The well-meaning racist

Issue 

The Color of Fear
A film by Lee Mun Wah
Reviewed by Chris McLean

Arthur Tunstall's anti-Aboriginal jokes, National Action's anti-Asian campaigns and the widespread verbal abuse of Aboriginal footballers have been loudly condemned in the newspapers. But all of these things are treated as isolated phenomena, and no attempt is made to look at the racism which is fundamental to our whole society.

The Color of Fear is timely indeed. Made in the USA by Chinese-American director and "community therapist" Lee Mun Wah, this film is intended to be the centrepiece of a wider anti-racism campaign. It follows the interactions of eight men from a range of ethnic backgrounds as they spend several days together exploring their experiences of racism.

The wonderful thing about this film is that it does not deal in clich‚s. None of the dialogue is scripted, and we see real people grappling with dilemmas that touch us all.

While there is no absence of conflict and confrontation, the film does not deal in simple dichotomies of "good" and "bad". On the contrary, it argues that the most serious problems of racism do not come from the actions of extremists like the neo-Nazis or Ku Klux Klan, but from the more subtle institutionalised racism which is characterised by indifference rather than hatred, and from the ignorance of people who genuinely believe themselves to be tolerant and well-meaning.

Although one would expect the format to be somewhat uninteresting — long shots of eight men sitting in a circle and talking — it is highly emotional and involving. Passions run high, and the viewers are confronted with their own experiences, beliefs and prejudices.

Some of the interactions which are particularly confronting involve a white man who simply cannot see that his attitudes are racist. "You ethnic minorities simply make life difficult for yourselves by not just getting on with it and being 'Americans' just like us" is the basic message that this well-meaning man insists on over and over again. The fierce response by Victor, an African-American activist, is particularly enlightening.

Watching this film may not be a particularly comfortable experience, but I found it stimulating and very useful. particularly as a way of opening up conversations with people in my own friendship network. Our own internalised and unconscious racism is not a subject that is easy to raise, but saying "Why don't we go as a group to see this film" worked wonderfully and stimulated lots of lively discussion.
[Screenings of The Color of Fear and workshops are planned in four cities in July. For details, ring Adelaide: 410 2225, Chris McLean; Canberra: 249 7930, Claire Bruhns; Melbourne: 9389 2480, Jeff Young; Sydney: 360 7613, David Denborough.]