FOREST PARK – After the 2016 presidential election, Aisha Sultan felt a turmoil of emotions that she didn’t know how to process. So she made a film about it.
Sultan has worked for the past twenty years as a reporter and columnist, with her own column at the St. Louis Post Dispatch covering topics about families and race. When she decided she wanted to use filmmaking as a tool to talk about biases, she said she “googled, ‘How to make a film,’” because she had never made one before.
The ten-minute film, “Other People: Unpacking Assumptions,” which premiered at the Missouri History Museum on Thursday night, depicts “an awkward situation when a millennial mom takes her daughter on a playdate.” A mixed-race couple navigates what to do when another mother makes racist comments just before – and then during – a birthday party.
After the film, Sultan invited a panel of four experts from various backgrounds to take the stage and engage in conversation about race and bias. Kellen Hill, Kristine Hendrix, Amanda Lienau Purnell, and Elaine Cha all spoke about their reactions to the films as well as their own experiences with bias and “the other.”
“There are so many destructive and violent aspects of racism in our society,” said Sultan, asking the panel if they believed there was any value to discussions about microaggressions like the ones “Other People” might prompt.
“Change comes from small details,” said Hill. Originally from Miami, which he said is a very diverse environment, he said he thinks it’s important that people are “willing to come to the table” to discuss the ways we can work to overcome racism and prejudice.
Elaine Cha, who works as the Storyteller at Big Brothers/Big Sisters Eastern Missouri, agreed, adding that, “I don’t think there can be systemic change without change on the micro level.”
Sultan also asked panelists to describe times they had personally been the “only” in a room.
The daughter of parents in the Air Force, Kristine Hendrix, who serves as the current president of the University City School Board, said she often found herself the only black girl in most environments, which meant that she often received a lot of questions from peers about hair, skin color, and race. The experience, she explained, “felt empty, and it felt lonely.”
It also affected her understanding of her own race. ““I didn’t know that Black women were beautiful…for a long time,” she said. When she moved to St. Louis, she said she found herself in an environment with many more black people than she previously had.
Hill also spoke about being the only black person in a room, specifically referencing work environments where his clientele have largely been white and how difficult it can be to deal with the microaggressions that occur in such environments. ““Eight hours a day, I was the only black person around,” he said.
Amanda Lienau Purnell, a local psychologist, addressed the discomfort of being the only woman in a room but also touched on race, saying, “It wasn’t until I was an adult that I had an experience where I was the only white person in the room.”
The mother of two biracial children, one of whom has Down Syndrome, Lienau Purnell said that she has witnessed plenty of displays of racism and bias much like the instances depicted in Sultan’s film. Of fellow white people she said, ““It’s easy to point out an obviously racist comment and say, ‘I do good things. I have good thoughts” in comparison. But she said that doesn’t address more subtle microaggressions.
The panel ended with a Q&A with the audience. The panel members addressed how to spark change in local school districts, as well as what has changed both in the US and St. Louis since the 2016 presidential election. All panelists acknowledged that the country might seems much more outwardly hostile than it had perviously.
Of the shift, Hendrix said, “For a long time we deluded ourselves into thinking we’re something we’re not.”
This one-night event took place at the Missouri History Museum. For more information about Aisha Sultan, visit http://aishasultan.com/#home.