|Dragging Race Talks Out Into the Light of Day|
By Annie Nakao
San Francisco Chronicle
May 28, 2002
Mun Wah Lee leans toward me and says, "Seventy percent of white Americans believe we -- you and I -- are immigrants."
We aren't. I'm a third-generation Japanese American. His family beat mine in getting to these shores.
But Lee has done it again. Even in his peaceful Berkeley home full of morning light and Kwan Yin goddesses, he lobs race and racism smack in your face.
We are kin of sorts, he and I. We share the same yellow skin and the experience of being Asian in America.
His wrenching 1995 documentary, "The Color of Fear," which Cornel West called "one of the best films on racism in the 20th century," evoked fear, anger, frustration and tears in the film's multiracial group of eight men as they grappled with race in America. It made plenty of viewers upset, too.
I watched "The Color of Fear" in a classroom at Stanford University last year. We saw only about 45 minutes of it, but the effect was so electric -- we were shaken, teary-eyed, emotionally thrown for a loop -- that Professor Deb Meyerson called a silent 10-minute break so everyone could ease out of it.
Now Lee's doing it again. On June 7, his new film, "Last Chance for Eden," has its premiere here at the Palace of Fine Arts.
This time, Lee has a group of men and women explore experiences of racism, sexism and homophobia. It doesn't take long for the group -- three African Americans, four whites, a Mexican American, a Native American and two Asian Americans, including Lee -- to wade into scary water.
In a clip I saw, a white woman says, "I'm not black -- how could I possibly understand what that's like?" A black woman responds, "You can ask me questions. You can take my hand and stand in the pain together. I'm saying to all you white people, 'Welcome to the pain. Welcome to the pain. We've been drowning in it.' "
Whites in Lee's films seem to get pounced on, invariably because they say things that make people of color roll their eyes -- like, "Everybody's discriminated against" or "I have trouble with all these labels," or "I'm just an American" or "I'm not a racist."
If you're white, you might have said that. If you're a person of color, I know you've heard it.
Of course, if you're Ward Connerly, you probably heard yourself saying it.
The point is few whites want to find themselves in such conversations because they fear they will say something that offends.
Most discussions about race in fact are too polite. In the old Examiner, for example, I helped organize staff meetings a few years ago to talk about diversity in the newsroom.
We had great attendance -- a testament more to the great food we served than anything we did. While some people said what they felt, few went below the surface. And there was plenty down there, according to responses to an anonymous survey that preceded the meetings, including feelings that diversity was "a PC disease that should be stamped out."
Boy, if Lee had facilitated our meetings, who knows what would have been said? I wish he had.
Maybe Lee scares off whites. But to me, the crying, anguish and hurt in his films are equal opportunity experiences. That goes for his audiences, too. Nobody walks away from Lee's films unaffected.
And that, Lee says, is what it's all about.
Unlike so much of the world, which believes racism must be tackled in a hugely institutional way, Lee says change occurs internally, one person at a time.
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