Sincerely, the Black Kids explores the real-life consequences facing Black student organizers when they show up, critique, and elicit change in the historically – and presently – white landscape of academia. This independent doc comes during a swell of millennial-driven media centering stories of Blackness as told by the young, talented, and Black.
Director Miles Iton and videographer Eduardo Correa traveled to American University, Clemson, and Cornell to connect with Black student leaders on their shared experiences of bullshit. What they talk about already made national headlines: American University’s “banana incident,” the social lynching and impeachment trial of Clemson’s VP Jaren Stewart, and the September assault of a Black student at Cornell. But Sincerely, the Black Kids resists sensationalism and instead invests in students’ voices and the emotional impact of navigating higher education.
Recently recognized by the Sundance Film Institute, Sincerely, the Black Kids was conceived, produced, and directed by a small team of QPOCs, and reveals how Black excellence is often punished in the very places we’re told it should thrive.
INTO spoke with producer Shakira Refos and director Miles Iton about the making of Sincerely, the Black Kids.
How does Sincerely, the Black Kids engage with modern representations of race and racism in America?
Shakira Refos: Sincerely, The Black Kids compliments a current wave of artistry that feels very Black, very free, and very authentic. Shows like Insecure, Atlanta, and writers like Lena Waithe and Justin Simien are offering narratives that feel closer to the lived experiences of Black people in this country. What the storylines in new productions are telling us is that [our] experiences are OK to talk about. That we don’t always have to define our stories through pain or overcoming obstacles, but that we will tell them however the fuck it pleases us, and with the understanding that there is an audience out there wanting to connect with your voice.
Dear White People was such a phenomenon at the time it came out. When I grew up were not many narratives that spoke to the college experience of Black students, you had A Different World, Higher Learning, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air somewhat… I appreciate how specific Dear White People is with its commentary on race relations; it allows little to no ambiguity. We wanted to frame Sincerely, The Black Kids in a similar way. An unapologetic focus on the harm white people do when their intentional and unintentional behaviors go unchecked and unquestioned. The film shows what happens when racism ends up revealing itself (it always does, ask your Black friends). We show Black kids, now tasked with protecting their own dignity, alienating white people in their schools who wanted to think they were one of the good ones. We show the reality of acceptance; it is ultimately defined by keeping white people comfortable.
Sincerely, The Black Kids exposes the golden rule; as long as good Black kids graciously and quietly accept the gift of acceptance and don’t stir the pot, good Black kids CAN achieve everything in life, be anything they want to be, except freedom from racism and racial bias.
You, as well as the other Black student presidents you interviewed, dealt with racism and organized attempts to impeach you. Tell me how you understand the roles of power, race, and (color blind? complicit?) academic institutions in these situations.
Miles Iton (MI): In every case we examined – except for Cornell’s, which was not an impeachment attempt but protests in response to an assault – the presence of racism was careful to not evolve past being an undertone. After all, few students or institutions would ever come out and admit they pursued something out of resentment towards people of color. What I see coming under scrutiny more and more often is the power shift that this generation of colored students in leadership roles represent. Having Black and brown students openly advocate for issues pertinent to their identities threatens people who feel excluded. It’s that feeling of exclusion prompts racialized responses and perceptions towards Black and Brown students.
One thing I try to highlight in this film is that these instances [of assault, impeachment, harassment] were brought upon us by white students, point blank. Even at a liberal arts institution like Clemson – one that prides itself on being open to conversations – liberal students are just as capable as their conservative counterparts to characterize Black figureheads in order to help their own political agendas. We need to put personal responsibility back in the fold here and stop coddling the hurt feelings of the “I’m not racist!” crowd by subverting blame to someone who they can believe is racist.
At the end of the day, though, I’m a whole ass, individual human being aside from the optics and politics of my Blackness and queerness on a campus. I feel the narrative of race conversations in contemporary white liberal media tries so hard to put a specific white face to racism. But racism is much less open-and-shut than that. Racism exists in how power is enforced and reinforced socially. Black and brown students have only recently in the course of US history gained access to institutional power. The loose doctrines of colorblindness confound the realization of historical exclusion for too many.
What do you hope Sincerely, the Black Kids does for those watching from their college dorm rooms?
MI: I’m not promising the missing link to ending campus racism once and for all. I just would like for the current and next generation of Black and Brown students to know what they’re getting into. I’d also like for any non-Black students watching this to hear from people firsthand how racism perpetuates itself beyond slurs and insensitive jokes.
We all need to reframe how we conceptualize racism, because maintaining this idea that racism is exclusively what we saw in the 60’s is harmful to our country’s social development. I see a lot of promise in the shifting standards for racial discussions today. I went to a majority white, K-12 Christian-conservative school from preschool to the 8th grade, so I’ve been practically raised in those situations. I can see and understand how people don’t realize the pitfalls they encounter because they center white identities. All I want will not be accomplished solely because I made Sincerely, the Black Kids, but I hope viewers understand where I’m coming from.
Shakira, tell me about your experiences on the film. What came up for you working on this project?
SR: What struck me deeply during filming is how the hype and spectacle of the major conflicts highlighted in this film overshadow the effect and emotional toll they play on the Black kids tied to each campus.
We often talk about racism being perpetrated by the low-income and poorly educated. I learned how far-reaching white supremacy is, how it’s ingrained in spaces we hold sacred as positive learning environments. It ultimately boils down to the lengths even educated and well-meaning white people will go in order to avoid forms of racism deeply embedded in their existence and day-to-day behaviors. They wrestle with the deep fear that they too may have to accept accountability if they took a true, honest look at themselves and their environments.
I think Sincerely, The Black Kids has a potential to help Black kids with aspirations in academia feel validated and less alone in ways their chosen institutions may not be able to.