Filmmaker Rochelle Oliver ’07 challenges racial stereotypes with a creative campaign

Rochelle Oliver ’07, a Miami-based producer and filmmaker, has received international recognition for creating “The Halloween Hoodie Campaign,” an anti-stereotype public service announcement that went viral on YouTube in 2012. The video is rooted in the racial controversy surrounding Trayvon Martin’s death. “People either love or hate the video,” Oliver says. “Regardless, everyone is moved by it.” Oliver is currently working on expanding her original public service announcement into a half-hour documentary, which will she produce. And in July she appeared as a guest panelist on a CNN primetime special hosted by Don Lemon during which she and others discussed the use of racial slurs. She was also a guest on Erin Burnett OutFront for a debate on how race played a role in the State of Florida v. Zimmerman case.

1: The Halloween Hoodie campaign was meant to take a stand against stereotypes. In an era of globalization and greater integration of the races and ethnic groups, why do you think that stereotyping is still an issue?

Some stereotypes are positive. Some are not. The Halloween Hoodie Campaign takes a stand against stereotypes that are fueled with fear. These negative stereotypes cause people to judge and treat others unfairly. The fact that the world is more integrated makes a campaign such as this even more important. Let’s face it; if we didn’t have differences, we wouldn’t have stereotypes.

2: Why is it important for people to understand the dangers of stereotyping?

Following my second appearance on CNN [on Erin Burnett OutFront] I received this same question on Twitter. My response was, and still is: ‘When a negative stereotype is seeded in fear, racism is its name.’ It’s important to understand the difference between a healthy stereotype and a racist remark. The difference is that if a stereotype determines the way you treat someone, then you’re a racist. If you can’t admit it, then you can’t fix it.

3: South Florida is home to people from a variety of different cultures and backgrounds. How would the practice of stereotyping in South Florida compare with places that are not as diverse?

South Floridians are exposed to a wide range of races and cultures, but that doesn’t mean negative stereotypes are more or less prevalent here than anywhere else in the country. I think we have more diverse stereotypes. For example, people who live in Miami may have negative stereotypes against Haitians or Cubans; lighter Hispanics may have negative stereotypes against darker Hispanics. Despite being diverse, we may have more negative stereotypes in Miami. Other communities may be limited to a black-versus-white issue.

4: During your CNN appearance as a panelist on “The N Word,” you discussed the power of words, specifically racist language. What is the correlation between racist language and stereotyping?

We tried to figure out which word was more damaging: the N word or the word “cracker.” The way I see it, racist language is a symptom of stereotyping, like a cough is a symptom of a cold and itchy eyes a symptom of allergies. What we say is an expression of how we feel. You have to treat the problem.

5: The anonymity of the Internet makes it easy for people to use racist language and make racist remarks without facing direct repercussions. Is there any way to harness the power of the Internet to fight stereotyping and racism? Is the Internet helping or hurting the cause?

That’s what the Halloween Hoodie Campaign is all about. It’s a viral movement that went global. Our 60-second YouTube video gave a voice to millions who intend on ending harmful stereotypes. And, yes, the backlash is coming in loud and clear through comments, tweets and Halloween Hoodie spin-offs. But even that is great. Aside from opening up a dialogue, the Internet allows us to better understand what we’re up against. We can size up the haters instead of fighting back blindly in the dark. Now, we’re ready to roll out the second phase of the project this October.

6: What is the role of an educational institution, such as a university, in helping to fight stereotypes? What can be done on college campuses and how can students get involved?

Besides having an excellent journalism school, one of the main reasons why I enrolled at FIU was because of its diverse population. At FIU you grow with people who are different than you whether you’re working with classmates on an assignment, living with people on campus or learning from a diverse faculty. You’re constantly exposed to educated people who don’t look like you or talk like you. As a student, I took advantage of classes such as Latin American studies, women’s studies, African American literature, religious courses, even my wine class (which I called Tipsy Tuesdays just for giggles), which exposed me to cultures and customs that came in handy when I traveled. FIU’s diversity is one of its best assets. I think students should take advantage of that. Think about it. Any university can provide students with an education. But tell me how many universities offer students an international experience that comes free with your tuition?

Watch CNN’s “The N Word” special panel:

Rochelle Oliver Rochelle Oliver on CNN Live Prime-time Special “The N Word” with Don Lemon from Rochelle Oliver on Vimeo.   


Photo by Patrick Farrell