Since the Kerner Commission report in 1968, every analysis of problems in American race relations has pointed a finger at the media. The criticisms reflect our awareness that, in many ways, the media shapes our understanding of race relations as much as our direct experiences do. Notwithstanding the end of de jure segregation, most people have limited contact with people of other races and many people still live and work in homogeneous settings.
In general, our perceptions and interpretations are influenced by events filtered through our cultural experiences. These cultural filters develop from racial and ethnic background, as well as gender, sexual orientation, age, economic status, religion and geography. For the most part, we are unaware of these cultural filters and would be hard pressed to explain where we developed our notions of foods that taste good, music we enjoy, people with whom we feel comfortable and those who make us uneasy. Yet we act on these judgments daily.
Cultural filters are laden with personal values. We not only perceive the world differently from others, we presume that our perception is the most valid one. This presumption can easily lead to cross-cultural misunderstandings and racial conflict. Therefore, the first step to cross-cultural understanding is to become aware of our cultural filters. Video can play a role in attaining that goal. Several videos in this package illustrate how racial conflicts based on cultural filters emerge in the course of dialogue: The Color of Fear, Facing Racismand Skin Deep. In Whose Honor?,which deals with the use of Native American mascots for sports teams, provides a striking example of how cultural filters prevent one group from understanding the offense and anguish their actions cause another group. We also must appreciate the diversity and conflict that exists not only between groups but also within a group. Several videos explore the complexities of self-perception: Black is…Black Ain’t, Hair Pieceand A Question of Color.
The media is also shaped by the cultural filters of the people and institutions that create it. Video can play a role, but it is simply a tool and not a panacea. The independent videos in this package represent points of view and topics that generally do not appear in mass media. But their usefulness depends upon understanding the way in which their images reflect their makers’ opinions.
Video and Dialogue
We approach the question of race and dialogue from the perspective and practice of conflict resolution, which helps people create their own solutions to disputes. With a mediator’ s assistance, people who begin with positions in striking opposition to each other can identify areas in which their interests overlap. When this happens, they can better appreciate the perspectives of those with whom they have disagreed. At its most successful, conflict resolution transforms the relationship between adversaries to one in which the two sides can work together collaboratively to resolve conflicts previously seen as beyond resolution. Although conflict resolution itself works best with a trained specialist as mediator, its underlying principles can be applied to a variety of settings — community meetings, classrooms, the workplace — which are explored in the next section. Below we offer some thoughts on how these principles dovetail with the use of video in fostering a dialogue around issues of race and racial conflict.
Increasingly, diversity trainers, scholars, librarians and facilitators are using video as a way to encourage people to talk about their perceptions and assumptions about one another. Video provides participants with a common experience against which they can better define and understand their own differences. Overall, video offers four possibilities that fit perfectly with the sensibility of dispute resolution: empathy, expression, critical distance and reframing the problem.
• Empathy. The chances of success increase enormously if the parties can see the conflict from the other’ s perspective. However, the dynamics of face-to-face confrontation often work against empathy. Video frees people from the need to respond directly to the other person’ s perspective, encouraging a feeling of empathy otherwise almost impossible to accomplish. Also, video can transcend barriers created by strong group identification by pointing out similarity even within the context of difference.
• Expression. Misunderstandings brought on by racial differences tap into our deepest fears, hurts and anger. Most people cannot face the intensity of these feelings in personal confrontations, especially when they occur as part of an initial discussion. However, people can accept intensity of expression in a video. Videos also let us express feelings that we may have been afraid to express in a discussion. But these feelings are a part of the fabric of racial tensions and conflicts.
• Critical distance. People find it almost as difficult to change their own perspective as to take on someone else’ s. The need both to express and defend a position leaves little room for critical self-reflection. Anyone who has used video instruction to teach or learn how to play a sport knows how powerful it can be. In the same way that a skilled mediator can create a space in which to examine one’ s own position critically, free from the obligations of winning or defending, a video permits individuals or groups to see how others see them rather than how they want to see themselves.
• Reframing the problem. Mediation as discussion always seeks change. Even if differences cannot be resolved, participants should come away with a more accurate understanding of the nature of their differences and an appreciation of the other’ s perspective. We encourage disputants to frame their understanding of a conflict in a way that incorporates the perspectives and interests of all parties. Obviously, a video can show the perspective of one person or group. But the best video captures something truthful and moving about the views of all characters. A skilled facilitator can help us see the intertwining perspectives taken in the video and the way a problem was framed.
Although the potential for using video to encourage understanding is great, so too are the risks. Used improperly, a video can close off discussion as much as open it up. If a facilitator forgets that the video has taken a point of view and uses the work to represent truth, he denies the opportunity for an open discussion. Images are also evocative; a video might release feelings so intimate and powerful that they push participants either to withdraw from or to heighten the conflict.
A skilled mediator knows the importance of reframing an especially powerful statement made by one party in a dispute. The same holds when you use videos; do not assume that they speak for themselves or that all viewers see them in the same way. For example, The Color of Fear should not be allowed to stand on its own in a discussion of race relations or it will reproduce the distorted dynamics of miscommunication, guilt and blame that it captures so powerfully. Discussion leaders must help participants recognize how a point of view can emphasize, focus, omit and distort. A cinema classic such as Rashomon can be effective for introducing the notion of point of view and preparing participants to see images with a critical eye. But almost any documentary can be used to the same effect by noting the ways in which opposing points of view are presented, both at the level of argumentation (competing claims) and editing (juxtaposition of statements with images).
Certainly video can be an effective catalyst in an effort to discuss race and racial conflict. Any hope of resolution depends on getting to the heart of a conflict. Video helps cut through the many barriers to honesty when dealing with issues as charged as race relations.