Sonali Kolhatkar speaks on matters of racial justice and the media with the authority of a scholar and experienced broadcast journalist, but even the host of Pacifica Radio’s “Rising Up With Sonali” finds certain discussions concerning race in America to be daunting.
“Those dinner table conversations are absolutely the hardest ones. I have extended family members who are white and I don’t always know how to talk about these issues. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to write this book,” says Kolhatkar, whose program airs in the Bay Area at 3 p.m. Fridays on KPFA.
The book, “Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice,” casts a critical eye on racist news sources, Hollywood’s output and social media while offering alternatives to poisonous false narratives penetrating the big and small screen.
“Every single one of us is a consumer of mass media,” she says, though not all of us are equally or fairly represented.
“Say a movie like ‘Green Book.’ If you come away from that movie thinking it fosters racial justice, then you haven’t really thought about that movie from the perspective of an oppressed person or a person of color,” says Kolhatkar.
Published by San Francisco’s City Lights Books Open Media Series, the resourceful 176-page handbook ($16.95) is filled with solutions to resist, reframe and disempower racist tropes and stereotypes.
“We live in a multiracial, multicultural country. I want consumers to be able to identify if a narrative they’re consuming depicts racial justice or racism,” says Kolhatkar, who will appear at the North Branch of the Berkeley Public Library on June 28.
Kolhatkar devotes an entire chapter in Rising Up to “copaganda,” which she describes as “yet another film or yet another TV show with a cop who’s a really nice person, doing the right thing.” “Copaganda” perpetuates a fantasy that is counter to real world statistics and the lived experience of people of color who are more often brutalized by police than white people. The disconnect creates an internalized false narrative. Add to that the hostile rhetoric of today’s politics and corporate media bias, and the combination creates a danger to democracy.
“We’re in this country together, it’s our country, and if we can’t figure out how to find common ground and confront white supremacy we’re all in trouble,” she says.
Kolhatkar’s origin story moves from India, where her grandfather was a political leader and journalist, to her birth and youth in Dubai, to the University of Texas and her current position as an American journalist living in Pasadena with her husband and children.
“I wasn’t running away from anything bad, I just wanted to be free,” she says. “I was living in a country where you had to watch what you said and you still do. I remember feeling such a visceral rage over that and thinking, the U.S. is a country where I can say what I want to say and have the right to say what I want to say even as an immigrant and how amazing is that?”
Knowing from age 14 she wanted to chart her own path, by 16, she was studying astronomy and physics at the University of Texas. At the time she left her career in science, she was working on a satellite telescope at California Institute of Technology.
“I was an immigrant. I never lived in the country I was a citizen until 2009,” she said. Her parents have also since emigrated here. “They were immigrants in the UAE — even after 50 years.”
As a broadcaster, Kolhatkar knows well the trauma of living as a person of color in America. In 2011, she was in a Pasadena grocery store when the sting of racism and her reaction to it hit home. Stunned by the verbal attack, she reacted with shock, anger and the impulse to protect her then-young child from the upset.
“As a person of color, where I fall on the level of privilege/oppression is not at the top and not at the bottom and I have to be careful how I equate my experience of racism with that of a Black person or Indigenous person,” she said. “All I can do is tell my story and uplift the stories of others. That’s how we rise up together.”
In researching and reporting “Rising Up,” Kolhatkar also called on the experience of experts, like academic and activist Loretta Ross. who teaches the “call in” technique, asking friends, relatives and allies to consider and discuss rather than “call out” racist behavior.
“I might start with a question,” said Kolhatkar, sticking with “Green Book” as an example. “Tell me what you liked most about it. Instead of answering with this is what I liked or this is what I didn’t like, ask if maybe a Black filmmaker would’ve made a different film.”
Mindful that in-person interactions can’t be the same as our online responses, Kolhatkar adds, “We learn by storytelling, history and sociology. Learning values in school, embodying those values is a long-term project.” She’s inspired by the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan. “Every stop of the way, they have always believed in education as a weapon of change.”
Despite the continued efforts to suppress the truth of the United States’ origins, as in the current opposition to teaching critical race theory and the trend toward banning books and criminalizing the teaching of history, there are still plenty of ways to forge narrative change. As racial justice editor of Yes! Magazine, Kolhatkar has turned her attention to solutions-oriented journalism as a way to focus on progress rather than problems.
“Conservatives are shutting down free speech left right and center. But the ideal is here,” she said. And change can also happen in the blink of an eye.
“People are doing incredible things. It’s possible for us to shift culture, shift policy, change,“ she says, noting literature and even Hollywood are vehicles for change.
“Fiction can realize the impossible,” she said. “Octavia Butler did this, she was a narrative worker,” referring to the speculative fiction author. Kolhatkar cites TV writer and producer, Shonda Rhimes and shows like “Bridgerton” as entertaining, as well as progress.
“There is plenty to critique,” she said, but casting actors of color in unexpected roles and challenging viewers is change. “Let’s cast people of color as a prince or a queen rather than an enslaved person.”
She’s also a fan of the hit series “Succession” and delights in the show’s devilish depiction of the super-rich.
“There’s a new trend in Hollywood which I’m really pleased about: Skewering white billionaires, white wealth,” she laughed. “Why not cast wonderful white actors in these roles: Billionaires are almost exclusively white. Millionaires, 76 percent white. Now I know why I like this show so much. It’s changing the narrative.”
Sonali Kolhatkar appears in conversation with Davey D at 6:30 p.m. June 28 at North Branch of the Berkeley Public Library, 1170 The Alameda, Berkeley. For more information, visit berkeleypubliclibrary.org.