Prediction: Implicit bias will hijack this well intentioned documentary

I recently had the chance to view the documentary, Resilience: The biology of stress and the science of hopeby Jamie Redford and Karen Pritzker.  The film aims to explain research findings on how Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can produce toxic stress that can have long term effects on health and well being.

It is understandable that early childhood experts and advocates (who have been working for years to get public policies to keep pace with developmental science) would be excited about this film. In fact, many of my clients have spoken to me about their plans to host screenings of this film in their communities. I’m telling them not to. Here’s why.

In short, my concern is that the film provides endless opportunity for implicit biases about race and poverty to be reinforced, and offers no specific, actionable policy-based solutions (of which there are many). I actually don’t fault the filmmakers for this – I attribute it to the widespread misuse of traditional storytelling techniques in communications about social problems. What are traditional storytelling techniques? Those that focus on characters, both victims and heroes, to the exclusion of contexts. In the case of Resilience, the victims of toxic stress are almost entirely poor children and families of color, and the heroes (with a few notable exceptions) are white teachers, principals, therapists and scientists.

If I had a dime for every time a client said to me, “But we have to tell the story of the people we serve – to make their voices heard!” And if they had a dime for every time I responded with, “But you must understand the entrenched racism in our culture, as well as the default tendencies toward personal attribution of responsibility, and what challenges that creates for your communications!”

The biggest mistake the film made was in not connecting the dots between historic, systemic, institutional, policy-driven inequities and the current circumstances of those portrayed. Instead, the film started the conversation with the question, “Why are children in THESE neighborhoods doing ok, but children in THESE OTHER neighborhoods, not?”  Sorry – but unless you truly tell the story of how those neighborhoods got to be, then you leave audiences to believe the problems were created by the people who live there. And we know that’s not the case. Policies and institutions have contributed to and promoted disparity. If we want to solve these serious problems, we need to focus the lens on those policies and institutional practices, not on their victims. We need better stories about us, about what we have done and failed to do, culturally and politically.

So, instead of community screenings of this documentary, I would recommend community book groups that discuss Richard Rothstein’s, The Color of Law. And sharing far and wide the terrific Fresh Air episode with Rothstein.



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