On a breezy afternoon in mid-October, 21-year-old UC Berkeley student Summer Mason found herself feeling alone and isolated. But she was actually sitting with approximately seventy other students in an undergraduate class on avant-garde film, which had just finished a screening of Our Trip to Africa, a 1966 movie by Austrian director Peter Kubelka. The experimental film was uncomfortable to watch for many reasons, but it was the close-up of an African woman’s face followed by a shot of a hunted animal carcass that sent shivers down Mason’s spine. To her — and to only her, it seemed — Kubelka’s work reeked of racism and cultural appropriation.
“I’ve never felt so uncomfortable in my own skin as a Black woman,” Mason said.
Though professor Jeffrey Skoller, who teaches the avant-garde film class at Cal every year, explained that Kubelka’s film was intended to be an indictment of European colonialism “meant to challenge and disturb,” Mason saw it as another instance of racism parading itself as art. As one of the few people of color in the class, she felt a sense of obligation to speak out, she said. But her argument — that a white filmmaker had no business making ethnographic films that “distorted, dismantled, and deconstructed” the Black experience — drew criticism from her mostly white classmates, sparking a heated classroom debate. By the time the lecture had finished, she felt as is she had become a lone voice speaking up for all minority voices, she said.
When Skoller got word of Mason’s complaints, he invited her to show a film of her choosing and lead a discussion about racial issues, but by that point, Mason had already rallied student allies from outside of the class to join her in a protest and walkout of his following lecture. In the months since the first protest, she has been continuing to raise awareness about the lack of Black voices on campus and what she sees as underlying racism in film classes’ whitewashed curricula and discussions. The film student has been leading a grassroots campaign using social media and has also been making speeches on campus, urging listeners to question the value of films that allow white filmmakers to explore and potentially profit from the experiences of minorities.
“I was told that these images are important, that they provide a critical view of racism,” she said in a speech before the walkout. “And I ask you for who? Not for me. … I don’t need older white males to explain to me how malleable the world has made my image, how violent the world has made my image, how hyper-sexualized the world has made my image.”
Mason’s complaints contribute to a nationwide debate that was spurred earlier this year about trigger-warnings, and whether content that is potentially offensive or might trigger memories of trauma within students should be prefaced with warnings or excluded from curricula altogether. It also comes at a time when racial tensions are especially high at colleges across the country, resulting in a number of large protests at Yale University, University of Missouri, UCLA, and Brown University, among others.
Skoller described himself as “ambivalent” toward trigger warnings specific to films, although he includes a general warning in the course syllabus. He said that in his experience, telling the class “what they are about to see and feel before it happens often removes some of the artistic aspects that the film was made for.” The films, he said, are part of a canon of cinema that has “been deemed unacceptable or controversial by the mainstream film industry” and are therefore supposed to be shocking and spur passionate responses from audiences.
And though Mason concedes that films like Our Trip to Africa have a place within critical analysis, she said that discussions about them are inadequate without Black or minority input. Professors, she said, should also be prepared to intervene when heated debates transform classes into racially charged environments: “When someone is being ostracized, especially when a minority is being ostracized, know when to step in,” Mason said.
Isolating experiences like Mason’s are not uncommon on the UC Berkeley campus, where out of 36,204 students enrolled in 2015, only 1,257 — a little more than 3 percent — are Black.
A UC Berkeley study from 2013 also revealed that only 47 percent of Black respondents felt comfortable on campus, prompting Chancellor Nicholas Dirks to unveil a $20 million scholarship plan earlier this year that uses donations from private, nonprofit organizations to fund scholarships for Black students. Called the UC Berkeley African American Initiative, the plan is meant to combat some of the deleterious effects of California’s 1996 approval of Proposition 209, which prohibits publicly funded universities from offering scholarships that consider race, sex, or ethnicity.
In an interview, Skoller lamented the lack of racial diversity among his students and agreed with Mason on a need for critical conversations about race in the classroom. “I think that if there had been more students of color in the class, people might have been more careful about what they said,” Skoller said. “It wouldn’t have all been on [Mason’s] shoulders.”
But it appears that the problem amounts to a lack of diversity in faculty as well. None of the permanent film department professors or current adjunct lecturers are Black, and within the department, there were no classes specifically focused on Black experiences in film this year, even though many feel that it’s a crucial topic within the field of study.
Since her protest, Mason has been speaking with professors and administrators about ways to improve academic spaces for students of color. Next semester, she will be part of a new seminar course in the Film and Media Studies department that will be a space for about a dozen upperclassman undergraduates to discuss race and media. Mason hopes that the class will address some of the injustices that Blacks are subjected to on film and has been invited by the professor, Kristen Whissel, to provide input on how the syllabus should look.
For Mason, the ability to help curate the class curriculum is tantamount to having her voice heard. “It made me feel like there was value to what I was doing,” she said. “But the next class that will be taught, I don’t want it to end there. I hope this is something that makes people aware that Black voices — all Black voices — need to be heard.”