Local film examines ethnicity, bridges between women

"You cannot not be racist," says a Caucasian woman at the beginning of "The Way Home." "It's in our water. It's in the air we breathe. It's the world we were born into. Where does the racism show up in me?"

The fear of latent racism is a common one and the underlying issue a longstanding problem for American society. But where do we start building bridges? How can we say the things that have to be said even though they may sound inappropriate? And how can we move beyond racial differences while still preserving our own ethnic identity?

First you "have to work on your own internalized issues," says Shakti Butler, the film's director and producer, whose own roots are Jewish and West Indian. "The whole focus [of the movie] is internalized oppression."

The documentary premieres tomorrow night at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts. The event is a benefit for World Trust, an Oakland-based nonprofit that Butler co-founded and now directs. "The Way Home" was created to serve as a catalyst for Heart-to-Heart Conversations, a public dialogue program launched by World Trust.

The film features 64 Bay Area women ranging in age from 14 to 82, representing different classes, sexual orientations, and ethnic, religious and racial backgrounds discussing racial issues. To accomplish this, the women were divided into eight different ethnic groups called "councils" — Latina, African-American, Asian, Jewish, European-American, Arab, Native American and multiracial — and met for three years, during which they were filmed.

Over the course of the 90-minute movie, the women look into themselves, examine how they have internalized societal stereotypes about themselves and others, and determine how to start moving beyond those barriers.

The result is a probing, often heart-wrenching, account of deep-seated racial attitudes and experiences. The film reveals the pain of living as a minority, trying to blend with the dominant culture often at the expense of denying one's own culture and sometimes even family. It also offers a rare view of candid conversations to which outsiders are not usually privy.

African-American women talk about straightening their hair and pinching their noses to make them look "white." A Latina woman remembers calling home from school and speaking English to her Spanish-speaking grandmother because she didn't want the other children to know she spoke Spanish.

A Jewish woman breaks down in tears as she tells how her New York relatives disgusted her, making her feel like she has worms crawling through her body. And another Jewish woman recalls how she would say "thank you" whenever anyone told her she didn't look Jewish.

In spite of the varied ethnic backgrounds, many common threads are apparent.

"You see patterns," says Butler. "How we are the same. How we are different and how do we incorporate those two things."

The oppression of ethnic groups by one another also surfaces.

In the Jewish council, Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews give accounts of Ashkenazi Jews calling them "black Jews" and saying they were not really Jews.

In the Asian council, a Chinese woman talks about labeling schoolmates "ABCs" — American-born Chinese — a derogatory term for those who didn't attend Chinese school and had bought into American culture.

That Butler has taken on this task is not surprising. Her Jewish mother had parents who spoke Russian and Yiddish. Her West Indian father meditated and practiced several religions before settling on the Science of the Mind Church. When it came to politics, her parents were socialists and fiercely pro-union, with her father being the first black Teamster ever hired.

"I grew up in Harlem, mostly surrounded by people of color," says Butler, who identifies with the African-American community. Her mother was alienated by much of her family because she married a black man. "In third grade I got shifted to a private school and had to learn to navigate both of those worlds."

"The Way Home" intersperses conversations with ethnic music and cultural dances. Family photographs and newspaper clippings are often used as a backdrop to the women's voices.

"The purpose of the video is to be a catalyst for conversation," Butler says. After the movie's premiere in San Francisco, it will be shown around the country. "The movie comes with a conversation guide so that a facilitator isn't necessary."

Butler sees the film as a teaching tool that can be used in offices, synagogues, churches or even homes to get a dialogue started. She feels that authentic conversations are a necessary first step to understanding.

"If I get to hear your story and I get to tell mine, hopefully there's something there to connect to," Butler says. "If people leave the movie and ask themselves one or two questions, I've done my job."