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Race: The Power of an Illusion/The Story We Tell

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What is this thing we call race? Where did the idea come from? This film compels viewers to examine their beliefs about concepts of race.

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The Story We Tell

This episode questions the belief that race has always been with us. Ancient peoples stigmatized “others” based on language, customs, and especially religion, but they did not sort people into “races.” This episode traces the race concept to the European conquest of the Americas, including the development of the first slave system, where all slaves shared a physical trait: dark skin. Ironically, it was not until slavery was challenged on moral grounds that early prejudices—emboldened by the need to defend slavery in a nation that professed a deep belief in freedom—crystallized into a full-blown ideology of white supremacy. By the mid-19th century, race had become the “common sense” wisdom of white America, explaining everything from individual behavior to the fate of whole societies.

The division of the world's peoples into distinct groups - "red," "black," "white" or "yellow" peoples - has became so deeply imbedded in our psyches, so widely accepted, many would promptly dismiss as crazy any suggestion of its falsity. Yet, that's exactly what this provocative, three-hour series by California Newsreel claims. Race - The Power of an Illusion questions the very idea of race as innate biology, suggesting that a belief in inborn racial difference is no more sound than believing that the sun revolves around the earth.

Yet, race still matters. Just because race doesn't exist in biology doesn't mean it isn't very real, helping shape life chances and opportunities.

By asking, What is this thing called 'race'?, a question so basic it is rarely asked, Race - The Power of an Illusion helps set the terms that any further discussion of race must first take into account.

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