An Eloquent Empathy Exercise and 47 Free Films about Racism

Shelley Fisher Fishkin

Dear American Studies students and colleagues:

We are all appalled and saddened by the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and  the countless other African American men and women who have been the victims of horrific racist violence. Our hearts are all the heavier because, as American Studies scholars, we know that racism may be an even tougher virus to eradicate than Covid-19. But unlike Covid-19, there is nothing novel about it: our country has  refused to accord people of color  the same rights as white people since the first Europeans landed on America’s shores.

The enforced isolation required by the current pandemic makes dealing with the trauma and grief brought on by recent events all the more difficult—especially for students of color in our community. It also makes it all the harder for would-be allies to figure out how to work for the deep-going changes needed  to break down the systemic racism and inequalities that have plagued our country from the start.  For those of us who are white, coming to terms with the often invisible workings of white privilege is a task that can no longer wait. For all of us who want to dismantle racism, educating ourselves about the ways in which the past informs the present is more obligatory now than it ever was.

As we all continue to remain in isolation for the foreseeable future, becoming more informed about how racism works—and has worked—in America is more important than ever. A piece of good news: Stanford Library has an extraordinary number of  documentaries that are just a click away that can help.  They are streaming online through the library, and you have access to them when you log in with your Stanford ID.   I will share a rather lengthy—but only partial—list of these films that I compiled below (47 of them, to be precise!) There are enough amazing stories here to keep us busy for a long time. Some are shocking, Some are inspiring. All are worth a look.  [They are pasted below with  links and are also  on the attached word document with links]  We are so very fortunate to have such incredible library  resources  at our fingertips! We owe a debt of gratitude to the library staff who acquired all of these films over the years.

Before I share the list of films, I wanted to share the eloquent and compelling “Empathy Exercise” that Robert Bell Wilkins, a recent Stanford American Studies alum, posted on Facebook today. I post it here with his permission:

From Robert Wilkins –

An Empathy Exercise:
If you are not black and want to begin to understand a fraction of the black experience, start by imagining going to the grocery store 6 months ago.

Did you worry about forgetting a mask? About clearing your throat or sneezing in public? About touching a cart with your bare hands or staying 6 feet away from the nearest person? Probably not, and if you went back to your past-self and told them the current reality, they'd probably think you were joking. But the pandemic has made a grocery run-- something that should be safe and unremarkable-- a task clouded with danger. In all likelihood, you will be fine...but the risk is still there, weighing on you in every aisle.

This is the black experience. That slight, inescapable anxiety that even the most mundane experiences can go very, very wrong for reasons outside your control. It's stressful, unfair, and, over the course of a lifetime, absolutely exhausting. I personally am too tall and dark to really feel comfortable in public spaces or at home (!!!), and the people we've lost are examples why. I am so touched by those who have reached out and stepped up over the past week, surrounding me with love and light.

We, as a society, are going through an unfathomable period of grief because of the pandemic. Now, as we sit at home with no sports or live entertainment to distract us, we also have to confront the racial dynamics that have strained this country from the start. I am determined to work through this with grace and solidarity and love, and I am always here to talk if people want to become allies but don't know where to start.

Thank you, Robert, for your illuminating “Empathy Exercise!"!

Students: know that American Studies faculty are available to help and support you any way we can.

Faculty: if we can do anything to make your lives easier during this difficult time, please let us know.

May what we learn together about our past and our present help give us the insights we need to shape a different kind of future.



Shelley Fisher Fishkin

Director of American Studies

Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities and Professor of English


For links to the 47 free films on racism, see: 47_free_films_on_racism.pdf