July 24, Menlo Park, CA: This is probably going to be a mess. I feel like I just want to get this down on paper. I have been reading about and hearing so much about the Prof. Gates arrest, and I’m pretty uncomfortable with the discourse. Which isn’t a new feeling at all, given the subject matter. Most of the time I would refrain from commenting, especially this publicly. The aspect of this that is troubling me so much is how focused these conversations tend to be on what happened, how, and why.
Some are going back and forth about whether Gates ID’d himself, was properly Mirandized, and when. Others act like they know whether the arresting officer was racist or suggest that a black police officer corroborating the CPD’s account is conclusive evidence of a lack of bias. There are even those who declare that all legitimate claims of racism directed at blacks ended on election day. But I don’t feel like ANY of these declarations accomplish anything except 1) shutting down any possible conversations that could lead to heightened understanding and/or 2) inviting equally divisive and uninformed responses. It’s so damned easy to speak with authority on something we have no idea about. I do it all the time. But, in this case, there are only a small handful of people who know what actually happened and what was actually said. I really don’t care about what the record shows. (The RECORD shows that OJ did not murder his wife. But large swaths of American society have chosen to ignore that record.) In the case of Gates, I am imagining the following: if an audiotape surfaced that somehow conclusively proved that Gates did not deserve to be arrested, many of those who feel sympathy for his situation would issue a collective “I told you so!” And if that tape showed that the cop did everything by the book and without any bias, his vocal sympathizers would do the same. What would be learned? What new understanding would be established between those two groups as a result? So as much as the record will impact the outcome of the Gates v CPD dispute, I think it has only limited impact on promoting a discussion. I think that discussion needs to be based on how we feel: what makes us feel one way or another about this. What created your gut reaction when you heard about it? It’s much harder to talk about how you feel. And, in keeping with what I’ve seen with discussions about racially charged topics, there is very little discussion of how people are feeling. I think thats because it requires a ton of vulnerability. But there is a reason why I think feelings matter so much. Your feelings are owned only by you. They are above dispute. They cannot be debated. They cannot be controlled (in stark contrast to our reactions to those feelings). Another important thing about feelings, in my opinion, is that they are not attributions, and are therefore less likely to be perceived as personal attacks. So I’m going to discuss my feelings.
I felt sympathetic toward Dr. Gates when I heard about this story. (Hmm…the national news just came on…and the leading story is Obama’s apology for his remarks and the arresting officer’s account. I am having a reaction to that right now. I feel stressed, which may be why I’m writing all this). I didn’t feel so much sympathy for the officer. Explaining why seems to require owning both the pain of being wrongfully accused and my profound fear of it happening again. I think it requires talking about why I do not trust the police and acknowledging that I am predisposed to having a heightened level of sensitivity to feeling accused or discriminated against. I don't plan to defend any of that. Just to own it. But, just like everything, it goes both ways. For instance, in response to a blog post by a black writer citing his incredulity over Dr. Gates being arrested for what the writer considered disrespecting the officer, a white commenter posted:
“As long as tripe like this gets published, white schmucks like me get more & more inured to the race issue. You know what Keith? I never had any slaves... my parents never had any slaves...my grandparents never had any slaves ... my great great grandparents never had any slaves....my great great great grandparents never had any slaves..... How far back do you want me to go? So lumping me into this equation because I'm white, pisses me off. Tell you what Keith...find that old Southern money & go after it with my blessings.”
It seems clear that the poster feels defensive and is just as concerned about being mislabeled as I am (oh, the irony). And I think that for a productive discussion to take place, readers like both of us have to acknowledge our fear of or frustration by being wrongly accused. I am not a white person, but I do wonder whether the fear of being labeled a racist is a pervasive and ever-present concern among whites. Are white people as constantly aware of the possibility of being labeled a racist as I am of my race? And, maybe most difficult, I think that we all need to own whatever tendencies we harbor towards bias. (Aside: I typically don’t like to read the comments section after an article on race, because it can be a minefield of some of the most hateful comments on the topic. And then it becomes like a carwreck that I can’t turn away from, even though I end up pretty upset.)
I judge. Sometimes based on the facts. Sometimes based on bias. Sometimes because of race. Sometimes not. I do it. It happens. For instance, I know that I am biased towards not trusting cops. Particularly white cops. My interpretations of my own experiences, those of the people I know, and anecdotal evidence are the contributors to that bias. Personally, I have had a cop point their gun at me at close range and accuse me of stealing my bike because I “fit the description.” I have no idea what would have happened or what I’d be writing today if the cop hadn’t been radioed while training their gun on me and told that the suspect had been apprehended elsewhere. No apology. I was terrified. I felt violated. I felt small. I have no idea what would have happened if I had been white. But the numbers on random stops suggest that I will be stopped more than my white counterparts. And that is, honestly, always on my mind. And no matter how much people argue that I should be more understanding in light of crime statistics, no spreadsheet can prevent me from feeling violated, small, powerless and inconsequential. And that’s how I felt. Like I wanted to explode, but like nobody would be there to see or hear it. I don’t know how to make someone understand that if they haven’t experienced it, but I haven’t felt that insignificant since. So I just rode my not stolen bike to the computer lab to write the program that was due later in the week. (I didn’t get much done that night and never got the program to work.)
I feel very literally self-conscious when it comes to my race. That awareness is only noteworthy to me when it wanes. I even went so far as to opt for the Subaru Wagon over the Audi in part because I thought I would get pulled over less frequently. I have learned from the homeless woman who shrieked at me as I tried to help her on the NY subway but immediately accepted the help of the white couple that sat across from me as I held back tears. Or the short elderly woman who sharply snatched her bag away from me with a “NO!” as I tried to help her get it into the overhead compartment, only to immediately turn the other way and ask for help from the white man on the other side. Encounters like that are... dehumanizing. So now? I don’t help old ladies. Literally. Its sad. But I am afraid of feeling that pain again. There are plenty of similar examples in my past, and they are always painful. So I am going to keep talking about them…One way that I’ve expressed all this is by saying that from time to time, life has a way of reminding me that I’m black and some people have a problem with that. Like the time I was told that I took a white classmates spot at an Ivy League school. Or when a college professor said that he understood why I came to his office hours for help given university admissions policies. Or when someone in grad school told me that I was admitted because I was black. Or when someone in business school told me I was admitted because I was black. Or when my coworkers laughed at the idea of celebrating MLK weekend with a day off and I held back more tears. Or living in a wealthy neighborhood during business school and being asked whether I played for the 49ers (which, as far as I’m concerned, is about as complimentary as asking a random Asian person how proficient they are at the violin). It makes me feel reduced to a stereotype. My point is not that bias is justified. My point is that bias, which is most often used negatively, is human. And it’s an outgrowth of our experience as humans. I never want to experience the pain caused by the things I mentioned above. It hurts so much; so I alter my behavior. And even my thoughts. It even upsets me when I try to talk about these feelings and I don’t feel like the person I am talking to is relating to what I am saying. I think that’s because I feel like I am so far out on a limb when I share these things that I become completely emotionally invested in having them relate. I probably have taught myself to expect some of the worst, to protect myself from feeling hurt. I may too often place the burden of proof on the other person to demonstrate that they are not biased. So all this means that I become more guarded, less likely to extend the benefit of the doubt. Biased. So when I heard about Dr. Gates, I immediately thought about what it feels like to be wrongly accused, not believed, and powerless. I accessed my own experience, and I felt sympathy for him. Being biased is being flawed, but, trust me, its only the tip of my imperfection iceberg. And that’s human, too. So I’m trying to own that. Maybe owning that will help me the next time I get an inkling that someone else is biased. Maybe, just like any kind of self-awareness, I can more carefully consider what my experiences mean about my ability to be fair.
Can I try to put myself in the position of the cop? I’m not so sure. But maybe I can try to imagine what its like to be a white person who sympathizes with the cop in this debate. I imagine that there is a series of analogous encounters, paralleling my own, that this particular white person would have had that underlie their perspective. Is there a fear of being accused of being racist? Is there a frustration with our nation’s affirmative action policies? Has he or she grown weary of hearing about accusations of racism? Does he or she feel like racism is a burden perpetrated and endured equally by all races? Has racism ceased to exist in their mind? Something else? What’s for sure is that I won’t really know anything about how they feel or why until there is a discussion. Which leads me to conclude that that person won’t understand my perspective until they talk to me.
I know that racism does still exist, no matter who lives in the white house. In any discussion, I would feel a need to be met halfway on the disclosure front (especially because all this leaves me feeling pretty exposed). The discussion can’t take place otherwise. Not by bickering about whether or not we “should” feel a certain way. By respecting the fact that our perceptions can often influence our responses more than any fact. Resisting the urge to accuse someone of hypersensitivity or racism in the course of the dialog. All that just shuts down the exchange. And that’s really all I see happening right now. Its very fair to say that I am not always open to discussing this, but seeing all the back and forth led to a discussion today with a friend which I decided to bring here. I can tell someone all day that the cop was racist, that Gates shouldn’t have been arrested, or that the cops did nothing wrong and Gates got what he deserved for his outburst, but why waste time on bickering about facts we don’t know when we can discuss what we do.
(The above is the content of a note titled "Gates" that I posted on Facebook today)