Like George, I am in a vise. I am trapped. I can’t breathe either.

Column: Reelworld founder and executive director Tonya Williams asks "is your story perpetuating the negative stereotypes that lend to the public fear and violent treatment of Black, Indigenous, People of Colour as less than human?"

screen shot 2020-06-04 at 9.12.51 amIt’s hard to watch the image of George Floyd being murdered. It’s impossible to justify. Can’t be explained away. But it’s not just George Floyd. It’s not just a rare incident. People of Colour have been oppressed and subjugated since the beginning of time.

It’s hard to see the police, the national guards, the army, shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at unarmed crowds. To watch politicians and pundits pick apart the pros and cons as if it were their right. To watch groups of old white men, pontificate on how they plan to make a change.

Seems the media is only interested in reporting the violence, the looting, the destruction – with no desire to show the peaceful, respectful marchers. They seek out the bad apples and amplify those voices to represent all black people. They seek out voices like Trump and put his inflammatory comments on a loop to incite us all and to divide us more than we already are. In truth, we are their entertainment.

Sixty-one years on this planet have made me a cynic. I’m not only black but a woman, so I deal with two strikes against me as the world currently stands. I often think of the biblical story of Cain and Abel. I’m struck by how, with only a handful of people on the planet, one of them felt the need to murder the other. So how could a world with over seven billion people ever be peaceful? How can there ever be a world where we treat each other with respect and dignity and value each other’s lives? I know people need hope, but I’m probably not the person to deliver it. For centuries, people have treated us as the worst of the worst – we who have been enslaved, abused, denied, ridiculed, robbed, and murdered. Our lives don’t matter. We are shown as unworthy and disposable. We tolerate and survive. It is exhausting being black. Every action I take is considered a representation of my whole race – I am accountable at all times.

Only when people see a video of a police officer murdering a black man – by a nine-minute action that could only result in death – do they stop for a moment and feel a small part of our injustice. But that action of holding us down by our necks is what we deal with every minute of every day. It is in the suspicious looks I get when I am shopping in any store. It is the men who leered at me as a young woman walking down the street. It’s gratitude I must provide when I’m paid less for my work than others. It’s the patience I must hold on to when I want to scream and tear my hair out in frustration. It’s every club, membership, organization, community, that makes sure I never move too far up the ladder. And if, against all odds, you do get up that ladder, it’s the isolation you feel knowing you are an anomaly, which you’re reminded of each day.

The game is rigged against me and I’ve learned to live with that. When people throw around the word “fair”, I know it doesn’t include my lot. There is nothing “fair” about how we’re treated.

We are all responsible for George Floyd – so protest and march all you want, but also do something about it. Change your narrative. Do your companies hire People of Colour? Are your board of directors diverse with People of Colour? Is your distribution of funding fair to People of Colour? Do you only green-light projects that victimize People of Colour? Are People of Colour the first on your list to fire if you have to downsize? Do you pay the People of Colour in your staff less than they are worth? Have you noticed that there are almost no BIPOC casting directors, agents, and managers in Canada? The list goes on, so pick one and make a change.

As People of Colour, we are always making the best of a bad situation, and the help you think you are giving is too little, too late. You’re not willing to give us what we’re rightfully owed. That is a price too high for you.

Media is the most powerful medium on our planet, and I call on all filmmakers, content creators, everyone in front of and behind the cameras, to take a long, close look at the productions and projects your names are attached to. Stop and look at your project through a new lens. Is your story perpetuating the negative stereotypes that lend to the public fear and violent treatment of Black, Indigenous, People of Colour as less than human?

The hatred for my race is so ingrained that even people who don’t consider themselves racist aren’t aware that they are. They cheer and smile and feign support, but I see their constant fear of me, and holding me back is their only recourse to protecting what they have.

I am used as the token, and I know my only options are to be the token or have no black presence at all.  I can tell you that in truth, I am tired of it all. I continue so that they don’t win but, in a heartbeat, I would like to lay down and sleep. I’m tired of pushing all the time against a tide that is always pushing back.

Creating Reelworld Film Festival back in 1998 was for this reason. I wanted the narrative to change. I was trying to find a way that could empower People of Colour with an opportunity to control their own narrative. I was outraged and embarrassed by the constant negative stereotypical representation my young eyes had been forced to watch growing up. But the system is so rife with systemic biases that new artists are supported and applauded if they themselves continue to perpetuate those stereotypes. I could no longer stand by and watch. I had to do something, even if it cost me my own career. Sacrifice is no stranger to a BIPOC person. We stand today because of the sacrifices our ancestors made for us. You can’t break us because you have murdered the weak and those that are standing now come from the stock that was unbreakable.

I’m sure that when those slaves were freed, they saw a better future for their children’s children. I’m sure Martin Luther King Jr. thought there would be a better future for his children’s children. That’s the false hope that I believe – that in the future, the children of the children of the children can at last be truly free.

Like George, I am in a vise. I am trapped. I can’t breathe either.

Tonya Williams is founder and executive director of Reelworld Film Festival  and the Reelworld Screen Institute. She is also a member of the Banff World Media Content Advisory Board.