Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. cried foul when a neighbor’s call to the police resulted in his arrest at the door to his own home, the Chicago Tribune reports.
Refusing, allegedly, to identify himself to a responding Cambridge, Massachusetts police officer didn’t help law enforcement appreciate that the director of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research was the rightful owner of the home — a far cry from the intruder his neighbor feared.
Professor Gates Jr. may not have intended to bait the officer into arresting him, but that’s the effect his apparent refusal to cooperate had.
“Is this what it means to be a black man in America?”, the professor rhetorically opined.
If “what it means” refers to negative racial assumptions applied to oneself — ascribing to the color of one’s skin the power to draw negative and unfair treatment — then yes. But in very real way, who or what is proposing the racism — the past or the present? Someone else — or the professor himself?
Psychologists call the phenomena of blurring the lines between the motivations of self and others “transference“. It’s no secret that sometimes we project our own assumptions on others, in this case an officer caught between a nosy neighbor and a prejudicially-minded professor.
To view this situation through a racial lens is tempting, but to anyone without skin color on which to blame such a snafu, far less personal explanations would undoubtedly occur: A) Install a motion-sensor light so that neighbors can appreciate that the shadowy figure attempting to enter the house is, in fact, the homeowner vs. an intruder; B) Note to self that it is time to actually get to know one’s neighbors so that they know I belong here and vise versa; and C) Attend and/or organize a Neighborhood Watch meeting. After all, how can we look out for each other’s personal property when we don’t even recognize each other?
Had the professor been someone whose livelihood was not so enmeshed with the burdens of history, perhaps a more telling question would have emerged from his experience: Is this what community breakdown looks like in America?
What’s wrong with society when we don’t recognize our neighbors? When we don’t bother to introduce ourselves? When we are too busy to have a life that connects in any way, shape or form with those who live, in many instances, a few feet away?
The professor’s statement is troubling at a number of levels. True, one can ascribe troubles in life to history, economic background or just about any perceived barrier. And yes, such conclusions may even be justified. But when we interpret life through this perceptual filter, who suffers for those determinations: the people or circumstances that shouldn’t be the way they are — or ourselves?
When we blame skin color, looks, family, kids, spouse — what we are really doing is giving away our personal power. We are acknowledging, essentially, that “something” or “someone” controls us. If we want race, gender, creed, age or any number of other factors to wield that level of influence, we will find ample evidence suggesting that it can and does.
As we think, so we see — and so we do. This clashes with the prevailing notion that as life is, so we perceive, so we react. Pointing out a racial slight is not an offensive against racism — it is to feed into the idea that racism has a life of its own apart from us. This succeeds only in breathing new life into old stereotypes.
It isn’t the responding officer who set out to express his or her racism. The professor seemingly supplied plenty of his own assumptions. And therein lies the problem with the way in which academia promotes multicultural and ethnic awareness in general: the perverse perpetuation of history’s uglier sentiments. Like a communicable infection, once we embrace “the grudge” — over-identifying with the victim or the victimizer —we’ve incorporated their attitudes into our own.
History isn’t static. We are its vectors.
To learn about the past is one thing. To invite the painful aspects of the past to dominate the present day is another. There is a world of difference between acknowledging a problem at the societal level as opposed to fanning the flames of hostility at a personal level — particularly when those sentiments may not have been motivators in the first place. In this instance, had the police officer “racially profiled” the professor by intentionally stopping in front of the professor’s house while on routine patrols — even while ignoring a number of non-black neighbors entering their own homes — Professor Gates Jr. would have due cause for alarm. But the facts as they have been portrayed simply don’t support this conclusion. If anyone or anything is to blame at all, it is a problem all too common in modern America: Neighborhoods so devoid of community that nobody knows any better, and the most basic of social connections are unduly neglected.
Victim status does nothing to change the past, but it may skew our individual trajectories in life. And while victimization may not begin with a choice, it dies or lives to see another day for highly personal reasons. Victimhood is a form of self-fulfilling prophecy about our lives, relationships, ethnicity or potential as it relates to a recollection or dominating influence. That doesn’t mean powerful influences and limitations don’t exist, or that racism, in this instance, is a thing of the past. Yet when someone as esteemed and educated as Professor Gates Jr. points a finger, everyone sits up and takes notice.
This is not his finest moment.
The professor’s job is to convey history — not to repeat it. Like an actor who has over-identified with his character, it would appear that Professor Gates Jr. is in need of detox. The antidote to victimization is not more talk of victimization, but forgiveness. We forgive not so that we can forget, but so that we may reclaim authority and ownership in our lives. To the extent we call upon the past to explain the present, we are beholden to the act of looking over our shoulders — the somebody-or-something-is-out-to-get-me mentality.
That’s no way to live life. Or in Professor Gates Jr.’s case — no way to teach us to lead ours.
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