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Documentary Filmmaker Discusses Racism at DoD Forum

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 8, 2001 – Visit the DoD "Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month" web site at www.defenselink.mil/specials/asianpacific2001/.

Senior DoD officials and equal opportunity specialists gathered here May 7 to hear an Asian American filmmaker noted for his poignant work in interracial communication and the meaning of racism.

Attendees at the third annual DoD Forum on Asian-Pacific American Affairs included Claiborne Douglas Haughton Jr., acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for equal opportunity; Randall A. Yim, deputy undersecretary of defense for installations; Judith C. Gilliom, manager of the DoD Asian/Pacific American Program; and Army Reserve Col. Coral Wong Pietsch, set to become the first female Asian-Pacific American general officer in the Judge Advocate General Corps.

DoD's military and civilian workforces are becoming more ethnically diverse, Haughton said. Respecting cultural differences "can build bridges, booster teamwork, improve productivity and quality, and enhance readiness," he added.

However, "if we're not vigilant, we can allow our increasing diversity to deteriorate into divisiveness and adversity," Haughton said.

Lee Mun Wah, a Chinese-American documentary filmmaker, poet and diversity consultant from Oakland, Calif., has spent years building such bridges. His documentary film, "The Color of Fear," graphically depicts the human costs of racism. That film, an award-winner like two others he has made, was nationally broadcast on Oprah Winfrey's television show in 1995.

The former schoolteacher said his life was forever changed 16 years ago when his mother was shot and killed in her home by an African-American burglar. Rather than becoming infused with anger, Lee said he decided to reach out to effect more understanding between all races.

At a workshop years later, Lee told the story of his mother's death. In the audience, he said, was the mother of the man who had killed his mother.

"I walked across off the stage, she walked out of the audience and we held each other," Lee said. "I, for the son she lost; she, for the mother that I lost.

"I had to look at my own racism that my father had taught me about blacks and Jews and Latinos."

A major factor influencing race relations in America today, Lee said, is that people of non-European ancestry are often required to give up much if not all of their heritage, language and culture -- an essential part of their personalities -- when they arrive in America.

As part of pressures to "fit in" in America, Lee said his father never spoke his Chinese name in public.

"When he came to this country they told him his name was too difficult to pronounce, so they changed it to Richard," Lee said.

Lee, who noted his Chinese name means "He Who Writes," remarked that his father sought to protect him from racism even when he was an infant.

"On the day that I was born, my father did not put Lee Mun Wah on the birth certificate. My father put 'Gary Lee,'" he said. "My father had a dream and a hope that maybe I wouldn't go through the same racism that he did."

Lee said he learned to speak "perfect English" to please his father, but in the process lost command of Cantonese when he began school at age 5. A desire to fit in, combined with societal prejudice and repression of heritage, he said, can be extremely frustrating to Americans with non- European roots.

Pietsch, who is of Chinese-Bohemian heritage, amplified Lee's observation. She said that as a young girl she once hacked off some of her black hair in frustration after a Catholic nun made an insensitive joke in light of her Chinese features and heritage.

"I didn't want dark hair, I wanted light brown hair," she said.

Lee's documentaries on race feature regular people -- not actors. In "The Color of Fear," an African-American man explodes in frustration and anger at a white man during a group discussion on race.

The antidote to racism within truly free societies is to seek inclusion of all ethnic groups and to foster respect and understanding of all peoples, Lee said. American society has a long way to go in this regard, he said, adding that he still remembers being taunted in the first grade when other children would call him "Ching Chong Chinaman."

A number of Asian Americans in the audience raised their hands when Lee asked if anyone in the room remembered similar treatment when they were children.

"The sad thing is that it is still happening today in the year 2001," Lee said. "That song, 'Ching Chong Chinaman,' is on every playground in America.

"We love this country and what it means, but there are times when we're left out," he concluded.

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