The remarkable story of Robin Cloud’s family gets to the heart of one of the deepest wounds in American society: racism. Cloud, a comedian, author and film director who recently spoke with Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer on his podcast “Scheer Intelligence,” comes from a sizable black family with roots in South Carolina dating back to the age of American slavery. She can trace her ancestors to both slaves and slave owners, a history known and shared by the many members of the Ragin-Watson family, which comes together once a year for a family reunion.
But for years, a branch of Cloud’s family, known as to them as the “Nebraska cousins,” was missing from the photos of their annual get-together. What Cloud comes to uncover about her family is the subject of her 6-part documentary, “Passing: A Family in Black & White.” The film (you can watch the first episode at the link above, the link below, or on Topic.com), follows the comedian’s reencounters with family members who descended from a cousin and her husband, both of whom were black, who decided to pass as white when they moved to Nebraska.
Their decision to pass was similar to decisions made by many others past and present: access to better jobs, better housing and a existence exempt from the often deadly racism that pervades every aspect of American life. Their dozens of kids and grandkids grew up believing they were white, despite sometimes being questioned by others about certain features and wondering whether they had other roots.
The film, which gives an honest, often uncomfortable look into Cloud’s reacquaintance with her family, paints a less-than-idyllic picture of reunion. In fact, it shows how stubbornly some people hold on to white privilege despite clear evidence of their ancestry.
“Imagine seeing a picture of your grandmother at a black family reunion,” Cloud tells the Truthdig editor in chief, “and still not believing that it’s true. Like, that’s how deep this issue is that [we’re] talking about, about white people not wanting to deal with race.”
The denial is one that can be seen in American society at large, and, as Scheer points out, can be traced to our political troubles to this very day.
“Your film really deals with an up-to-the-minute issue,” he tells Cloud on the podcast. “This is not ancient history. And the reason it’s not ancient history is that racism survives precisely because it’s good for demagogues. And it’s a way of explaining away other contradictions in the society.
“I love this quote from you: ‘Culture almost outweighs blood,’ ” Scheer continues. “And what it’s really saying is—an illusion outweighs reality.”
The inability or lack of desire to examine the contradictions our own blood can carry is illustrated in a poignant moment between Cloud and some of her young cousins in Omaha. When the film director asks two relatives if this knowledge will change their relationship to or their views of black people, they shake their heads. One answers that he essentially doesn’t see race. Cloud highlights her discomfort in the narration as well as to her cousins, telling them that in “this political climate” it’s impossible for her to ignore race and racism.
In the media player above, listen to the full discussion between Cloud and Scheer as the two talk about the film and how it relates to both the painful history and current events that many Americans refuse to face. You can also read a transcript of the interview below the credits.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
ROBERT SCHEER: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence,” where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, it’s Robin Cloud, comedian, writer, and director. Well-known as a comedian, there are lots of clips on YouTube and elsewhere that you can watch. And as a writer, has written for major publications and what have you. But it’s in your role as a director that I really want to talk to you about, because I got to watch your six-part documentary, “Passing: A Family in Black & White.” And I actually was blown away by it. I just thought–first of all, it fits into the theme of this series; I’ve done about 170 of these, and I aim at what I call American originals. And this is a film that could–I’m sure there are counterparts, I’ll get to that later, in other cultures–but it’s a uniquely American film. And it concerns, first of all, basically a black family from South Carolina, which then moves on to the rest of the country, but experienced slavery, experienced deep segregation and what have you. And most of these people end up living the life of black people in a more northern environment. You spent much of your time in Connecticut, New York; you went to Howard University, a prestigious black legacy school, and so forth. You now are in Los Angeles, which is, I think, the center of the world, but that’s another issue. [Laughter] And but one branch of your family, which was a regular part of your family, they went off, and Willa Mae Lane ended up in Omaha, Nebraska. And they lived the lives of white people. So hence the title, “Passing: A Family in Black & White.” How do people get to watch this?
ROBIN CLOUD: Well, first, thank you for having me. “Passing: A Family in Black & White” is on Topic, so you can watch it at topic.com/passing. It’s also on YouTube, and then there are also clips on Facebook.
RS: OK. And what is–I want you to lay out the film, but what I found really interesting about it, it was a reminder of the significance of skin color, obviously, in the American experience–something we’re always debating now, we’re talking about reparations, we’re talking about a historic legacy. But you had an interesting comment in the sixth part, I believe, where you said, “Culture almost outweighs blood.” And then you even said, “it’s more important.”
Tell me what you meant about that, because after watching your documentary, I thought you know, that might be the big takeaway from this. That one branch of this family went off into a different culture; you couldn’t imagine a more different culture than Nebraska. I don’t know if they had–you know, they had Native Americans, I don’t know if they had any people who were then called “Negro,” or more derogatory terms. But let’s start with that: “Culture almost outweighs blood.”
RC: Yes. Ah, I think when I was thinking about that, that came from my experience of really wanting or hoping that my Nebraska relatives, and also the ones that live in Chicago, would be interested in embracing African American culture, to some degree. And what I found when I posed that question to them–
RS: These are the people who lived as white.
RC: Yes, who lived as white for, you know, up until I told them that they were not really white. That they felt–specifically my cousin Jeannene, you know, said to me that “I’m culturally white, and I don’t know how to be black.” You know, “I don’t know the music, I don’t know the food, I don’t know”–you know, black people talk to each other in a different way that we sometimes talk to white people. And she doesn’t know those things, and she didn’t want to try to be something that she isn’t.
RS: Well, because we’re doing radio, we can’t hold up this picture. But the folks in Nebraska, a few of them clearly look like they–
RC: Yeah, like light-skinned black people with, you know, Afros, and you know, black features.
RS: But others are blonde, blue-eyed, white and so forth. And you have kind of–and then a few of them come back to a family reunion.
RC: Yes, that’s right.
RS: I mean, people also forget, you know, we’re not talking about caricatures of human beings. We’re talking about real families, real people. And your family has a long history, and they have reunions all the time, they have–
RC: Every year, every year, yeah.
RS: Local ones every year, and then every five years they have a bigger one and so forth. And so why don’t you–because that’s sort of really the big takeaway from this film, is how interesting everybody is, how complex, how history impacts them, how culture impacts them. You know, none of us are stereotypes, none of us are simple. We come from someplace. And I think your movie is a powerful reminder of that, you know. There’s one guy who I loved, my favorite guy in the movie, I don’t remember his name. But he’s back in South Carolina–
RC: Oh, David, my cousin David, yeah. [Laughs]
RS: Yeah, and he’s doing what I like to do–in fact, what I did yesterday. I didn’t actually fish, but I was on my little electric boat out in the Marina. And I just loved this guy, because he seemed at peace with the homeland.
RC: Yeah, he made that choice. I mean, he spent summers down there as a kid, and then when he was in junior high, he decided he didn’t want to stay in Philly anymore because he liked being in the country. I mean, he’s a country boy at heart. He’s also an amazing wildlife photographer, and so he goes on trips and takes these amazing photographs. Yeah.
RS: And he brought you in touch with your own origins in that area, in that he showed you the land that the slaveowner had given back to the family, and you know, where you were fishing. And then you went to try to find your aunt’s home, or your grandmother’s home. Why don’t you put us there? Because I want to give the film its due. There’s an experience you have watching this documentary, again, that you’re reminded that none of us are cardboard figures. That we have this history, whether we’re rural, whether we’re black, whether we’re white, there’s a history. There’s a connection with nature, there’s a connection with family. And your family–just take us to the beginning.
RC: Well, I would say, this is my mother’s side of the family. We have a very large family from Summerton, South Carolina, which is just an hour northwest of Charleston. And it’s a small town; it’s really like a stereotypical Southern town, where there’s like literally one stoplight. It’s very segregated. You know, there’s like a white high school and a black high school still to this day. I mean, I think technically they’re, they can be integrated, but everyone sort of sticks to their own.
There are also white Ragins and white Watsons that are still in the family, which I’m assuming that we’re related to. Yeah, and our roots originally, you know, come from these Irish brothers that came over from Ireland and were slaveowners in the area. And obviously, I don’t know the circumstance, but I can imagine that it was not good, that they had relations with an African woman, and that’s where our family began. And the first son out of that relationship was the one that was freed by his own father and given the land that we still own today.
RS: And it’s beautiful land there. But even–
RS: –even so, the–what’s his name who does the fishing?
RS: David made a point that somebody came up to him once and said, “You have too good a boat.”
RC: Oh, yeah. I mean, the racism is–is real. Like, even going down for the weekend, you know, it’s possible to go through and just have a nice family reunion. But if you go to any of the integrated places, you know, people still look at you. And they wonder why you’re there, and you know, they’ll give you that–it’s just that feeling, sort of. That as a northerner, growing up in Connecticut, I’m very sensitive to it. And I feel it immediately.
RS: So as I suggest, the movie is not a benign view of family life in any way. I mean, obviously, these people went through great turmoil and so forth. The gift of this land only came after civil war and everything else, and probably the owners had no choice at that point–
RC: No, it was actually early. It was in the 1700s.
RS: Oh, really?
RS: And so why did, how did that happen?
RC: I don’t know. This was a white Irish man with some sort of conscience, I guess? [Laughs] Which is amazing.
RS: Oh, really? That’s interesting.
RC: Yeah, I mean, I would love to dive more into who this person was, because I don’t really know much about him besides this part of the story.
RS: OK. So you’re the inconvenient relative who’s bothered to trace family history.
RS: You got the scrapbook, and so forth, right? How long did this take you, by the way? Most of your life?
RC: I started–it–god, I started in 2008.
RS: But you must have been curious much earlier, right?
RC: I am a big history buff. I love history. I actually have a master’s in historic preservation; in addition to all the other creative things I do, I love restoring old buildings. So that’s something I’ve been interested in. And I worked as the director of preservation at the Weeksville Heritage Center, which is an African American historic site in Brooklyn. And we held genealogy classes for the community, and that was my first real introduction to genealogy and research. And I learned how to do it, and it just really inspired me to start diving in deeper into this story.
RS: Into your story, your family’s story.
RC: Into my family’s story, yes.
RS: And when was your first recognition that you had a white branch of the family that was in the closet, so to speak?
RC: I knew that, I would say, my whole life. You know, it was sort of growing up, at family reunions, listening to my grandmother and her sisters talk about it. As a child, it was always something that I would hear, you know, in passing. Ha, ha. But, ah–[Laughs] yeah, definitely, it was just something that the grown folks talked about.
RS: And it was all about Willa Mae and–what was his name?
RC: Johnny, her husband Johnny.
RS: Yeah, you say Johnny Boy Watson?
RC: His nickname was Johnny Boy.
RS: Yeah, Johnny Boy Watson. They were both, clearly, back north, and in the east–
RC: Yes, in New York, in Harlem.
RS: They were “Negroes.”
RC: Yes, for sure.
RS: Yes. And then what happened? They just decided to get out of town?
RC: From what I’ve heard, Johnny was an engineer, college educated. And at that time, they were not hiring black men to do–
RS: Do you know where he went to college?
RC: I don’t. That’s something that I have to–
RS: I wonder if it was City College. [Laughs] My alma mater–
RC: Yeah, I’m not sure. Wouldn’t that be amazing, I need another, I need a genealogist to help me to, like, dig even deeper. Ah, so–
RS: So they went out to–why Nebraska?
RC: Well, this is the story. And you know, that he was, one, he was looking for a job. And then two, their eldest son had asthma, and they were told by the doctor that they should probably leave New York and move west. And so they were actually on their way to Arizona, but somehow stopped in Nebraska, and he ended up getting this job there, and they just stayed.
RS: And he was quite successful there, right?
RC: Yes, he was.
RS: He was a commissioner or something? Tell us about that.
RC: That’s something that Josh has said. I haven’t been able to verify–
RS: Oh. Josh is his–
RC: Josh is his grandson.
RS: Grandson, yeah. And it’s really interesting, because when you meet these people, actually this grandson Josh, who’s been raised as a white person in Omaha, Nebraska–he has an earring, he seems to–what did you say? He’s a mixture of a hippie and a–?
RC: Oh yeah, he calls himself a–gosh. A hippie and a hillbilly. Yeah, yeah.
RS: OK. So actually, you go out there; you’ve met a few members of the family before, who came back for a reunion. But now you go out to Nebraska to meet your white relatives. You actually seem to instantly bond, because in the film they show the meeting–you show, you’re the director–your meeting with him. And you guys share a lot. You’re both sort of–I don’t want to–
RC: Yeah, we’re like, both sort of like artsy fartsy, crunchy, like–we love junk and trash, and making stuff. He loves, he like makes these amazing like glass pipes, and glass balls, and all of this stuff. And he’s like a little artisan. So, yeah, we really got along.
RS: OK. So is this where your slogan came from, “Culture almost outweighs blood?” That you and Josh actually turned out to share, what, more of a culture?
RC: Ah, no, I think that actually comes from–I mean, Josh and I did connect on those things, for sure. But I felt that it was really hard for them–it would be hard for them to embrace black culture when they’ve been raised in white culture. And making that shift is what I was saying is almost impossible.
RS: Because the culture holds.
RC: Because the culture is deeper and stronger, and that’s what your foundation is.
RS: Yeah. So let’s cut to the chase here. Were you an embarrassment when you showed up in Nebraska? Are they kind of irritated that you did this?
RC: There are a few of the older generation who are not happy about the film. I think they feel that this is old news, if their parents didn’t tell them why do we need to talk about it.
RS: Do they claim they knew?
RC: No, they don’t. They definitely did not know.
RS: Let’s just be very precise here. You’re talking to people who are the offspring of Willa Mae Lane and Johnny Boy Watson, right?
RC: Ah–no, John Lane.
RS: John Lane.
RC: Yeah, yeah. Willa Mae, her maiden name was Watson.
RS: Oh, OK. And they are out there, and they decide that they’re going to pass as white.
RS: And they’d gone through a few before; they’d been mulatto, they called–
RC: Yes, they were–depending on the census, and where they were. So like in South Carolina, in our town, they were mulatto. As a lot of my relatives were listed as mulatto, because they were very light-skinned black people. Then they moved to Philly, where they were like, OK, you’re black. And then, you know, when Willa Mae moved to New York, then she was black. And then to Nebraska, and she was white.
RS: White. And they just fit in with the white community.
RC: Yeah, for the most part. I mean, there were questions, I think, from the white people. Because they were like, well–you know, you’re not sort of blonde and blue-eyed, like the rest–I mean, Nebraska, back then in the forties and fifties, was mostly, I would say, Scandinavian, German, Polish immigrants, or descendants of those people. And so they did, they looked really different, and they stood out.
RS: But they were successful.
RC: But they were successful, because they were very determined in keeping the lie going.
RS: And taxpayers, and he’s an engineer.
RC: Yeah, and working, and part of society.
RS: And he had an official position.
RS: Right. So then, and what’s so powerful–we can’t show it, obviously, on radio; people should watch the documentary–when you see the family photo of the Nebraska people, it’s a picture of apple-pie America. You know, this is America, OK. And so suddenly you show up. And you know, you’re an artist. You’re a controversial figure. [Laughter] You perform comedy routines in nightclubs, and so forth, and you’re provocative and so forth. And you’re also a gay person–
RS: –and you don’t conceal it, right.
RS: Was that an issue at all?
RC: Ah, Becky Jo and I and Jeannene never really talked about that. Jeannene has a daughter that’s gay, so I think she’s–
RS: These are the Nebraska people.
RC: Yes, but Jeannene lives on the East Coast now. Well, she grew up in Chicago. But yeah, I mean, Becky Jo definitely is a Trump supporter; she’s a devout Catholic, so she’s pro-life, and would probably say she was anti-gay, but never said that directly to me.
RS: But it’s interesting in terms of what is–where are controversies. And this is one of the things I found fascinating about your movie. It seems to me–and I don’t want to minimize the hostility that gay people encounter. But we’ve had tremendous change. I just was in the–it is San Francisco, but in Terminal 1 of the airport, and there you have the whole history of gay life in San Francisco, and Harvey Milk–it’s named the Harvey Milk terminal. And people stop and they read it and everything. And it has a feeling of not being controversial, of just sort of obvious truth. Yes, we went through this dark period, and now we’re coming to our senses, and we recognize–you know, and so forth. That hasn’t happened in racial relations. Not in that way.
RC: No, and would say, like, that type of acceptance has happened on the coast. [Laughs] You know, I think the rest of the country is not exactly up to speed.
RS: I don’t want to minimize it. But even for the rest of the country, I suspect the fact that you are, were thought of as black, bringing news of black roots of the family, was far more of interest to them than that you are gay.
RC: Yes, I would say so. For sure.
RS: Right, yeah. And then you point out one of the Nebraska white people, so-called, has a gay offspring. And one of the interesting things about the gay issue is gays show up everywhere.
RC: Exactly. Straight people make gays. [Laughs] So.
RS: Yeah, and they show up as Catholics, and they show up, you know, all over the place. So you can’t–once gay people are out of the closet, you can’t dismiss them in that way, because it’s your nephew, it’s your child, what have you. OK. The sad thing–and watching your movie, it felt profoundly disturbing–this hasn’t crossed racial lines between black and white. We haven’t had that integration of ordinary life. You know, we haven’t had that acceptance, that respect. It holds.
We live in a racially deeply divided society, black-white, brown-white, and so forth. And you know, I would not have expected this if I thought back to the 1950s or something, where the treatment of gay people was in some ways worse than any other minority. But now, you know, OK, we got over that one. Even Donald Trump, he’s not particularly going to bash gay people or anything.
RC: Well, he’s, I mean, he’s going to try to take away our rights.
RS: He brought the first gay speaker to the Republican convention, Peter Thiel. I’m not going to try to make him, sugar-coat Donald Trump. But the interesting thing about your movie is it’s made by–you’re central to this film, and I should give the title again, “Passing: A Family in Black & White.” I think it’s a very powerful movie, and I’m trying to promote it here unabashedly. But what’s so interesting is the gay part, because you show up in the film with your significant other. I gather you’re getting married soon.
RC: Yes, that’s right.
RS: That’s a non-issue in this film. To the people, it seems to me. The real issue is this thing that you thought would have disappeared by now: race. Skin color. What’s that about?
RC: No, I don’t think it would have disappeared by now.
RS: Well, I thought it would.
RS: I actually thought as a kid–I’m much older than you are–I thought, wow, the civil rights movement, the end of segregation–you know, and all that–no. It holds. A really sharp, ugly edge–
RC: Yes, yes! Because every white person in this country is indoctrinated into white supremacy. Whether they want to be or not. Even the good liberals. You know. And it’s the work of white people to continue to undo that thinking. And read books like White Fragility, and call out their family members who are not up to speed, and still hold onto those values. Whether they think they’re holding onto them or not. They’re–it’s ever-present. So that work has to be addressed and taken on by white folks. And that’s why it still exists, because nobody wants to do it.
RS: Well, and also, I think, bringing it back to the film, one could make the argument that these folks in Nebraska want to hold onto it because it is privilege.
RC: Of course. Definitely.
RS: Right, I mean, that’s the key. And so they could say, hey, she’s a lot of fun to be with–
RC: [Laughs] But white privilege is even more fun than hanging out with Robin. That’s the key takeaway. [Laughs]
RS: Even–and you are actually, I don’t know, just eyeballing it, a successful member of this family. You have a reputation, they can look you up, you perform, you write, you make movies. You’re a success story. Probably as successful as any one of the Nebraska people, right? I don’t know.
RC: Yeah, I mean, the irony is I would say the black side of the family is more successful than the white side. Like, most of my cousins are doctors, lawyers, ah–
RS: The black cousins.
RC: Yes, yes. We are more successful.
RS: OK. But instead of embracing that and saying, hey, we come from good stock, look at these folks, you know, they’re doing great–there’s still a strong feeling that first of all, their neighbors might not feel that way. I don’t know, you’re the one who experienced it, you went to Nebraska.
RC: Right, I did.
RS: So what happened?
RC: Ah, what I found was the younger generation, like Katie and Josh, were willing to meet with me even though, you know, Katie was hesitant. And the older generation, being some of Becky Jo’s older children and Becky Jo’s siblings, were not interested in meeting me. I think that they just weren’t prepared to take on that type of conversation. Or the level of acceptance. I mean I think to this day, some of them still really don’t believe this is true.
RS: Have they done the biological testing?
RC: I think, yes, a few of them have. But the ones with the most doubt, they have not.
RS: And the ones that have done the testing, do they find–
RC: Oh yeah, for sure. You know, they’re–at this point, like, I am 66% black, like you know, 27% white or whatever. And so you know, they’re–they end up being like 15%, or like 20. It’s a small percentage, right. But like even my grandmother was probably, like, 50/50. So I mean, it’s very rare to be, like, 100% African as an African American, just because of the history of slavery.
RS: But it is interesting. And the Trump appeal is critical. You say one of your relatives in Nebraska does feel this way, or–?
RS: And the appeal, this nativist appeal, is quite dangerous precisely because it’s a way of explaining your own failures, or you know, it’s a way of trying to claim special privilege, and be opposed to anything done in society to make it fairer, whether it’s affirmative action or ending discrimination or what have you. And so it’s interesting. Your film really deals with an up-to-the-minute issue. This is not ancient history. And the reason it’s not ancient history is that racism survives precisely because it’s good for demagogues. And it’s a way of explaining away other contradictions in the society. You know, why are white workers not doing better in certain areas of Omaha or whatever, you know.
So let me–I want to–and that’s by way of an advertisement for this film. This is not an old subject of racism in South Carolina. It’s up to the minute, because it goes to–and again, I love this quote from you: “Culture almost outweighs blood.” And what it’s really saying is an illusion outweighs reality. The fact is, as you point out, we’re 60% this, 40% that, blah, blah, blah–you know, our makeup really is not traced to any particular bloodline. It’s the cultural perception of it–
RC: That makes you who you are, yes.
RS: And I tell you, one reason I got hooked on this movie of yours–I’m going to give the title just in case people are tired of hearing my voice—“Passing: A Family in Black & White.” And they can get it how?
RC: Ah, topic.com/passing.
RS: Good. And if people watch it, I really wish they would get back to me and tell me whether I read it wrong or so forth. But I had a personal connection with this, and maybe I’ll kind of wrap this up on this. And I suspect a lot of people have things in their family, wherever their family’s from, that reflect these kinds of tensions and false consciousness and everything else. But in my case, my father was a German Protestant–people who listen to these podcasts probably have heard me mention this too often, but it was a formative thing in my life–and my mother was a Russian Jew.
And I was born in ‘36. So the first 10 years, 12 years of my life, the big thing that I was aware of was there’s this horrible war going on, and the Jews were on the receiving end. And we had relatives who were killed, and all of our relatives were killed in Europe. And the people, the “krauts,” the Germans that were doing most of this–a lot of people took their anger out on the Japanese, but they weren’t doing that to the Jews. And people conveniently ignored the Italians, who were my neighbors in the Bronx. But somehow the Germans, they were doing it. And so after the war I went and found my German relatives and so forth, and tried to examine this. And there was one incident that happened, that when I was watching your movie, I thought, what you were going through–that was me. Because I found my father’s brother, who had been in the German army, and had been wounded at Stalingrad and so forth. And I finally got to, found his house, and found him.
And in my–I did study German, and I did hear Yiddish and German spoken at home, so I tried to explain who I was; his English wasn’t very good. And I tried to explain who I was, and I said–and so he suddenly said, “Oh, Arnold! Arnold!” And that’s my half-brother who’s all German Protestant. And I said, “No, nicht Arnold. Robert.” And he said “Oh, der Juden.” The Jew. And–but he didn’t mean it in some–I mean, it was a defining statement. It turned out we got along quite well, and my relatives in Germany were actually–like the guy you met in Nebraska, the younger ones were quite hip. And they were peaceniks, they supported the Greens, and everything else. And they all were quite clear about how evil the experience of the war. But nonetheless, they were Germans of another culture. And they really didn’t want to explore all this too much.
It was kind of an inconvenient truth. I’m a nice guy, I was interesting, they’d actually read my books. But you know what, Bob, don’t keep bringing this up. And for me, I couldn’t let it go. You know, I just couldn’t let it go. The question was, wait a minute, how did this happen? And the fact is, in this movie, that’s the tension that I detected. That the white part of the family really doesn’t want to examine this history any more than white America wants to examine this history, whether it’s about Native Americans, whether it’s about brown Americans, and certainly about black Americans. They just don’t want to think about it. And not just in Nebraska, but I suspect right here in Los Angeles near our school. It’s just–
RC: And it’s really sad. You know, it’s a disservice to our culture, to our world, to our communities.
RS: Well, worse than that, we keep repeating the same error. I mean, if we don’t understand that we can be–we whites–can and have been the brutes, have been the killers. And you know, one of the interesting things about Germany for me is that the German American population was the–and it still is, I think–the largest part of the white population in America. This was not the “other.” The immigrants in this country, that was the largest group, more than from England. And Germany was admired and had the highest level of science and teaching and so forth, and they were the greatest barbarians of modern time. Not some Arabs or Muslims or anybody else–no, German Christian, you know, white people. And we never examined that after. And I think the power of your film is we never really have examined racism, and that’s why it’s with us.
RS: The reality is, we don’t want to think about it. We want to think it’s an old story.
RC: Yeah, and white people are like–oh, why, you know, stop talking about slavery. Oh, another slavery movie. Oh, stop being triggered. You know, all those things.
RC: They don’t want–like the woman who recently, you know, went to the plantation and was mad about the guide giving the detailed, you know, story from an African perspective. You know, she just wants to go and experience Southern life.
RS: But the power of your film, “Passing: A Family in Black & White”—you know, I must tell you. I give my son, Josh, who’s the producer of the show, great credit for getting guests that I wouldn’t have had–and I must tell you, as recently as yesterday, I wondered, what the hell did Josh do here, why did he have this guest?
RS: Because I, you know, was having trouble getting the film to play, and what is this about, and what’s really different here. And then I watched it and I was blown away. I was blown away at precisely how relevant it is. Because you can’t dismiss it. It’s not an abstraction. It’s your family. And there you are, you’re seeing these very nice white people–you know, the ones we get to meet. They’re very nice. But they’re also awkward in this situation. They also don’t want to go there. They don’t really want to visit this thing.
You are the inconvenient truth, made all the more inconvenient by the fact that you’re quite presentable, you’re reasonable, you’re nice. You didn’t come there to guilt them, you know. You’re a very good reporter in this film. You’re reaching out to them, you’re very nonthreatening. This is not a threatening film. So they should actually, under normal human circumstances, welcome this–oh! Cousin so-and-so’s here, a relative, great! Tell us about the family–right? That’s the way we mostly–
RC: Yes, you would think, but, you know.
RS: Yes, the way we mostly receive people who show up and say, hey, you know, my aunt was your father’s second cousin twice removed. And we say, oh yeah, well what do you know about him? Well, I’ve got some pictures–you had the scrapbook. You have the data. You are the family historian.
RC: And imagine seeing a picture of your grandmother at a black family reunion and still not believing that it’s true. Like, that’s how deep this issue is that you’re talking about, about white people not wanting to deal with race. Like, here is a photograph of her, sitting next to her brother-in-law, who’s a black, brown-skinned man. And they still almost can’t believe it.
RS: Yeah, no, they’re awkward.
RC: It’s wild.
RS: Well, that’s the power of this film, really. But it’s also, as I said at the very beginning of this, I really got into this because I see America as this crazy-quilt of different cultures. And I’m interested in talking to American originals, and everyone’s got some kind of crazy history in all this, not always–very often, not positive.
And what the power of this film is, there’s an undeniable humanity to it. That’s us. And yet there’s a “banality of evil,” to quote Hannah Arendt, also woven through it. Why don’t we receive the other? Why don’t we welcome? After all, Jesus in the Good Samaritan was supposed to be welcoming to the stranger. But here, in your own family, why don’t they say–oh, great! A relative has showed up!
RC: Well, we know the answer to that.
RS: Well, do we? Why don’t we end on that. What is the answer? Because it’s–no, you know the answer–
RC: Racism. Racism! And white supremacy, and white privilege, is the answer. It prevents–
RS: But those are words. What does it really mean to–
RC: It means that, like, a white person living in this country who has all the status, the comfort of being top on the totem pole, doesn’t want to relinquish that. Even if it’s blood-related. It’s more important to hold on to your status.
RS: Yes. Well, that’s a frightening idea. “Culture almost outweighs blood”–no, culture outweighs blood. You will–this is a real issue that people face. You would probably–one would–if culture outweighs blood, you’ll turn over your mother, your sister to the Gestapo if it saves you. If it conforms to an ideology that you’ve been lectured into.
RC: Exactly. Isn’t that what we’ve seen in history?
RS: Yeah. But you have, your film provides an insight into that. Really important truth. And so then it’s not really culture, it’s opportunism, it’s greed, it’s power that’s wrapped into that word. And you don’t want to surrender your advantage, your power, your corruption, your greed. You will sacrifice your siblings. That’s the theme of your movie.
RC: [Laughs] One of them, yes.
RS: Well, I think it’s an important observation. And it’s, I want to caution people, it’s not done in a scolding way. It’s done in a loving–you actually, the film extends to these people, it wants to include them, it wants to embrace them. There’s no built-in hostility in this film. It’s great journalism, from my point of view. Because you really are curious, you really are open. Hey, look! And there’s aunt so-and-so, and there’s cousin so-and-so. And they happen, they still look pretty black, but they say they’re white–and, wow!
You know, wonder what they’re doing, and wonder whether they know this, and won’t they be excited to see this picture. Well, you know, guess what. Maybe they’re excited, but they don’t want to show it too much. Or maybe they’re not. Maybe they’re confused, right? And maybe they don’t want to confront the role of racism in our culture. That’s it for this edition of “Scheer Intelligence.” Our producer, and I got to give him particular credit here for bringing me with our guest Robin Cloud–who I must say, before I saw her film and before I watched all her great comedy and checked out her writing, did not know who Robin Cloud was. I’m blown away by this work. I think it’s a very powerful film.
RC: Thank you.
RS: So again, Joshua Scheer, the producer, creator of this show. Sebastian Grubaugh here at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, has put this all together and done the engineering. And we’ll see you next week with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence.”