Filmmaker Andre Robert Lee ’93 says it is time to talk about race
Racism is like Bigfoot, says filmmaker Andre Robert Lee ’93. If you say you saw it, the reaction you are likely to get is: “What? You’re crazy.”
That’s because we all have a different definition of what racism is, says Lee.
“Conversations about race and racism are very difficult,” Lee told a large crowd of Connecticut College alumni, students, parents, faculty and staff during the College’s Fall Weekend celebration. “No one wants to appear racist and no one wants to sound ignorant, so people don’t have these conversations.”
But Lee believes such conversations are necessary and powerful, and he is sparking and facilitating them all over the United States as he tours with his newest film, “I’m Not Racist, Am I?” (Watch the trailer at www.notracistmovie.com.)
The feature documentary, which Lee produced, follows 12 New York City high school students of all different racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds for one year as they complete a series of workshops and discussions — all about race and privilege.
The film is part of a larger initiative, Deconstructing Race, developed by The Calhoun School to create a multimedia platform to get young people, their teachers and their families talking — and doing something — about structural systemic racism.
At Connecticut College, Lee showed a clip of one particularly poignant moment during a conversation between the teens facilitated by Liza Talusan ’97, director of intercultural affairs at Stonehill College. Talusan asks the teens what issues they want to address but haven’t been able to so far in their workshops. One student calls out another, without using names, for annoying him almost every time she talks. When she realizes the comment is about her, the young woman, Martha, gets upset and leaves the room. After she speaks with Talusan, Martha comes back and has a powerful one-on-one conversation with the other student about the use of certain terminology and the parts of their backgrounds that give them different perspectives on the issues they are discussing.
“I’m so proud of Martha, and really all of the students, for their willingness to put themselves out there,” Lee says. “I’ve noticed that young people are more willing to take risks.”
Talusan was also on hand for the Fall Weekend discussion, which was hosted by Connecticut College Alumni of Color, a committee of the Alumni Association Board of Directors that supports and serves alumni of color and hosts community events throughout the year.
Lee said he had heard Talusan speak at a Connecticut College alumni event a few weeks before the scene was filmed, and he was so impressed he asked her to facilitate the workshop.
“I live and breathe and work in social justice issues — that’s my full-time job. I often forget that people don’t get to have these conversations on regular basis,” Talusan said. “We take for granted that real growth happens in conversations.”
Lee, who produces and directs for Point Made Films and his production company, Many Things Management, is currently touring with “I’m Not Racist … Am I?” He and the film’s director, Catherine Wigginton Greene, are screening the film and hosting workshops and discussions at colleges, high schools and corporate offices.
The College will host a screening Wednesday, Feb. 11, at 7 p.m. in Palmer Auditorium. A Q&A will follow.
Recently, Lee and Wigginton Green brought the film to Google’s Mountain View campus. “Nearly 65 percent of the Google staff is white and male, so we weren’t sure what to expect,” Lee said, but the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. “They want to make improvements, and they want to attract workers from other backgrounds.”
During the discussion at Connecticut College, students asked Lee about his experience as a student on campus. He told a story about meeting a classmate who admitted to him that he had “never really sat down and talked to a black person.”
“I remember thinking, ‘How is that possible?’” Lee recalled, adding that a liberal arts environment is a great setting to learn about important, complicated issues like race.
He also said that the College has made great strides in increasing the number of faculty of color. “We had three or four faculty of color, and we wore them out!” he told the crowd.
RasAmen Oladuwa '15 said there has been more discussion on campus about race this year, with much of it spurred by recent events in Ferguson, Mo. “People are talking about it at events, in classrooms, over dinner,” she said. “I love it. I think it is so necessary. It should be a required subject, like math and English.”
Lee majored in history at Connecticut College and went on to earn a master’s degree in education from Tufts University before beginning a career in film production that has even included a brief stint as a personal assistant for Diana Ross. In 2012, he released “The Prep School Negro,” a personal documentary he directed and produced that examines the “psychological homelessness” he says he endured and that other black students face when admitted to elite, mostly white preparatory schools. The film was screened at Connecticut College in 2013.
Currently, Lee is working on a feature narrative about Bayard Rustin, an architect of the civil rights movement who has been largely left out of the history books. The project, which has secured an angel investor and is in development, is a departure from the documentary-style of his recent films, but Lee says he is excited about the new direction his work is taking.
And while he loves what he does, Lee hopes someday his work won’t be necessary. “My dream is that someday we will all be open and accepting of difference,” he says.