Diversity conference speaker Shatki Butler grew up in a black world, and a white one

Mar 29, 2017

Shakti Butler (World Trust Photo)Shakti Butler wishes she could avoid thinking about race for one day. So far, it’s been an impossible dream.

"I could be at the beach, having a great time, and something will happen that reminds me of race," she says. "A look, a comment. You don't know what someone means, and racial anxiety sets in. Every day, I think about race."

Butler, a filmmaker and president of the nonprofit educational consultancy World Trust Educational Services, will deliver the keynote address at the University’s annual Diversity Conference on Friday, March 31. Her talk is entitled "Irresistible Justice: Cultivating Joy as a Pathway to Equity," and will begin at 8:40 a.m. in Strong Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public. You can also watch the keynote address live online.

An educator on diversity and racial equity, Butler has been aware of race since she was a toddler. Her father was from Barbados, the son of a Texas slave. Her mother was from Russia, 21 years younger.

"When my parents married in 1945, my mother’s family disowned her," says Butler, who was raised in Harlem. "My grandfather died when I was three and never even knew my mom was married and had a daughter. He had a bad heart, and the family thought the news would kill him."

Butler received a chilly greeting whenever she visited her grandmother's house.

"She would never touch or hug me. She was a seamstress, and she would make clothes for my doll. But that was all. It impacts me to this day."

Butler attended all-black schools until her parents decided to enroll her in a private school in third grade.

"I was the only person of color from third grade through eighth," she says. "Even though I'm light-skinned, I identified as black. I always have. On the outside, people don't know what I am."

Butler says life at school was much different than life at home.

"I learned to navigate through those two worlds," she says.

Butler formed World Trust in 1991 with two partners who have since gone their separate ways. She has produced four documentaries that form the core of World Trust's teaching tools. Her 2013 film, Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity, examines the causes and consequences of structural racism. Jared Bush, writer and co-director of the 2016 Disney animated movie Zootopia, watched Butler's film and asked Butler to serve as a diversity consultant and advisor on their movie, which is about the perils of racial profiling.

Butler watched early storyboard reels and offered feedback to the creative team of mostly white men. Bush told World Trust that Butler's input had a deep impact on the final product.

"What we learned from Dr. Butler and Cracking the Codes had a profound effect on the entire storytelling team behind Zootopia,” Bush said. "It not only changed, but forever deepened the way we approach bias and stereotype."

The theme of this year's conference is "It's Our Time," an examination of which barriers have been broken and which remain. Butler believes "we're definitely going backwards now" in terms of racial equity.

"That's because people who fell silent because of political correctness and cultural pressure now feel they have the right and duty to say things people haven't been saying," she says. "Hate crimes are on the rise. People elected are more free to circumvent issues that deal with equality for everyone. It's pretty scary."

Butler's husband, Rick Butler, is a four-time Emmy Award–winning director and cameraman. They have three children and five grandchildren.

She dreams not only of a day free of thoughts on race, but a world free of racism. She will speak about that on Friday.

"I want to talk about how we really are interconnected as a species, and what happens when we live according to the same values," she says. "You experience joy. You may not like someone, but there's a spark of who they are that you also maintain."

Originally published in the University of Rochester Newscenter.