Artist, diversity educator Lee Mun Wah leads diversity talks
Artist and educator Lee Mun Wah led a day of workshops sponsored by the Center for Diversity and Inclusion as part of Washington University’s efforts to discuss issues of diversity on campus.
Lee is best known for his work as a filmmaker on the documentary “The Color of Fear,” for which was recognized by Oprah Winfrey, and now owns a diversity training consulting company.
About 50 administrators, students and other Washington University faculty attended the morning keynote address, during which Lee spoke about his experiences growing up as a Chinese-American, from throwing away his lunch as a child because his fellow students made fun of the smell to being asked to wear a suit to corporate presentations.
“What I realized as I worked in corporate America is that people talk without actually looking at you. They’re talking about themselves and their information,” Lee said. “It’s not about connecting with anybody. It’s about the information in the quickest amount of time and results.”
Lee also pressed the necessity of talking openly about questions of difference.
“We’re scared to ask the questions, ‘What’s your life like?’ We’re scared to ask women what it’s like. We’re scared to ask immigrants what’s it’s like, people of color, what’s it’s like. I think we’re not sure what to do with the answer, with the anguish and the hurt. I don’t believe our country can come together until we find out what separates us,” Lee said.
Lee expressed the importance of owning one’s identity instead of erasing it.
“I want you to see me as Chinese; I want you to see me as Chinese-American. I don’t believe in a color-blind society; I believe it makes us blind. I don’t want you to not see a person’s gender or sexual orientation, because there’s a richness to all of that,” Lee said.
Center for Diversity and Inclusion Director LaTanya Buck noted the importance of continuing to have open discussions surrounding diversity on Washington University’s campus.
“Recently the university has been engaged in dialogue around race and ethnicity, and there have been larger conversations within our local community about racial injustice and the racial divide within St. Louis, so I think it’s very time-appropriate—actually really at any time—to have Lee Mun Wah to visit us on campus, especially as a massive facilitator and a community therapist,” Buck said. “More than ever, we need to strengthen the dialogue and be open, authentic, raw in our exchange that will lead to action and solutions.”
Joy Kiefer, an associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, was glad to have attended and hoped to be able to take Lee’s advice in her conversations.
“I think this is an important conversation that our institution has shown that we’re really committed to having. I’m just looking for more help in how to have these difficult conversations and more tips on how to be open and curious,” Kiefer said. “I thought he was very helpful at getting us all to see the issue, I think everyone intellectually understands, but he was really good at getting us to feel what the issue is, especially as a white person coming from a privileged status. When I listened to him talk, I could feel, and that’s a major part of what needs to happen.”
Lee also wanted to emphasize the importance of being close to people in the community, even asking all audience members to move to the front of the room to sit closer together in the middle of his keynote address.
“At any given moment, you can change the dialogue,” Lee said. “You don’t have to do this the same way. You can say, ‘I’m irritated, I had a hard night with my son or daughter,’ or whatever that might be and you change the dialogue. You don’t have to wait for some diversity workshop to make things different.”