Despite being less violently shocking than the other scenes in the film, the scene that stood out so dramatically in my mind was the part when Erin Gruwell was furiously flapping around a racist caricature of her African American student drawn by another Latino student, claiming that was the kind of thing that caused the Holocaust. Her insinuation, at first glance, sounds rather absurd. Honestly, how could a mere sketch like that, as hurtful as it may be, bring about something as devastating as the Holocaust?
Although offensive and frowned upon, happenings similar to the film’s sketch incident are still rampant in this day and age. Upon knowing I was Chinese, my friends immediately tried to communicate with me in jest saying “ching chong ling long”, as if those were actual Chinese words. Nose jobs are popular because noses with lower bridges as generally considered less attractive compared to those with higher bridges. Heck, Paula Deen just called African Americans “niggers” and wanted them to dress up as Civil War era slaves for a Southern dinner party.
What I failed to realize after watching the film the first time was that, although the sketch was not that big of a deal at that moment, it had terrible implications. For instance, take the large scale persecution of Jews in Europe during World War 2. Contrary to the erroneous story about poor uniballed Adolf getting dumped by a Jewish girl, Hitler didn’t just suddenly decide one day that he was going to put all Jews in concentration camps. The war wasn’t just about him. It wasn’t even entirely because of him. Anti-Semitism already existed way before he was born.
While growing up in Vienna, he was greatly influenced by extreme German nationalists who believed that “inferior” races (AKA not Aryan) should be flushed out. Furthermore, discrimination against Jews was also quite common at the time. After Germany was defeated during World War 1, the Jews were blamed for the loss and the ensuing economic crisis. Now, I understand what Erin was trying to teach her students; if that sort of Nazi-like perception of other races (if race even exists) as inferior becomes widely prevalent so that it sweeps a nation, who’s to say that if a uge crisis comes along, a group of people would not be blamed because of their perceived inferiority to the dominant race?
If hating certain types of people or using them as scapegoats becomes a country’s tradition (as in the film where the characters were brought up to point fingers at and persecute other tribes), who is to say that there would not be another section about World War 3 added to our world’s already gory history? Nobody in the film really knew who started the war on the streets, or how it came about.
This being said, everyone did fight for a reason: Eva was fighting to honor her father, Marcus was fighting for meaning, Sindy was fighting for respect, and even Erin was fighting for idealistic change. The war was an unwinnable one because, unlike Batman or Star Wars, it did not have purely good or bad people; there were just people. This was exemplified when Erin asked her Freshman English students (who did not look like freshmen) to play the line game, which required them to step on a red line if certain statements applied to them.
Through that exercise, the characters from various tribes became aware of the fact that they weren’t so different after all. The pivotal line game scene gave the students a chance to innovate, to introduce and integrate new ideas, to look past their differences, to expand their social circle and establish new values. We can see that, although they seemed to understand each other’s pain of losing loved ones to rival gangs, they did not instantly bond and become BFFs.
In fact, the experience only served to heighten their inner conflict: on one hand, they feel obligated to stick with their respective gangs because of loyalty and how they were raised (tradition), and on the other hand, they appear to have realized that they have a lot more in common with members of rival gangs than they thought, thereby making them see the rival gang members as the humans that they are, rather than as the monsters they conceived them to be (innovation).
Certain historic events that stand out more vividly than the rest usually stem from the tension between what people are used to and what they need to get used to. Those are the times when old ideals are replaced by newer, more pragmatic ones, and when empires fall to give rise to stronger civilizations.
Going back to the film, we observe the characters slowly shed their cultural biases, exchange habits and beliefs (e. g. Ben AKA white boy doing an elaborate handshake normally exclusive to the African American gang), break down emotional barriers, and develop a deeper understanding of why their classmates act the way they do. The students of Woodrow Wilson High are realistic about their situation. As students of an integrated school, they acknowledge that they are limited by their economic class and social strata. Most consider themselves lucky to have made it through a day alive.
Because of, and not despite of, these limits, they were able to graduate high school; some even made it to college. Since they knew that they were limited by those factors, they became motivated to work harder and be better. As humans, we, too, are limited by our mortality. However, emulating Anne Frank, the Freedom Writers were able to transcend even that by leaving behind diaries (which were extensions of themselves) that testified that they were here and they mattered.