There’s a scene in the fourth episode of the new Starz docuseries America to Me that may make even the most assuredly “woke” white person pause for some self-reflection.
Aaron Podolner, a white, middle-aged physics teacher at the comfortably middle-class Oak Park and River Forest High School in Chicago, is determined that two of his African-American students—Jada Buford and Charles Donalson III—know exactly how much he gets them. So he asks them to read a personal essay he’s written about his experiences and how he wants to fuel change. Since we’ve already seen Podolner tell the cameras about his family’s history of fighting for civil rights and tell another teacher that he knows “just by being black, that they’ve had a different experience,” it’s both uncomfortable and unsurprising when his message to his students gets a little garbled, even if it’s delivered with the best of intentions.
And that’s kind of the point of America to Me: Racism, even when it isn’t the cross-burning kind, is so ingrained in our society that it’s almost unavoidable even by those who recognize it and want to help. The miniseries comes from Steve James, the director and producer known for nonfiction classics like Hoop Dreams, about two African-American high-school students in Chicago who are striving for the NBA, and The Interrupters, about those who try to mitigate violence in Chicago’s South Side.
For this project, James says that he didn’t want to go to the obvious places to see the problems of race and racism in this country; he wanted to look at where it plays out every day, in front of people who believe themselves to be progressives. So he returned to a setting he knew well: the high school where his own kids matriculated, and one that, like so many other places, has had its share of conflicts regarding race and society. In February 2015, the school made headlines thanks to a Black Lives Matter event that was limited to black students.
“I think liberals—white liberals in particular—have this sense that, ‘If I’m not racist in how I define what “racist” is, and especially if I live in a community that’s diverse and I send my kids to a diverse public high school, I’m doing my part,’” James tells Paste when we talk during this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour. “But, increasingly, what people are saying in the activist community is it’s not enough for white people to not be racist; they need to be anti-racist. And by that, I think what they mean is, they actually do something. They can’t just have liberal ideas and be sensitive or try to be sensitive.”
He adds that this is, “fundamentally, what you see in a community like Oak Park”: It’s considered a good school in a good neighborhood, and James suggests that, “because the school works really well for white families, it makes change harder. There’s a kind of complacency and a fear of real change because it works so well.”
James and his team—whom, he stresses, were not all middle-aged white guys like him—chronicled some of the Oak Park students, teachers and families for the 2015-2016 school year. In the course of the five episodes (of 10 total) that have been sent to the press, patterns and stories begin to emerge. There’s Terrence Moore, a soft-spoken junior with special needs whose single mother is pushing him (and his teachers) to go into higher-level classes, even though they may not be the best fit. He goes to the same school as his aunt, the bubbly cheerleader Tiara Oliphant, who is a sophomore and lives with Terrence. There are burgeoning activists like Buford, who talks in the series of feeling like an outsider when she previously attended a mostly white Catholic school, and who makes her own videos about her experiences with micro-aggressions and issues like the use of the N-word. There are kids from the school’s successful spoken word team, like Donalson (a junior; also raised by a single mom; also struggling academically, but for different reasons) and Chanti Relf, who is both biracial and figuring out issues of gender identity. There’s Kendale McCoy, who was raised by his great aunt and uncle and who is learning that there are simply not enough hours in the day to be both a marching-band leader with his white friends and succeed on the wrestling team with his black and Latino friends. And then there’s Grant Lee, a biracial freshman who is working up the nerve to ask out a girl.
The episodes feel at once like a time capsule of hope and a prelude to our current moment, in which it seems increasingly untenable to bury our heads in the sand. School shootings were certainly happening in 2015, but this was a few years before the survivors of February’s massacre at Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School forced us not to look away. Like something out of The Handmaid’s Tale, a gaggle of happy teens whizzing past downtown Chicago’s Trump International Hotel is the series’ only warning sign, at least through five episodes, of what’s to come in November 2016.
The students’ stories are handled subtly—America to Me is no Dangerous Minds. James and his crew let you know that most of the teachers and coaches are white, while the security guards tend to be people of color. The cheerleading squad, which is primarily made up of people of color, historically performs on a portion of the football field further from the densest concentration of fans than the mostly white drill team. James adds that they also looked at the breakdown of who is in honors classes and on track to go to college, because “even the so-called achievement gap has grown since my kids were in school.”
Aside from a few standouts like Caroline Robling-Griest—an overachiever whose father’s unemployment may have kicked her determination into high gear—only a few white students were willing to talk and are full-on “characters” in the first half of the series. James says this isn’t necessarily surprising: “I have found in my experience that black people are much more open and have given a great deal [more] thought—for very obvious reasons—to race than white people.”
“When we introduce the white kids in the second half of the series, there’s some really interesting conversations around race that happen,” James promises. “I think that can be quite eye-opening for fellow white people to talk about white privilege and what that means. But I do think particularly this generation of white people is so much more thoughtful and thinking about these issues than previous generations.”
Buford and Donalson, who also came to TCA to promote the project, expand on this subject in an interview with Paste. Now in her junior year at Howard University, Buford tells me that “I think they [the white people at her high school] pride themselves on diversity, but when it comes to black people speaking out, I think they have a problem with it.” Donalson, who has also graduated and is teaching spoken word and music, is more blunt: “We live in a culture where there’s a solidarity among people of color… that we’re not going to mess with the white people.” During a panel presentation earlier in the day, he tells the audience that he wishes the series had also shown “how hard it is for black kids to get to Oak Park”—i.e., the racism and segregation in Chicago that puts another community that’s “so much more disadvantaged and not as privileged as ours” almost right next door.
The takeaway, James and the others say, is not to shut down the well-meaning progressives like physics teacher Podolner. It’s to get them to listen and learn before they act.
Liberals have a hard time being candid about race, because they know just enough about what not to say,” James says, suggesting that they’re often more concerned with saying the right thing than addressing the underlying issues. “But that actually is not productive to real change.”
America to Me premieres Sunday, August 26 on Starz. In conjunction with the series, Starz has launched a “Share Your Voice” spoken word contest that allows U.S. students the opportunity to win a $25,000 scholarship. Find out more at AmericaToMe.com.