Ethnic tensions unleashed in unscripted documentary

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"We're brothers, why can't we just love each other?" "Why can't we talk about how we're the same?" "Let's get together."

According to Oakland-based filmmaker Lee Mun Wah (born Gary Lee), these ostensibly politically correct statements don't help race relations. In fact, they hurt them.

"It's the preoccupation with what is similar," he says of phrases that have become clichés. "We want to make everyone alike, so white European men can feel comfortable, so they don't have to feel the hurt, the anger, the pain of racism."

Ignoring the differences and inequities of the American experience, Mun Wah says, fuels the fires of racial tension.

He should know.

Besides conducting workshops on diversity under the name of Stir Fry Productions, Mun Wah recently completed a 90-minute unscripted film about eight men of different ethnic backgrounds talking honestly about race.

Winner of the 1995 National Education Media Award for best social studies documentary, "The Color of Fear," will be shown at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 26 at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. A discussion with Mun Wah will follow. The American Jewish Committee is sponsoring the event.

Although no Jewish men are included in the film, Mun Wah believes Jews will be particularly interested in the issues raised as they tend to "live through two worlds."

Mun Wah believes Jews need to "declare their Jewishness," be proud of their identity and confront anti-Semitism.

"Liberation is dependent upon everyone's liberation," he says.

However, Mun Wah adds, in America race relations tend to boil down to black and white issues. Asian, Latino, Jewish, gay, lesbian and women's experiences are often pushed aside.

The film offers no easy answers. Instead, Mun Wah says, it brings to the surface the questions all Americans must ponder. The solution, Mun Wah says, is everyone's responsibility.

People of color need to embrace their cultural differences. And white Americans of European heritage must listen to the experiences of people of color, acknowledge social inequities and make efforts to create more accommodating work and social situations, he says.

For example, when only one woman is present at a business meeting, "acknowledge that fact and ask her if there is anything you can do to make her more comfortable" in that mostly-male setting, he says.

Or when immigrants come to the United States, customs officials should "greet them in their native language and again, ask them what will make their experience easier, more comfortable."

Mun Wah puts the responsibility for creating a more inclusive society upon white-European men because they tend to be in positions of power, he says. By asking questions, by opening themselves up to experiences of others, white men can begin to defuse tensions.

Racism remains a problem, he says, not only because of what is said and done, but what is not said and not done. People need to put themselves on the line, Mun Wah says. But first, they have to be moved by and touched by the experiences of other.

"Ask every person of color or woman you know — they're always on the defensive at work. They're always conscious of how they are different," Mun Wah says.

Multiculturalism, especially in the workplace, has been unsuccessful in this country because "it's task-oriented. We don't deal with relationships. We haven't integrated spirituality and culture," he says.

"We focus on food, a few words, a holiday and call it cultural diversity."

In "The Color of Fear," the six men of color express these sentiments, much to the surprise of the two white men.

Tucked away for three days in Mendocino County, the group of non-actors ate, slept and socialized. Mun Wah taped the discussions that ensued — talks about racism, defense mechanisms, fears, hopes and visions.

They speak of frustrations with affirmative action, hypocrisy in politics and concern that white European-American boys are raised to believe they can do anything while young boys of color are not.

"We go into the world being defensive. We don't believe we can be president of the United States let alone a corporation," Mun Wah says. "It's like the moment we go too far, become too successful, it's un-American.

"There's a lot of anger in this film…[but what it's really all about is] taking responsibility for our stereotypes, seeing each other's pain and coming together as a community of cultures."