Monday, July 27, 2009

So what's the BIG DEAL?

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

What’s the Big Deal? A week ago, in an incident teeming with allegations of racism, profiling and the abuse of police power, one of the most educated and respected men in the USA was arrested for breaking into his own home.

Mr. Gates was royally pissed off for coming under suspicion for HWB (“Housing While Black”), and according to the Cambridge police incident report, yelled “This is what happens to black men in America!” to arresting officers and onlookers.

Consider this: Gates has been lauded and honored for his integrity and has credentials at Harvard; Time Magazine chose him as one of their top 25 most-influential people in the nation. Yet, many commenters chose to believe that Gates handled the situation poorly - that he had over-reacted by expressing his anger and frustration over a humiliating experience, that he should have borne his mistaken accusation like - well, like a white guy would have ("gee, thanks for stopping by Officer - I’ve really got to get this front door fixed! Thank goodness we have a Neighborhood Watch!”)


Why wouldn’t we believe one of the most intelligent, most honored, most scholarly men in our country when he actually yells foul? Why on earth wouldn't we believe a man with Gates’ background, reputation, and work when he publicly identifies and calls-out racism? Would it be our cultural eyes-averted reaction to race, and our denial of the potential for racism and white privilege in Gates' situation?

The Big Deal is This: Transracial adoption makes the Gates story personal. I discussed the Gates story with my daughters from China, and I plan to mention it in my workshop at Colorado Chinese Heritage Camp next weekend. Adopting the Asian 'model minority' only means that imbedded, culturally acceptable racism - the invisible tiger - is harder to see, and harder to deal with it when it finally shows.

What are you so mad at?
I was only joking!
I didn’t mean any harm!
Just keeping the neighborhood safe…

Gates, a 58 year old black man needing a cane to walk and suffering jet lag following an overseas flight, stood his ground on his own front porch and identified the tiger’s stripes loud and clear. He was arrested for ‘disorderly conduct’ on his own property.

May we all be aware enough to teach our children of color what racism looks like (especially when it hides behind Niceness) and how to call it by name. And may we be brave enough to examine our own 'socially acceptable' first responses.

Honestly, I'm not sure what my initial reaction would have been if I had been a resident of the Cambridge neighborhood watching the ‘break-in’. How much racism do I secretly own? I need to remember that every time I ‘make nice’ to gently bigoted remarks, or try to reframe a racist incident, I am driving a silent wedge between me and my daughters.

And that is how the tiger works…



  1. I so agree with this. I found it ridiculous that a distinguished older gentleman was arrested on his own property by an officer who by that point knew he was the homeowner. And ridiculous that Obama caught flack for calling the arrest "stupid." Hello! It >was< stupid, and racist besides. Gates and Obama were very mature to agree to get together with the officer. Since the white officer was a peer-educator on such issues, I hope he was able to put aside his defensiveness and really hear them.

  2. You get it!!! Being a person of color, it is refreshing to see when a white person calls out what I have seen all my life. Thanks for your honest and very "in between the eyes" commentary.

  3. I wonder if the public would demonstrate the same level of outrage if Mr. Gates was caucasian and arrested for disorderly conduct. Who is the racist here? The woman who called the police? If the officer would arrest a white man in this same situation, should he not arrest a black man because he is black?
    When an incident involving people of two different colors occurs, should we automatically assume that the actions were racially motivated? On the contrary, this mindset helps keeps racism alive and well.
    On his college application to Yale, Gates wrote, "As always, whitey now sits in judgment of me, preparing to cast my fate." Is that a racist statement?
    Should we look the other way when racism occurs? Of course not. Should we automatically assume that racism is the motivating factor in incidents such as these? Of course not.