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Lee Mun Wah
Oakland-based grassroots filmmaker
An invitation by the Department of Defense to give a weeklong training on racism in the workplace
Negative images of minority men

Asians really need to act pushier and more aggressive, a lecturer told Lee Mun Wah at a conference on diversity last year. For the 48-year-old Lee, the advice smacked of the same type of stereotypes he’s trying to counter.

Ultimately, it wasn’t pushiness that opened the door to the Defense Department, NASA, and 20 other government agencies for Lee. It was his film, The Color of Fear, which is the centerpiece of a diversity training program Lee has given for 9,000 federal employees.

Completed in April 1994, the documentary shows eight men of diverse ethnicities talking openly about racism. “Why do these guys have such a problem being a color?” asks a white man. “Why can’t they just be individuals?” An African-American responds: “People of color are spilling their guts and doing education to white people, and then we get cross-examined. Racism gets looked at as a person of color’s problem. And it’s not.”

Lee focused on men because he’d “never seen a film where men of color were just talking to whites [about racism].” On a personal level, the Chinese-American Lee hoped to confront his own negative feelings following his mother’s 1985 murder by an African-American man.

Lee worked 25 years as a school teacher and community therapist until 1992, when he and a friend scraped together $18,000 to make a film, Stolen Ground, in order to challenge myths surrounding Asian-Americans’ vaunted status as the model minority.

As might be expected, both Stolen Ground and The Color of Fear played well at benefits for Bay Area nonprofits. Federal employees, however, make up his largest audience. His organization, Stir-Fry Productions, has been invited by the Department of Defense to give a weeklong training this summer, and has shown the film on five different occasions to U.S. Forest Service employees. “Some have been angered by the film and simply walk out on it,” says Isaac Williams, a civil rights manager at the Social Security Administration. “Not one person has left the film unaffected.”

You can rent or purchase The Color of Fear from Stir-Fry Productions, 1222 Preservation Park Way, Oakland, CA 94612.

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