Talking Cultural Diversity

a discussion board for cultural and diversity issues by Thomas Kochman and Jean Mavrelis

Obama, Gates and Crowley as Diversity Role Models

By Jean Mavrelis - 07.25.2009

The President said the police arrest of Gates after he showed an ID that he was the owner of the house was \”stupid.\” Blacks are sensitive to profiling and Whites are sensitive to feeling their moral character has been maligned. All things being equal in the sensitivity category, Whites have not been accidentally detained, tortured, or killed for feeling maligned, while Blacks have experienced all those things by virtue of being profiled. Maybe you\’re familiar with the rap lyric: \”Murder was the case that they gave me\”. We all know about DNA proving innocence of men on death row who were wrongfully charged. All the same, I understand how both parties felt they were disrespected.

I have yet to meet a Black man who wasn\’t the victim of a wrongful stop — one in which no violation had been committed. I heard a white talk show caller say he too is often stopped because he had long hair. I thought, \”You chose long hair, people don\’t choose their race or ethnicity. And some day you\’ll probably cut your hair, or get a hat\”. On the other hand, race is always with you even if you\’re a famous Harvard professor.

When my son Bill was 13 he and a few white friends went to the movie one evening. I told them I would pick them up at the gas station across from the theatre. They were standing outside, laughing, talking loudly as 13 year old boys do, when a squad car pulled into the gas station. I pulled in behind the police car, and the kids jumped in the car, saying they were glad to see me because they thought maybe the store owner called the police because maybe he thought they were \”loitering\”. I asked the boys, \”How do you think you would have felt if you were Black and the squad car pulled into the station?\” They all stopped and thought about it. it was a special moment when they could imagine how being Black would have made it so much scarier.

Once I was doing a seminar with my friend Ken, who is African American. We were working in a stuffy room. At lunch time I told Ken I had gone out for a walk while he presented, and suggested he might want to do the same while I was presenting. He looked at me like I was crazy, and there I was confronted with my privilege. I could walk around this white area safely, while Ken would have drawn all kinds of suspicion as a Black man walking in a white area.

My point is, our President is a Black man, and he and Henry Louis Gates are friends, so Obama knows something about Gates\’ character. As John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said \”…. unlike white presidents who could dance around racial issues, Mr. Obama had to be direct. That\’s the whole difference. Bush could punt. Obama can\’t punt. . . . This issue resonates with him.\”

Frankly, I think we should cut him some slack here. Officer Crowley should be cut some slack too, and so should Professor Gates. Everybody over-reacted around a hot topic. I\’m sick of politicians who are soooo careful that you never get a candid response. Obama has apologized for escalating the affair with his choice of words. As we have said elsewhere, when we ask Blacks and Whites in our seminars to fill in the blank: \”Admission is the first sign of______\” Whites often say \”weakness\” or \”guilt\”, Blacks more often say \”redemption\”. I\’ll take mistakes and apologies over denial and spin any day.

President Obama has invited both Professor Gates and Officer Crowley to the White House for a beer. I love the idea of people making mistakes and learning from them. That\’s why we often call in cultural anthropologists and mediation experts. who, armed with cultural insights, can really sort things out.

Socially, there are issues of race and class in America. Culturally, there are different predispositions on what constitutes \”fighting words\” see (Black and White Styles in Conflict, p.49) and what it means to apologize (see Corporate Tribalism, p.43). These three men have an opportunity to be role models for how to understand where each person is coming from socially and culturally and to learn from their mistakes.

2 Responses so far

Officer Crowley is a police department diversity trainer, as described in this NPR story:

we’re all works in progress!

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