Friday, July 31, 2009

The Professor, The Policeman & the President

I, for one, am tired of hearing about the encounter between the professor and the policeman. However I am going to add my words because I've not heard or read anything that reflected my perception of that encounter.

I was disappointed that the president stupidly said that the policeman acted stupidly. But because the president is a Harvard alum and the professor is a member of the Harvard faculty, I suspect that the president felt personally offended by the alleged actions of the policeman. I have no idea what the president hoped to accomplish by having the professor and the policeman come to the White House. Is he now going to invite the antagonists of other such encounters to the White House for a beer? Is he going to stop being the President and become the national Therapist? The president's "beer summit", as some in the media have called it, has made the president the butt of jokes by the late night comedians who, until now, had been unable to find anything about him they could make fun of. Once those who make a lucrative living by making fun of others find a weakness in a president, once a president becomes fodder for laughter, the president's power to persuade and inspire is damaged.

What intrigues me about the encounter between the professor and the policeman is that either of them could have walked away after it was established that the professor was in his own residence. What happened that made it impossible for either one of them to do that?

In any encounter, one person creates the emotional atmosphere by tone of voice, gestures, facial expressions, etc. Who and what created the emotional atmosphere of the encounter between the professor and the policeman, and did so in such a way that the encounter spun out of control so quickly?

Generally, we lose control when we feel that our identity is being attacked. When an encounter which should be impersonal and innocuous becomes personal, communication is impossible, and, the person feeling attacked cannot walk away. When both people feel that their identities are being attacked, the encounter becomes violent, and emotional violence is as damaging to the spirit as physical violence is to the body and spirit.

Like most black men in the United States, I have had encounters with the police, though not in my home. (However, I did have an encounter with two white FBI agents in my home). Nonetheless, in those encounters (and even in the one with the FBI) I sought to create a benign emotional atmosphere by remembering that when the policeman took off his uniform, he was a mere human being; I related to him, not the uniform. Above all, I did not act as if his reason for stopping me was because I was black, even if I was convinced that was his reason. Thus far, over the years, the emotional atmosphere of these encounters has remained benign.

I was most distressed when, after the professor and the policeman met with the president and vice-president, the policeman let it be known that he had not apologized. And the president never apologized for saying that the policeman acted "stupidly". Although the professor did not say that he did not apologize, it is safe to assume that he didn't.

It is deeply regrettable that apologies are seen as a sign of weakness, of giving in, as an act that is self-demeaning. As intelligent as the professor, the policeman, and the president may be, their emotional IQ's are low. An apology is not a statement that I did something wrong. An apology is the recognition and acceptance of the fact that something I said or did was hurtful to the other person(s) in the encounter. Whether the hurt was intentional or unintentional is not important. What is important is letting the other person(s) know that I know that they are in pain, even if I was in the right.

If the president wanted his little tete-a-tete on the White House lawn to be a "teachable moment," he failed. I think he knows now that he should have said that the encounter between the professor and the policeman was a local matter and left it at that. But his own ego identification as a Harvard alum and a friend of the professor, as well as his being black, made him feel that his ego had been attacked by the policeman. One of the odd things in American life is that when we are asked, "What do you do for a living?", we respond by saying, "I am a policeman/professor/whatever". We are asked what is it that we do, and we respond with a statement of identity. Thus, the policeman felt his identity was not being respected by the professor, and the professor felt his identity as a member of the Harvard faculty was not being respected, which led the professor to feel that his identity as a black man was under siege.

But whenever we feel that our identities are under attack, we are saying that the person attacking us has more power over us than we have over ourselves. Doing so puts one in the position of being a victim, and seeing yourself as a victim is a statement of self-hatred. That self-hatred is projected onto the adversary. Thus, men have waged war against other men for the breadth and length of human history, and when I write "men", I am being gender specific.

If you wonder why I've written about the professor and the policeman without using the names of the individuals, it is because I know the professor and do not want my observations construed as an attack on him, and most important, the dynamics of the encounter between the two specific individuals is a dynamic latent in almost any encounter between two people, even of the same race, religion, or gender. If the specific encounter is seen only in the context of race and racial profiling, we fail ourselves by not recognizing how such dynamics all too often play an important part in our relations with those we live with each and every day in our homes.

Thus, I have not written about the professor, the policeman, and the president. I have written about you and me.

Julius Lester © 2009


Meg Hawkins said...

Two great observations that resonate with me.

First, that an apology doesn't have to be an admission of being wrong - I think that keeps a lot of people from apologizing. I will bring that up with my students this fall as they learn to interact and deal with conflict. It is still good to acknowledge that the other is hurt.

Secondly the idea of being a victim. I think it was Eleanor Roosevelt who is credited with saying no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. I try to encourage my daughters and others to take responsibility for their own feelings and not let other people run them.

Thank you for your eloquence.

litsafari said...

Thank you for this eloquent perspective. It's one we should be hearing more of.

Anonymous said...

Dear respected author, I finished your fascinating writing in one breath. The only thing I want to tell you--and I don't know if others have mentioned this before--is that when I switch to another webpage my eyes see stars because of the high contrast of black background and white letters on your page. Just a minor feedback.

Anonymous said...

Great post. One almost never goes wrong by taking the high road. In our conflict-driven society, everyone needs your message. I hear it, accept it, and will try better to live it.

Unknown said...

An apology is specifically an admission of error or wrongdoing. It irritates me that real apologies are devalued by referring to statements of regret as "apologies". There was an incident within the last year where an airline racially profiled someone and then issued an "apology" that disavowed any wrongdoing on their part, said they would do exactly the same thing again, and blamed the victims for causing the problem. And this "apology" was hailed across the news media as somehow a good thing.

Statements of regret without admissions of error don't have a lot of power in my book. I think they are usually offensive. And indicative of a culture where we can't admit we are wrong. That neither Crowley nor Gates can admit to any error really bothers me.

Anonymous said...

what king rat said. apologies without an admission of wrongdoing put the responsibility for the hurt on the victim. these are the "if i offended you, i'm sorry," apologies. ugh.

Jacklyn Cornwell said...

But whenever we feel that our identities are under attack, we are saying that the person attacking us has more power over us than we have over ourselves. Doing so puts one in the position of being a victim, and seeing yourself as a victim is a statement of self-hatred. That self-hatred is projected onto the adversary. Thus, men have waged war against other men for the breadth and length of human history, and when I write "men", I am being gender specific.

That is the best and most profound statement. People who revel in being the victim are saying they hate themselves and want the rest of the world to lift them up. Truer words were never spoken.

ACW said...

What you say here is so true. Reflecting on even a broader basis, the media, celebrity, and "reality shows" our society is so caught up with are really motivated by the true reality that what is being reflected is our own image in a giant mirror.