The director of "I Am or How Jack Became Black" recalls a Silicon Valley fail similar to the recent Google imbroglio.
Part of me wasn’t surprised to read about the Google engineer fired for writing an anti-identity politics manifesto.
It wasn’t the manifesto’s contents that interested me. It’s the impulse to rebel against identity politics.
Not long ago, in a different and unrelated situation, I had my own encounter with identity politics at a major Silicon Valley company.
It was early 2017, and I posted the trailer for my documentary, “I Am or How Jack Became Black” to Facebook. The film begins with a simple incident: I went to register my son, the third multiracial generation in my family, at his public elementary school. I was told I had to pick a “Primary Race.”
There was no “other” or “multiracial” box. When I chose to opt-out I was told my son would not be allowed to begin his education there. This incident started my journey through America’s maze of identity politics to find out why race still mattered so much.
After seeing the trailer, one of my sister’s childhood friends contacted me through Facebook. My sister and I had not talked to this woman for years, but we remembered her for one reason: she had an altercation with my sister in grade school and called her the n-word.
So, it is not hard to imagine why I laughed at the irony of this woman now working for a major Silicon Valley company’s diversity division.
However, I wasn’t going to hold her to her past offense. She was just a child then. It’s also why I chose not the reveal the name of the company where she works. We live in a culture of shaming largely generated by identity politics. I have no desire to see her persecuted in any form.
I exchanged emails with her and learned that she wanted to screen the film for what she called (XX)BN. At first, I thought it stood for (Company) Business Network, but later learned it meant (Company) Black Network. As a multiracial, this was far from the first time I was being “boxed” into a racial category.
I responded: “I should make you aware that my documentary exists outside most people’s understanding of race in America – after all, it looks at race from the perspective of a multiracial…And because I have a different perspective on things – which is my own truth – this documentary has generated and will continue to generate strong debates.”
Her response: “XX has a very unique culture (unlike anything I’ve experienced at other companies) that encourages high levels of openness and transparency. We absolutely encourage variety of thought/ opinion, so I think that engendering debate is not necessarily a bad thing. Most recently the Office of Inclusive Diversity hosted a series of workshops on Dismantling Systemic Racism and several discussions on how can we solve the challenges of Police Brutality, Racial Profiling, and Criminal Justice Sentencing disparity.”
If she was willing to be open, then I was more than willing to show my film.
We arranged a Skype call and I saw her for the first time in 25 years. After exchanging pleasantries, she began by complaining how difficult it had been to move the needle on increasing diversity. Nothing worked. I used this line of thought to bring up my documentary and explain that I thought identity politics stood in the way of true progress.
After all, identity politics’ emphasis is always on race and not the individual. She said she couldn’t agree more and asked to see the film in full.
I sent her a private screening link. As I waited for her response, I boasted to a friend that I had an opportunity to screen the film at the company’s major campuses in Northern and Southern California. This could be a great opportunity to gain exposure via social media, the kind I couldn’t achieve on my own as an independent filmmaker.
My friend burst my bubble: “She’s going to show it to the Black Network reps and they are going to school her.”
I heard from her two days later:
Wow!!! Just wow! What an absolutely beautiful, thoughtful, moving and authentic film you’ve created. This really is a wonderful gift that you are giving to the world and I truly hope it reaches as many people as possible. I definitely want to watch it a second time, once I’ve finished processing the first, and have loads of questions that hopefully will get the chance to discuss with you at some point. 😉
In the meantime, I am meeting with the (XX)BN leads on Tuesday afternoon and want set up a touch base on one of the following days, if possible. Could you let me know which day(s) and time(s) work best for your schedule next Wed, Thurs and Friday?
Super excited to continue moving forward.
I wrote back, expressing my thanks, and gave her two possible times. I never heard from her again.
Identity Politics Trumps All
Aside from the fact that the private link to the film continued to be viewed several more times (it was set up for that company alone), I can only assume what happened. This was not my first rodeo with identity politics, and it’s safe to say that my friend’s warning came true.
The sad thing is that she had seen the true message of the film on her own. Yet it was (XX)BN that “woke” her to the fact that the film argued for moving beyond divisive identity politics to a better America.
After all, if the powers behind identity politics derive their power from race, then what incentive do they have to move beyond race to our greater humanity?
The greatest irony for me was that while this company professed to encourage a “variety of thought/ opinion,” it practiced the opposite. These types of hypocrisies are one of the underlying reasons for why I made “I Am or How Jack Became Black.”
Why is that I, a person that embodies the very principles and diversity that the powers behind identity politics profess to seek, has been pushed to the margins?
Eli Steele is a filmmaker whose most recent feature, “I Am, Or How Jack Became Black” will soon be available on iTunes and other streaming services.