When I began writing about race and parenting and wanted to delve deeper into understanding the politics of speaking to people about race, racism, and more importantly, institutionalized racism, a friend doing this work directed me to Lee Mun Wah and said she had heard his workshops were transformational and that his film, “The Color of Fear” is a cornerstone in the anti-racist canon. So I was thrilled to learn he would be providing a workshop in Berkeley this summer (I am attending) and I was even more thrilled to learn he was coming to New Orleans this month for the NCore Conference, which I will be covering. And that is how I came to interview Lee Mun Wah today and to learn more about his work.
When he answered my call, his mood was effervescent, which I was not expecting, given the somber manner in which he appears in his films, and his energy was immediately contagious.
We have had a dialogue with the cast members for the last four days talking about the numbness of whiteness and the reason why we are struggling is we haven’t discussed this before. We are not trained to discuss this and white teachers don’t know how to talk about it and this country has never really allowed the dialogue before.
He said he had been presenting for the first time 20 minute segments of “If These Halls Could Talk” a documentary that will debut here at NCore for the first time to students and faculty alike (both high school and college level).
You will be watching the feature length for the first time and it is beautiful, absolutely incredible. When we showed it, the students got up and confronted the faculty and said school had been a failure in their lives. Each time we showed it, one school after another, the students said the same thing. We experienced something similar when “The Color of Fear” came out. We were blown away. You will see the debut of the 90-minute director’s cut, but we also have a teacher’s edition that is three and a half hours long and you can break each segment into 20 minutes with questions after each. We encourage teachers to get both together.
I had watched the trailer before and was struck by two comments, one when a young Black man said it was a shame that they (Black people) had to turn (the N-word) into a term of endearment to claim it and the other was a young white man who confessed he had thought all his life people of color were not human.
When this conversation comes up white people tend to be quiet, change the subject, attack, defend. When I was showing the film I got questions like, “How did you choose the cast?” “How much did it cost to make?” – everyone wanted to avoid THE subject. Every moment of the film is riveting. In this film, a white gay man says, “People of color are not human” and white people in the audience did not catch that statement.
It’s striking to me that you would not hear this statement – people of color are not human – it is not that this is shocking because just looking at the history of oppression of people of color in this country speaks volumes that this young man is not alone in his thoughts, but to hear it said aloud and not heard is truly remarkable.
We do these weekend workshops where we are talking about the numbness whites have when they hear these stories. Each time, white people cannot access what they feel. No one had ever noticed that they never have to come up with what they are feeling and it’s the first time they are being pushed and the numbness comes up. Why can’t they share? Why can’t they be moved by these stories? But if you think about it, it is not different than being a woman and the stories of sexism. How often does the average male speak to his male friends about sexism, and how often in the corporate world do men speak about sexism, and how many books does the average corporate male executive read about sexism? But ask a woman who is trying to move up the corporate ladder and she will tell you plenty because it is survival.
I asked Lee Mun Wah what changes he has seen in the decades he has been active and working on racism and what the state of the union is today.
In therapy there is a saying that at the precipice we begin to change. Suddenly, when you need these people, like the Republicans needed the Latino vote, they became interested. White people memorize ways to keep from knowing. As one white woman said, “I feel ashamed and angry to feel like that.” And a Black woman responded, “Why is it you’re angry at us for making you uncomfortable?” There is this disconnect with whites; they are uncomfortable when it comes out of someone else’s experience as if they can’t connect. But I don’t have to know what it feels like to be raped to connect with someone who was raped.
So what are the steps, the changes, where is the precipice for those not confronted with a problem or crisis to change?
There is a critical step in acknowledging whiteness. White people don’t see themselves as a group because they came over as Europeans and they don’t talk about it. The moment people of color begin to talk about it, white people have to go back to a place when they have to look at themselves collectively and say I’m Irish, German. There is no longer an identity with these groups. When the terrorist bombing happened in Boston, it was done by two Americans but immediately everyone began to ID what group these boys belonged to. When Timothy McVey blew up the building in Oklahoma no one ID’d him as Irish or Scottish, however had it been an Asian, Latino or Black, it would have been about race, about the group. As one Black man said, “Why do you insist on wanting me to see you as an individual when you see me as belonging to a group?”
I told Lee Mun Wah it seems to me that you have to have a consciousness of connectivity and an ability to sit with your pain in order to become aware and to tolerate the discomfort. He dispelled that notion by pointing out his time at Spirit Rock in California meditating was done as the only person of color in the room, with white people who didn’t notice the disconnect between achieving higher consciousness in a vacuum – read: still not connecting with people of color in their daily lives, in their practice, in the reach for oneness.
Ask any exchange student what white people say to them when they come to the United States and you always get the same response. “Don’t you just love it here?” But in the end no one is asking these students about their country, about where they come from. There is no curiosity about their place. There is no curiosity about anything that is not white. White people are unconscious every single day. Buddhism says we don’t learn by our experience but by our willingness to experience. There has to be a willingness to become curious. My gift to both my son and the world is a mirror and a dream, not to have more white people participating in it but to have everyone participating.
I asked Lee Mun Wah about his thoughts of what we are experiencing here in New Orleans where young Black men are dying daily and often the refrain heard by white people is the crime is “Black on Black” or “thugs killing thugs” as if none of us are connected to these young men, as if racism isn’t woven into every institution here that vies to keep young Black men oppressed and therefore in a constant state of hopelessness.
White people get angry when you mention institutionalized racism and they never connect that they may be part of it. In my book, “Let’s Get Real” I asked what would it take to unlearn racism in this country and 80% of the people said it will never happen. 20% said “only if they had a child of color” – if they adopted a son or daughter.
Okay, that gave me chills when he said that. I haven’t read this book yet, but my own experience of arriving at the precipice was adopting a brown boy. I learned that Lee Mun Wah had adopted a son from Guatemala and was active in a group on interracial adoption. I asked him what do he does differently with his son that will help him prepare for a world still tainted with racism and white privilege?
I let him talk about it. I cry with him. He sees me committed to activism. In my new film, “An Unfinished Conversation,” I invite 15 of my friends to sit with me and ask me questions and my son comes on stage. I have lived what I talk about and he has too. He stood with me, very much as an activist. The mirror and dream for a better world.
An hour flew by and every sentence uttered was left unpunctuated, only ellipsis followed; there is so much more dialogue needed. NCore will be here in New Orleans May 28 through June 1st. I get to continue the conversation with Lee Mun Wah and connect with other people who are dedicating their lives to making our world better for everyone.