WALKING IN THE SHOES OF OTHERS
You are a woman with impressive breasts, either gifts from God or crafted by surgeons. Your life is an endless series of encounters with men, responding to your cleavage. Doesn’t matter whether you’re all that good looking or not – big boobs command their own attention. And no woman (or man;) without such compelling breasts will ever know the interpersonal reality of your daily life.
You are a public figure, prominent in media and are recognizable and recognized on a daily basis by those you encounter. No one without that ‘fame’ or lack of anonymity will ever appreciate the nature of your daily life. It is attention and offers and opportunities and pressure and a lot of other things.
30 Rock did a brilliant episode, starring Jon Hamm (Mad Men) as a very good-looking guy who “lives in a bubble”. Everyone he encounters is deferential to him, praises him and affirms him. He’s an awful tennis player…and people ask for lessons. He’s a wretched cook…and people ask for recipes. He’s an inadequate lover…yet women seek his affections.
There are many realities in life that are unappreciated by those without empathy or insight or exposure. President Obama hopes the current tzimmes will offer a ‘teaching point’, regarding profiling and racial realities in America. I’m less sanguine about the likelihood of that.
I think the recent events simply affirm or solidify long-held positions; I see no re-examining of past perceptions going on right now. People of color who remember past negative experiences with authority figures nod in recognition. White people who reject the validity of affirmative action and the existence of racial profiling express their impatience, believing these events validate their points of view. All this just further solidifies existing polarization.
So what could cause a shift in this deadlock? Hmmm. Well, as usual, I’ve rounded up the usual suspects (myself;) and will examine this thru the prism of my own past. I grew up in an integrating Washington DC. I spent two years as a child in Greece, often the first person of color many Greeks had ever encountered. I spent two years in college in Germany. I spent several years as an Army officer in the South. Over those years, I developed survival instincts for my own personal safety. I always knew that some people would never see me as an individual, as an officer, as an artist…to these people I would always be “The Other”, a person of color.
I was raised with a respect for authority figures, like the police. I knew they existed to maintain order…as I knew, under the right circumstances, very bad things could happen to me. I have no problem showing respect, saying, “Yes, Sir; No, Sir”. Perhaps my military experience helped that. I respected the badge rather than the individual and always, always behaved in that context.
There was a young, successful actor of color named Ray Vitte in the 70’s-80’s. He had a bad encounter with the LA Police during a time that “choke holds” were authorized by the LAPD. He died in their custody. I resisted moving to LA for many years, in part because of that reality. My injuries in Vietnam involved extensive vascular surgery. Any pressure to my carotid could result in my imminent death…which meant I would instinctively resist such treatment…and probably be shot dead.
I am someone who has always attracted attention, largely positive but attention, none the less. My instincts for survival compel me to quash any impulse to protest, to resist, to do anything but comply. I don’t allow my manhood or ego to get involved here; when confronted by uniformed authority, I comply. Again, my military training is probably helping.
Now then, to the Gates/Crowley incident. Details continue to be released, refuting some earlier suppositions. Like Obama, I don’t have all the facts but am going to weigh in, anyway;)
1. Dr. Gates is old-school, meaning he grew up prior to the dawning of civil rights. He is immensely accomplished and such men (regardless of race, but particularly men of color) are often proud, indignant and vocal when they feel they have been treated with discourtesy, with a lack of respect. Following a 20 hour flight from China, finding his front door damaged while away (and home perhaps broken into) coupled with the indignity of having to identify himself in his own home to policemen all gave him an opportunity to act out. Injudicious, self-indulgent, self-righteous, creating a situation that more mature behavior might have obviated. Was he entitled to his pique? Without question. Was he wise to indulge it? Clearly not. People of color who protest treatment they feel is unjust, do so at their peril…and we all know it.
2. Officer Crawley is an experienced professional with some background involving racial sensitivities…but most of all, he is a cop, and probably a pretty good one. All of his after-incident explanations affirm established procedures but they were presented, largely to justify his actions. He didn’t recognize Dr. Gates as an accomplished faculty member. He saw an irate, middle-aged man of color who was treating his uniform with belligerence and disrespect…and he reacted as a cop rather than as a peace officer. He could have defused the situation, yet he chose not to. So he bears some responsibility for the escalation.
3. President Obama weighed in on the event at the end of a press conference. He was discussing the misfortune of a personal friend and mindful that such incidents are on the daily map of life for people of color, no matter their station in life. His response was the most human reaction he’s yet shown in public, totally understandable and regrettably, grist for the mill of those eager to foment racial disharmony. Such people have no investment in improving or enlightening; dissention rallies their base and solidifies the polarities. Obama characterized the police decisions as “stupidly handled.” That in no way suggests he called anyone “stupid”, yet it has been so characterized. I parse his statement as accurate; clearly the police could have handled all this differently, were they wired to seek justice rather than a slavish devotion to “maintaining the peace”. So it was “handled stupidly”, meaning it was handled inefficiently. And it was.
So there is plenty of blame to go around. Dr. Gates courted escalation (and he knew better); he chose to vent rather than to act with maturity. Sgt Crawley fell back on policy rather than showing initiative and he allowed his pride to govern his decisions. And President Obama took the side of a friend and thereby underlined the WE versus THEM mentality in America. Understandable but unacceptable; the stakes are just too high.
People on the periphery of racial attitudes only engage thinking that validates their position. Only centrists will be able to read this and consider its points on their own merit. So it goes.
27 July 2009