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Commentary: Advancing the Race Conversation – Chinese Man vs. Model Minority

At this year’s National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education earlier this month, two very different images of Asian-American males were on display.

Oakland’s Lee Mun Wah rings a Tibetan bowl to begin one of his well-attended “StirFry” seminars. The acclaimed filmmaker and educator wears a no-collar Tibetan shirt, his hair in a ponytail, his face anchored by a Confucian-like beard.

When the sound from the bowl fades, he introduces himself simply. “I am a Chinese man,” he says.

Frank Wu comes at you more traditionally. Taller, garbed in a tailored wool suit, his hair is short, his face clean-shaven. He’s sans black-rimmed glasses, but you can imagine them on him. As the chancellor and dean of the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, he comes with the weight of a keynote’s full introduction.

As one of the highest-ranking Asian Americans in academia, he’s beyond “model minority.” Wu walks the walk and talks like a guy in a suit.

Let’s get ready to rumble?

While Wu was an afternoon keynote speaker, and Lee gave workshops throughout the conference, they both represent stark contrasts in how to talk about race. For me, it was Lee’s race whisperer versus Wu’s perfectly modulated careerist in the battle to get to the truth about racial diversity in America.

Who wins?

First, the similarity in their styles: Both gain trust by opening up about themselves. Wu begins his talk as if a confessional. He was ashamed of his immigrant parents and their accents, embarrassed and angry, sometimes wondering, “Why are we Chinese?”

Lee reveals his secrets in spades. He can’t help it. His workshops are like open heart surgery with no scalpels. There are many moments when the talk leads to a stunned breath-taking silence and moments of high empathy.

In the two workshops I attended, Lee revealed his guilt surrounding his mother’s murder in 1985. She was shot five times in the head by an African-American male in a robbery attempt. Lee later accidentally met the man’s mother at one of his seminars, which gave them both an opportunity to soothe open wounds.

It was just one of many moments shared by Lee who talked of being beaten by his own father, the restaurant owner, who just happened to spit in the food of Blacks.

Secrets? Lee shares many.

Wu’s revelations include his embarrassment at being Asian American and his feeling that “the less I talked about it the better.” Change came because of an act of history, the murder of Vincent Chin. The 1982 story still manages to elicit sighs of disbelief, even to people who know the story.

Unfortunately, this seminal bit of Asian-American history is practically a secret to most in the audience who can’t fathom how a Chinese American could be mistaken for Japanese, then scapegoated for the demise of the auto industry by unemployed auto workers who beat Chin to death with a baseball bat and are ultimately given probation for his murder.

For Wu—and for others—it was enough to change their perspective on being an Asian American forever.

The chancellor’s talk ends with an Rx to work together for our ideals. There’s applause and no hands for the Q&A. A politically appropriate time was had by all. But where Wu ends, Lee’s seminar really takes off. Measured truths are for the podium. In Lee’s workshops, truths you never thought possible are reached when strangers are asked to engage and learn about each other.

Lee’s tale of being threatened with removal from a United flight gets a man to talk of his real fear of flying while Muslim. A White man talks to a Black man and admits it was like having a shut door opened.

The workshops give a feeling of how history, or at least progress, can be achieved right now, if only people truly engaged and had a real race conversation.

“That’s why I call it simple and revolutionary,” Lee tells me. “What I hope I inspire in people is if we speak from our hearts and we keep trying … you can just be you, trying to make a difference.”

Lee, however, admits it’s tough for high-ranking officials to get to that level of truth about race. He points to President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. And for elites like the chancellor.

“They have to dare to talk [about] what it’s like for them and the things that don’t allow them to be who they are,” Lee says. But, he admits, they can’t do so without fear of losing their jobs. So they wonk out over policy, not the personal.

Indeed, Wu boasts to me of Hastings’ post-affirmative action program that admits and financially supports all disadvantaged students.

Surely, his advocacy for more diverse campuses is necessary.

But there’s something about the simple truths Lee uncovers by allowing people to speak to each other that seems to put us on track to achieve the dream we all crave.

— Emil Guillermo, a former host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” has covered diversity issues for 30 years. His column, “Amok,” is at and

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