Courageous Dialogue at Delta – Stockton, CA

Courageous Dialogue at Delta – Stockton, CA

I am blinking in the stage lights. I can barely make out the faces of the nearly 400 people who have filled the plush red seats of the enormous theater. There are tiny beams of light in the back of the theater – ushers dressed in black and white attire using flashlights to show people to their seats. I take a deep breath and welcome everyone to the Stockton premiere of Divided We Fall at San Joaquin Delta College in our most elegant venue yet.

Delta College is a community college nestled in California’s San Joaquin Valley – a few hours north of where I grew up. The screening was sponsored by Delta College’s Gay-Straight Alliance and their advisor Vicki Marie in a gesture of true solidarity. After a flawless screening, I take the stage for questions. The discussion that follows is nothing short of courageous dialogue – students of the valley asking the hard questions.

The first man says, “My friend is African-American and she thinks that they put us in the back of the restaurant because of her race. But I can’t ever be sure! What do you make of that?”

“The ambiguity of racism too is a problem!” I exclaim. “The waiters could be acting on bias – or they could not – but the fact that your friend suspects and feel anxiety indicates the larger problem – that racism is a constant part of our social landscape. This happens to many people who are part of marginalized groups – did we not get the job because of our race? gender? religion? That we even have reason to question indicates the need for social change.”

One Latino student stands up and speaks with an edge in his voice, “Maybe the problem is the meaning of ‘American.’ Why should we try to be more ‘American?’ Why should we let go of our own culture? Take yourself for example: Do you speak like that because you’re trying to assimilate? Do you have your hair tied up because you cut it? Do you wear those clothes because you’re trying to fit in? Why should people of color have to assimilate?”

It is an impressive statement spoken with the conviction and indignance of someone who has felt the pressure of social norms that keep us from being who we really are.

“You’re right,” I respond. “We should not have to let go of our culture to be American. In fact, I want to break open and expand the meaning of ‘American’ so that it’s not the assimilationist norm but a circle that includes all of us – in all of our differences. We shouldn’t make choices to fit into what other people think we should be – even our own cultural communities. Every choice we make about how to present ourselves in the world should be true to our most authentic selves. For example, I keep my hair long in Sikh tradition, but I don’t have a traditional Sikh first name. I speak English like this because it’s my native tongue, but I have an accent when I speak Punjabi. I keep my hair long and don’t cut it, but I often dress in American clothes because I like it. I definitely felt pressure to fit into one norm or the other when I was a kid, but I finally have the courage to be who I am.”

A student takes the mic: “Yes, I agree. I am a Pakistani Muslim American and I want to maintain my culture as a Muslim but also as an American. So I wear my hijab with American jeans. And both things are me. Thank you so much for showing the diversity of the Muslim culture in your film.”

One girl admits, “I often feel shame and guilt about my ‘white-ness’ even when I was watching the movie, but then I felt really proud when the whole community came together in Phoenix. How do you feel about your ethnicity?”

“I feel the same way!” I exclaim. “I felt shame and guilt when people in my community pointed their fingers and said ‘we are not Muslim’ immediately after 9/11, but then I felt proud that many Sikhs drew from Guru Nanak’s vision of oneness to stand together in solidarity. We have to fight for the stuff that makes us proud.”

Another student of the Gay-St
raight Alliance Clare stands up: “I look at you and you are beautiful and you have made something beautiful – it’s just amazing. I could never do that.”

I’m completely caught off-guard. I see a bright and passionate college student in front of me: “There’s not such a difference between you and me! When I was in college, I never thought I could ever make this film. I didn’t start the journey because I thought I was the best person for the job but rather because I could not be whole in the world without trying. I think all of us are presented with moments when we must choose whether to cross our fear and do something risky but important – or turn away and stay comfortable.”

It is an intensely rich discussion. Afterward, the students of the Gay-Straight Alliance hold a reception for me and my parents. On the way out, I thank our ushers, including Juanita (who poses for a picture with me). And the conversation continues over cookies and punch.

A woman named Roxanna comes up to me and says, “I wasn’t going to talk to you, because I was afraid that I would offend you.” I ask her to keep going. “As a white person, I’m discriminated against too! People assume that I’m a racist. But I lived in Michigan after 9/11 where there’s a large Muslim population, and the media just put the fear into us! I had prejudice, and I felt guilty that I had it – just like Rachael in the film. Everyone has prejudice. As a little girl, I had prejudice against Japanese Americans, but I stopped once I figured out that it was because of the images I saw in the movies!

“Racism affects all of us,” Roxanna continues. “I have two white sons and also a half-Philipino half-white daughter. I worry whether my boys will get jobs because they’re white, and I worry about how my daughter will be treated because of her dark skin! I wasn’t going to tell you this, but I remembered what Joseph said at the end of the film: You have to talk about it!”

Roxanna’s story crystallizes how all of us – no matter what our skin color – are struggling to be seen for who we are. She wants her own past prejudices to be understood, and she wants people to treat her children with respect – her dark-skinned daughter and her white sons. All of us have a stake in this fight – in the struggle for recognition.

I turn to Vicki to thank her for hosting us and creating a space for this brave new dialogue when a group of students begin telling me stories. A Latina student named Andrea starts, “One time, at the restaurant, this white woman refused to sit next to me. And it made me feel so bad.” She begins to cry. “How could she treat me that way, like I’m not a person!”

I hold Andrea as she cries and wonder about all the people who carry these hurts around inside of them – hurts that are never expressed until someone asks. Her friends Dawna, Danae, and Be comfort her and tell her she’s not alone.

Dawna says, “I come from a small community called Westin Ranch in Stockton. It’s mostly African-Americans and Hispanics – I was one of nine white people in my high school. After 9/11, people put up Nazi swastikas and graffiti on Sikh houses and threw eggs at their windows. My best friend is Sikh, and when my classmates found out, they shot paintballs at her house and broke my car window. They were like, ‘Why are you her friend?’ I can relate to Robin Clarke in the film. I stood up for her, but her parents didn’t like me because I was white! They wouldn’t let me in the house. People think my ancestors enslaved them, but my family is from Slovakia! It’s not me! All our ancestors came here as immigrants and struggled and faced oppression – people forget how hard it was for their families.”

“I get it from all sides,” says Danae. “I’m Mexican and Native American, and anytime I visit my aunt’s family in Fresno, I feel displaced. They only speak Spanish, and I don’t. They tell me, ‘You’re not Mexican then.’ I’m like, whatever. I don’t let things touch me because it gives them power. If you’re not pretty enough, not skinny enough, everyone gets picked on for something!”

Their friend Be says, “Smile at your enemy! That’s what I do! Smile!” And they all laugh.

Another student John approaches me, “I have friends who are Sikh and Muslim, and whenever we go to restaurants or bars, they always get looked at. We only go to places where they’re friends with the owners, because those are the only places that are really safe. Your film brought all that out. Thank you.”

The reception winds down, and I speak with one last student Wayne. He tells me his story: “I was a junior in high school when 9/11 happened. We lived in Lodi, California, and I remember everyone in my neighborhood stepping out onto the street and looking up into the sky. We were all afraid, and the media thrusted the picture of the enemy into our face: FEAR this turban and beard because THIS will destroy your family. There have been white, Hispanic, and Muslim farmers in Lodi for decades, but when 9/11 happened, those with turbans became the enemy. I thought, ‘I have Middle Eastern friends. Who do I trust now? This is scary. Were they in on this?’

My dad and I went to the gas station we always go to,” continues Wayne. “The man who runs it is a Sikh man named Paul; he’s like a staple
in our community. When we got gas, he was
just quiet. He later confided to my dad that he was terrified that week, because people had come in to threaten him. His entire family sat with him behind the cash register, huddled together. They probably thought if they were together, nothing bad would happen. I thought, ‘Will we ever get over this? What’s going to happen in five years?’

“This documentary puts a face on an entire community that was disregarded in the aftermath. In the last year, there have been many forums at my college on 9/11 and terrorism, but they’ve all been very left- wing, just people yelling at each other from either side. Thank you so much for coming.”

I leave carrying all these new stories. And Vicki Marie‘s deep warmth and care – she organized one of our finest screenings yet (we are pictured above with the one who mastered the tech for the screening).

Vicki ushers my parents and I out on the road so that I can reach the airport in time for our next week of screenings in New England…