Northshore’s director of Student Service Chris Bigelow addressed a packed auditorium at the Northshore Performing Arts Center on March 3 when he opened the afternoon of educational thought and discussion on diversity. “I’m just excited,” expressed Bigelow with a smile to match his enthusiasm. Filmmaker Melissa Lowery presented her feature documentary, Black Girl in Suburbia. The film is based off Lowery’s experiences growing up in West Linn, Oregon; a predominately white suburb outside of Portland.
Before the film’s screening, the panel and audience gave thanks to longtime Northshore School District teacher, Fernell Miller, for acting as the catalyst that enabled Lowery to present her documentary. Miller quoted poet Audre Lorde when she said, “If I cannot air this pain and alter it, I will surely die of it. That’s the beginning of social protest.”
Lowery then took the floor to preface her film. She spoke on engaging conversations about racism. Not without flair, pizazz, or humor, she explained that being uncomfortable is not a reason to sidestep an important conversation. Lowery finished by saying, “You’re ready to do the work. You’re ready to dive in,” and then her film began.
Lowery’s film is a mix of hard data, interviews, and experiences. She visited her old schools and talked with the young girls that experienced the same things she had growing up in the white suburbs. Through her own daughters’ eyes, Jayla, 15, and Che, 13, the viewer watches as the social justice and progress are apparent, but a mountain of equality is still begging to be summited. The teenaged girls share their experiences ranging from the clichéd and incessant requests from their white peers begging to touch their hair, to the despicable slanders hurled at them when they were so young they had to go home to ask their parents what these derogatory terms meant. Lowery’s film seems to capture the limited and narrowed perspectives of the majority population when handling race relations. African-Americans make up only 2% of Oregon and just 3.74% of Washington state. Portland is the fifth whitest city in the United States. Throughout the film, Lowery interviews a Diversity Director, scholars, and other individuals that have begun teaching ways for communities to respectfully approach race in conversation.
Provided with the event’s program was a handout detailing WAT, The White Ally Toolkit. Using another acronym, RACE, Method for Engaging Conversations about Racism especially for Skeptics, is a focus that has four quarters: Reflect, Ask, Connect, and Expand. The first step, ‘Reflect’, prompts the individual to stay in an empathetic listening mode. The ‘Ask’ step follows by arcing the conversation towards personal experiences that animate their point of view that racism is either a nonissue or nonexistent. The next step, ‘Connect’, asks that the person engage with the skeptic in a supportive manner suggesting that maybe the person once thought similar to how this skeptic does now. The final quarter, ‘Expand’, is the most important; explaining why you believe racism is sometimes an important influence on a specific issue.
After the film, a panel formed consisting of Lowery, Miller, Northshore School District parents, Karen Wilkins-Mickey and April Rose as well as Northshore School District students, Kyra Mickey, and twins, Rebekah and Abigail Denver.
Wilkins-Mickey said that she taught her daughter to embrace being black. “I taught her to use it to her advantage.” When a girl lives in a world where they are a minority they are going to know it. Instead of allowing this to stunt their educational and social developments, Wilkins-Mickey has taught her daughter to be proud. Wilkins-Mickey continued, “Just because your home is white doesn’t mean the world is.” Miller then spoke, “This event was a light switch on.” Lowery then asked the audience to go home and talk to their children about what had been outlined in the afternoon.
Moderator Lisa Youngblood-Hall closed the panel with a supreme bit that seemed to encompass a central idea of progress and inclusivity, “We’re all humans. We all have stories.”
For more information on Black Girl in Suburbia, please visit the website blackgirlinsuburbia.com