Speaker: Lee Mun Wah

The Color of Fear

It took two months for Lee Mun Wah’s parents to find his name, but on the day he was born, his parents wrote “Gary.” When people laugh at this, Lee Mun Wah explains that he hates the name, “Gary.” Not because it is not a beautiful name, but for what it represents. When his father came to the United States, he was told his new name was Richard because it was easier to pronounce. In truth, his new name was more Western European.

Lee Mun Wah is an internationally renowned Chinese American documentary filmmaker, author, poet, Asian folk-teller, educator, community therapist and master diversity trainer. For more than 25 years, he was a resource specialist and counselor in the San Francisco Unified School District. He later became a consultant to private schools, working with students that had severe learning and behavioral issues. He is now the Executive Director of Stirfry Seminars and Consulting, a diversity training company that provides educational tools and workshops on issues pertaining to cross-cultural communication and awareness, mindful facilitation, and conflict mediation techniques.

Throughout his childhood, Lee Mun Wah discarded those aspects of his heritage that made him appear foreign even though he was born in the United States: his food, his accent, his clothing. What he could not change was his physical appearance: the shape and color of his eyes, his hair, his skin color. He was not surrounded by people who looked like him. His teachers and school administrators, even the lunch attendants and janitors were either White, Black or Latino. No one spoke or asked him to learn Cantonese.

In relating these stories, his purpose is profound. In a country that celebrates multi-culturalism, there is very little true integration of the different cultures. As a student and then as a teacher observing students decades later, he describes lunch as the most segregated time in the day. Our children model their parents and the other adults in their lives. We sit next to each other, but we do not sit together with each other. From his personal and shared experiences, he asks us to do just that.

Lee Mun Wah’s first film, Stolen Ground, about the experience of Asian Americans, won honorable mention at the San Francisco international Film Festival. His film, The Color of Fear, about racism, won the Gold Medal for Best Social Studies Documentary. Part Two of this film, Walking Each Other Home, won the Cindy Competition Silver Medal for Social Science. In 1995, Oprah Winfrey did a one-hour special on Lee Mun Wah’s life and work. In 2005, he directed and produced the film, Last Chance for Eden, a three-part documentary on sexism and racism. His book, Let’s Get Real- What People of Color Can’t Say and Whites Won’t Ask About Racism, was released in 2011 and in 2014, he released the latest film, If These Halls Could Talk, a documentary on college students and their dialogue about race and racism and diversity issues in higher education.

His body of work and his client list are even more significant when seen through Lee Mun Wah’s lived experience. He did not realize his father had an accent until his brother began secretly making fun of it. Lee Mun Wah saw the look of shame on his father’s face when he heard these remarks of his other son. Lee Mun Wah decided not to go to Chinese classes after that. He learned about boundaries and borders from teachers’ silence, classmates’ bullying and the restrictions placed on his father’s business when he tried to expand his restaurant and was told by the woman, “I’ll never sell to any Chink.”

Lee Mun Wah experienced racism from home, too. His father told him never to go into a Black neighborhood and when he did, he discovered his Black friend not only lived in the neighborhood where he had been born, but the very house in which he had lived. His father warned him again when his mother was shot five times and killed by a young Black man who came to their door. “See what I told you about Black men? They’re robbers and murderers and you can’t trust them.”

But Lee Mun Wah somehow looked beyond his personal tragedy. Fifteen years earlier the younger Black boy had been caught gambling in the bathroom and transferred to another school where he was alone, isolated, without friends because no one wanted to deal with him. Lee Mun Wah reasoned that if we keep treating Black men or anyone as if their lives do not matter, like their heritage does not matter, then they will believe these lies and ultimately, act on those stereotypes or worse, others will act based on those stereotypes.

Lee Mun Wah shares stories of how acting on stereotypes and racism can be implicit. When teachers thought Lee Mun Wah’s adopted Guatemalan son was of mixed Chinese and Danish (the heritage of his wife) ancestry, he was complimented on his intelligence. When they learned he was from Guatemala, they praised him for how well he plays soccer. Lee Mun Wah also shares stories of the heartbreak when actions are explicit.

Lee Mun Wah’s last film will be his last film. Marc Thompson, one of the Black men in the film, If These Halls Could Talk, explained to the group, “At any given time, as a Black man I could lose my life.” He was charismatic, intelligent, and confident. Four years after being in that discussion, he was visiting an ex-girlfriend in Chico, California and the KKK murdered him. The cast of the film and his classmates loved him, and were inspired by him.  He was not only an academic, but an activist working for racial and gender justice and harmony. His friends told Lee Mun Wah they hoped Marc was shot before being locked in a trunk and burned alive. Lee Mun Wah grieves the loss of this 26 year old who he believes had the potential of making contributions as significant as Martin Luther King, Jr.

It is Lee Mun Wah’s belief that “we cannot wait until the day for some…leader to bring us all together. We must each take a stand,…confront our fears and begin a conversation not only with those we love, but with those we have been taught to fear. We cannot continue being separate and unequal without there being a cost to each and every generation. Our survival and the very future of our children depend on all of us embracing our differences as well as our mutuality. If we can accomplish this in our lifetime, we can then look back and know that we have found a way to live tighter authentically and harmoniously, using and honoring all our gifts and special contributions.”

Join us in conversation with this stirring storyteller and leader!

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