Posted on February 13, 2022

‘Who We Are’: A Documentary History of Racism Holds a Mirror up to America

Michael O'Sullivan, Washington Post, February 2, 2022

At the top of the excellent documentary “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,” we hear a solicitation, put to a 2018 audience at New York City’s Town Hall theater by the evening’s host, attorney Jeffery Robinson (former ACLU deputy legal director): “If you have ever owned a slave, please raise your hand.”

And then, when no hands go up, Robinson, who since 2011 has been delivering some version of this talk — akin to a PowerPoint presentation on racism, complete with audiovisual clips — explains the point of asking what sounds like a rhetorical question, but isn’t. “Slavery is not our fault,” he says. “We didn’t do it. We didn’t cause it. It’s not our responsibility.” But it is, he adds, our shared history, and when we try to turn that shared history into something that it’s not — “when we try to make more light of it than it was, then we are denying who we really are.”


“Who We Are” follows a rough chronology, from the founding of this country to today. Along the way, Robinson identifies what he called several tipping points, where it looked like things were getting better only to backslide: the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction, followed by decades of policies that restricted formerly enslaved people; the mid-20th-century rise of the Civil Rights era (culminating in the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.); and the ongoing racial reckoning movement that has been taking place across America over the past few years. A graphic animation of a boulder-like form rolling up a hill, as if by Sisyphus, and then rolling back down before it clears the summit illustrates his point.

But “Who We Are” is ultimately more hopeful than reading about it may sound. Robinson’s quasi-TED Talk is both broad-ranging and deep, covering a history that is political, legal, cultural, economic, psychological, emotional, moral and, in the end, also profoundly personal. {snip}