YES! Film Picks: Making Whiteness Visible

Maddening and motivating independent films

See more of our favorite films of the season: Pilgrimage  :: Abel Raises Cain


Mirrors of Privilege :: Making Whiteness Visible

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“I wake up every single morning of my life and think, ‘I am a black person,’” says a professor in the film Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible.

It’s different for me. I’m white, but not once did I ever wake up and think, “I am a white person.” In my mirror, I don’t see a white person, just a person, and I might even congratulate myself on that.

But it’s nothing to be proud of, according to this film. It means I’m colorblind in a particularly problematic way: I can’t see whiteness. I can avoid acknowledging the racial privileges that have supported my successes and sustain the comfortable myth that I earned my perch near the top of the social ladder.

Mirrors of Privilege, a simply made but surprisingly compelling film, introduces white people to the part of our whiteness we’ve learned not to see, through a series of conversations with white people who have thought deeply about race. A professor of women’s studies from New York recalls feeling baffled after reading two essays from African American women arguing that white women were oppressive to work for. “How can that be?” she wondered. “We’re so nice.” She decided to investigate. “If I have anything I didn’t earn,” she told herself, “show me.” She meditated over this challenge and within three months had identified 46 examples.

Throughout the film, some scenarios are powerfully illustrated in dance. One tableau shows three people, down on all fours, lined up shoulder to shoulder. Across their backs reclines a white woman, languorously reading a book, oblivious to the trembling arms of the black man who’s holding her up.

These are images and voices that have been largely missing from America’s discussion of race—articulate, principled, caring white people struggling to come to grips with their own fear, guilt, and ambivalence. They form, as anti-racism activist Van Jones puts it, “a cry from the heart of white people working to restore their own humanity.”



Carol Estes wrote this review as part of A Just Foreign Policy, the Summer 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Carol Estes is a YES! contributing editor, and for eight years has sponsored the Black Prisoners Caucus at a men’s prison in Monroe, Washington, where she co-founded the program University Behind Bars. Photo of Carol Estes



Image from the film Pilgrimage
(22 min)

Downtown Community Media Center, 2006. Directed by Tadashi Nakamura.

In 1969, a group of Japanese-American youth traveled to a former internment camp in the California desert, staging the first event to publicly expose the World War II-era internment policy. This short but inspiring film by a young California filmmaker draws parallels between the camps and current persecution of Muslim Americans, and shows how the Japanese-American community has united to stand against racial discrimination.



Image from the film Abel Raises Cain
Abel Raises Cain
(82 min)

Crashcourse Documentaries, 2007.

Directed by Jenny Abel and Jeff Hockett.

A daughter’s fond, bemused study of the life work of her father, Alan Abel. The trailblazer for such modern hoaxers as the Yes Men, Abel worked to expose the herd mentality of mainstream media and to alert viewers to exercise a bit more skepticism than the reporters he repeatedly fooled.


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