn more, we’ll want to speed up our learning. I expect most of us have already done some work. We would simply benefit from confronting our biases more systematically.

In our current fast-paced world, the easiest and least threatening way to learn about bias is through film. And a good way to use film is to watch something with an indirect approach to bias.

We don’t watch ToSir, with Love to understand racism better. We watch because it’s a moving account of teaching working class students in London. We don’t watch The Crying Game to understand trans women better. We watch because it’s a captivating story about an IRA terrorist trying to atone for killing a British soldier. We don’t watch Professor Marston and the Wonder Women to learn about polyamory. We watch because it’s a fascinating biopic about the creators of the superhero Wonder Woman.

Those who can’t yet bring themselves to devote two hours to the subject of bias should probably start out on YouTube. Hundreds of TED Talks and other short videos lasting no more than ten minutes can offer us small doses of understanding and can be fit into almost anyone’s schedule. Our first venture into context doesn’t have to be watching the entire mini-series of Alex Hailey’s Roots. We can watch a ten-minute video today, another video two days from now, and the next one three days after that. Since it’s easy to forget the importance of continued learning, we need to put learning on our schedules, sending ourselves reminders from our phone or email.

“White Fragility” may feel like an offensive term, but it’s not inaccurate. Still, if we are sincere about addressing injustice, we need to find ways to progress without shattering our sense of self-worth.

Date Night can be sitting back with a bowl of popcorn to watch Black Panther. It can be Family Night sitting down with the kids to watch Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. Let’s throw out the idea we must be masochists to learn. And if we want to study without letting our friends and family know, that’s OK, too.

We can focus on just one historically oppressed group at a time or mix and match. There’s no need to compare whose suffering was worst. There may well be a “winner” in such a contest, but all forms of oppression need to be addressed. Let’s start where we are and move forward.

When we transition from short YouTube videos or short articles to feature-length films, we sometimes face the same challenge we did in high school—many “important” films are boring, or at least, the subject matter alone threatens us with tedium, making us less likely to watch a movie we might actually enjoy. Fortunately, the material to access is so abundant we can surely find some movies or books that suit our individual tastes. “Best of” lists are everywhere.

When we’re ready to get serious about confronting our biases, though, we may as well start with Columbus in America and Older than America. If we can’t get past the misinformation we’ve been taught about Columbus and subsequent encounters between Europeans and Native Americans, we’ll never be able to see beyond our front door. Many of these films still have a white POV, but some to consider are Reel Injun, The Mission, Smoke Signals, Trail of Tears, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Typing “Native American history” in the Search bar on Youtube will offer us dozens of short mini-lessons.

We can set aside one evening a week for School Night, a dedicated time for learning. It needn’t always be about bias. Perhaps just one School Night a month will touch on that. If other nights focus on astronomy or art or another subject, we can still sneak in something like Hidden Figures or Floyd Norman: An Animated Life once in a while.

Tootsie and Bend it Like Beckham are comedies but still convey important information about sexism. We can start with lighter films like these, but we should schedule weightier material down the line, not leaving it up to chance. We could put Made in Dagenham on our schedule for next month. Then Suffragette and Half the Picture and Bombshell. Jodie Foster in The Accused is a complicated character who shows us that even if a woman is dressed provocatively, flirtatious, drunk or high, it’s still rape if the guy forces himself on her. The series based on Margaret Atwood’s work, The Handmaid’s Tale, may be fictional, but we’ll understand oppression better if we realize every atrocity in the show has already been perpetrated in real life on an oppressed group somewhere.

Any time we’re feeling overwhelmed, we can go back to mixing in some comedies. If we reach a place where our only new study is always something heavy, we’ll just stop doing it altogether. Let’s try to throw in some foreign films, too, like Volver or Palabi Kothae, kind of a Bangladeshi version of the comedy 9 to 5. My best teachers always made learning fun, even if the subject was difficult.

We must accept our emotional limitations if we’re going to deal realistically with the problem of our own ignorance, taking our own storytelling preferences into consideration. But it might be useful to develop a written plan or schedule. If we wait until we’re “in the mood” before looking for titles, it’ll be a struggle every single time, and the opportunity will slip away more often than not. We owe it to ourselves to make learning this essential information something we’re willing to do despite our weaknesses. No one stays on a healthy diet if they’re miserable at every meal. If they don’t plan ahead, they’ll end up eating whatever’s left in the fridge.

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In and Out stars Kevin Kline and Joan Cusack in delightful performances. Pride has lots of gay characters, but it’s “about” raising money to support striking coal miners. I Love You Phillip Morris is a dark comedy starring Jim Carrey as a gay convict. The mini-series A Very English Scandal, starring Hugh Grant as a real-life British politician, is morbidly funny, outrageous, filled with extremely flawed characters, yet we still leave feeling a bit more compassion for the oppressed, more understanding about how that oppression often leads us to make terrible choices. Beautiful Thing is a simple, sweet movie about working class teens in the UK. So what if we have to struggle a little with the regional accent?

We don’t have to go into this self-education feeling an obligation to accept the morality of any sexual behavior or political position our religion or culture has condemned. We don’t have to like LGBTQ folks to know that understanding more about them is essential in today’s society. We can read and watch and listen just for the purpose of understanding. I can watch a show about the Vatican without feeling obligated to convert. The Celluloid Closet is fascinating simply as film history. The Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk is both educational and entertaining. And the part of the film where we see a candlelight march with 50,000 people stretching block after block the evening of the assassination, followed by riots the evening the murderer is given a light sentence, can perhaps help us understand some of the motivation for riots that take place in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Selma doesn’t need to feel like a school assignment. It’s a genuinely good film about a pivotal moment in U.S. history. The Hate U Give may not be everybody’s first choice for films on police killings, but it’s well-made, and it’s not boring. The Color Purple starring Whoopi Goldberg was nominated for 11 Academy Awards. We’re not going to suffer sitting through it. Some lighter African American movies include Barbershop, Akeelah and the Bee, and Sorry to Bother You. But let’s face it. To understand even a fraction of the devastating racist legacy of our nation, we’ll need to watch a few “difficult” films. So let’s schedule Detroit and 13th and The Last Black Man in San Francisco and, yes, even 12 Years a Slave and Amistad. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has made some fascinating documentaries, too.

Four hours of Schindler’s List sounds more tedious than Tolstoy’s War and Peace. But it’s a compelling film directed by Steven Spielberg. It’s important to see if we’re to be culturally literate, and if we thought the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho was unforgettable, we’ll be shaken to our core to watch characters we’ve spent three hours getting to know being herded into the showers at Auschwitz. Yes, we’ll be uncomfortable watching, but it’s just a few hours out of our lives, not centuries of pogroms and mass murder these families have faced.

It’s OK to be uncomfortable for a brief period to understand the misery others have endured far longer. Hotel Rwanda and other movies or mini-series made and set outside the U.S. help us to have a more global view of bias and discrimination in a variety of forms. They’ll help us put our own in perspective. Sweden’s Miss Friman’s War and Italy’s Luisa Spagnoli are popular shows in Europe. Watching them isn’t a chore. Neither is learning from them.

What’s important about this self-education is acknowledging upfront we won’t be able to unsee what we’ve seen. We cannot see Triangle Fire without forever viewing workers’ rights in a different light.

And deep down, we all understand this is the very reason we keep putting off addressing the various biases we harbor. We’re afraid we’ll be expected to change, not just by others but by ourselves. And change is scary, especially if what needs changing is part of our worldview.

But unless we sincerely believe we are already 100% perfect in every way, let’s at least commit to watching a handful of short videos in the privacy of our own home when no one else is around. Once we realize we won’t crumble into heaps of self-loathing, we can watch a few more, read a short article or two. Whether we like or understand the differences between people living in our country, even in our own families, we must find a way to work together. Or face another 400 years of conflict.

Is indefinite division and hatred and hurt really what we want for ourselves and our families?

Maya Angelou said that when we know better, we do better.

Let’s accept that we’ve all made mistakes out of ignorance. It’s impossible not to. No one is born knowing everything. But we have a chance now to address some of that ignorance safely, quietly, in a way that doesn’t threaten our self-respect.

But, for God’s sake, let’s not invalidate the work we’re doing by telling those in oppressed groups all about our “growth.” If a coworker confides she has breast cancer, we don’t tell her about our grandmother or cousin or next-door neighbor who had cancer, how they dealt with it, and the outcome. It’s an almost instinctive way to react, but the conversation should be focused on our coworker. Watching a video or two on what not to say to folks who are suffering would help people in almost every relationship.

We owe a committed approach to facing our biases to African Americans, to Native Americans, Asian Americans, Persian Americans, Arab Americans, LGBTQ folks, Dravidians, and everyone else. We won’t stop being ourselves just because we know more about others.

Johnny Townsend

But we don’t owe this work only to our fellow citizens. We owe it to ourselves as well.

Johnny Townsend

Confronting White Fragility