Coalitions: Towards Real Inter-Cultural Understanding

Frank Wu (2002) introduced me to the work of Yale professor Harold Hongju Koh in his provocative and insightful book, “Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White.” This lawyer, I learned represented thousands of Haitian refugees in testing the legality of government policies in the early nineties. In understanding this lawyer’s journey, Wu writes how Koh saw his father in the Haitians for he had landed by boat in the United States from Korea in 1949, “carrying all of his belongings in a small suitcase, here without family or friends.” In 1993, Koh was honored for his work by the Asian Law Caucus of San Fransisco which Koh responded to by offering the attendees a moving speech, a part of which Wu quotes for us in his inspiring chapter on the power of coalitions amongst different ethnic and racial groups. It is worth repeating here:

“As I prepared for the oral argument [before the Supreme Court], I realized that this is a case about We and They. And that the reason the government had been so successful so far is because they’ve been able to convince all of us that the Haitians are they, not us. Because after all, if the Haitians, those sick people on Guantanamo…are somebody else, then they are not our problem, and, after all, don’t we have enough problems?

If you’ve ever been a refugee, or if your parents have ever been refugees, then you’re Haitian. If you’ve ever been in an internment camp or know anyone who’s ever been in an internment camp, then you’re Haitian. If you’ve ever been discriminated against or know someone who has been discriminated against because they have HIV, then you’re Haitian. If you’ve ever believed for a second that what it says on the Statue of Liberty is not just words, but as my father said, a sacred promise, then you’re a Haitian. If you’ve ever believed that this is a nation of laws, and not individuals, then you’re Haitian.”

The case about “We and They” is at the heart of understanding the need for coalitions amongst different ethnic and racial groups towards real inter-cultural understanding for the 21st century – especially as we consider taking strategic action towards equity and peace in our troubled global community. As I travel across the country and visit schools and communities that are increasingly segregated (or is it just that I was one of the lucky ones in my youth to grow up in a real diverse neighborhood and attend a diverse elementary school?), I find that it is harder for us to make significant personal connections with people who are different from ourselves. Yet, I notice that there is this evolutionary urge amongst our youth to bridge these wide divides. When a child in 7th grade writes passionately about her segregated school and how she believes that somehow this segregation must be intrinsically linked to “racism,” I am humbled that in our children, we know that the world somehow needs to make a commitment to embracing, honoring and fostering diversity. How can we fight for someone else’s “human rights” when we are so overly concerned with our own oppression, disappointments or as Koh suggests, “problems?” However, if we speak of human rights and justice, then, how can this exclude any group that has been historically oppressed or discriminated against? And, how is it possible in the human experience that each one of us has not experienced oppression or inhumane treatment for one reason or another? In my work as a consultant, I have had the opportunity to listen to the stories of many races, representatives from many socio-economic groups, religious backgrounds, and so forth and I understand how hard it is to fight every battle especially when people close to home have so much need. Yet, I also find it inconceivable how a person with such passion and exposure to issues of equity and diversity cannot include every “human being” in their efforts for social justice. How a Jewish person does not identify with an African American or a Latino identify with an African or an Asian identify with a Muslim and the list goes on. Many of my colleagues and peers have pushed me time and time again to take a stand for one group or another – as if me taking a stand and limiting my fight to only benefit “Blacks” will somehow translate into my allegiance and acceptance of my Black roots while a contrary approach would result in critique and mistrust. Do you know who you are? Do you know where YOU come from? And yet, my stubborn resistance says much less about my own identity awareness but rather about my own recognition and acceptance of a time in which we do not have the luxury to only be concerned with our own race, ethnic group or class. We all understand the words, “We will never forget.”

It was not long after I finished reading Wu’s book, that I saw Spike Lee’s “The Inside Man,” which I believe is a revitalizing work by an artist who was able to dig deep into the mass psyche without sacrificing his unique style, integrity and constant message for tolerance and social justice amongst diverse groups living together. Kirk Honeycutt (03/19/06) who writes for Red Orbit Entertainment suggests that there is a hidden agenda in this intricately plotted and witty crime thriller. Hopefully he was smart enough to see that aside from any professional agendas that Spike Lee’s critics will underscore in this ultimately successful “Hollywood” style film, the real hidden agenda is the collaborative efforts of Russell Gewirtz and Spike Lee in presenting a multi-perspective, multi-ethnic movie that resonates with such promise the strength and power we all possess if we can finally collaborate with each other to communicate the universal cry for human rights. I wholeheartedly agree with Honeycutt who calls “The Inside Man” the anti – “Crash” movie. He writes, “Not that the film has no racial tensions and occasional flashes of prejudice, “The Inside Man” ultimately embraces the enormous ethnic and cultural diversity that is New York and by extension, America.” Having followed much of Spike Lees work that has received both praise and criticism for his provocative cinema graphic commentaries on race in America – I believe that this film is a genuinely cross-cultural experience that reflects Lee’s own reflection and growth in recognizing how we shall move our social justice agenda ahead to benefit us all.

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