Check Yo’ Self Before You Wreck Yo’ Self

I published this article almost five years ago, but it is making its rounds on Twitter again, thanks to Teen Magazine:

Like many Americans, particularly African-Americans, I followed with great interest Dr. Henry Louis Gates’ arrest by the Cambridge Police.  The facts are simple enough: Dr. Gates, a preeminent scholar and Director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, returned to his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Because his front door refused to budge, he summoned his driver to assist him in opening the door.  The sight of two African American men on the stops of a lovely home in a tony neighborhood of an upscale community triggered suspicion, and a neighbor telephoned the police.  A police officer arrived and demanded entrance to Dr. Gates’ home.  Agitated and feeling harassed, Dr. Gates harangued the officer, questioning his motives and verbally insulting him.  The officer arrested Dr. Gates for disorderly conduct, and in his police report described the scene with Dr. Gates as “chaotic.”

Yet, as simple as the facts are, they raise several puzzling questions.  I have met Dr. Gates and nothing about him threatens.  Even though I have heard him eruditely lecture on a number of topics, perhaps my most enduring image of him is riding his tricycle along the bicycle paths of Martha’s Vineyard.  The quintessential absent-minded professor, he plods along and sweetly greets all who pass him.  That is the Dr. Gates I know and respect.  How could this man contribute to a “chaotic” scene at his own home?”

The incident vexes me, but affirms what I try to teach my children: the police see an African American as a threat and will use any slight for detention.  Even Dr. Gates, one of the least-threatening people I know, wound up arrested at his own home.  He has every right to be agitated, but he should have used everything in his power to defuse the situation.  As an African American, he should have known better.

The police have stopped me several times, most often when I am driving.  Oftentimes, I am rightfully stopped for speeding, and I always defer to and placate the police officer.  The police officer usually responds to my calmness with respect, and the encounter ends peaceably.  On occasion, however, there is no reason for my being pulled over, but I still use everything in my power to respond without anger.  When I was younger, I challenged the officers, frustrated for the real behind my being detained: DWB—Driving While Black.  Now that I am older, with three children depending on me, I maintain my cool, respond with too many, “Yes, Sir’s, “No, Sir’s, “I’m sorry, Sir’s” and “Thank you, Sir’s” and hope that my politeness will allow me to continue on my way.  Dr. Gates knows this rule, but it can be hard to respond deferentially, especially when the incident occurs in one’s own home.

My real frustration with this situation, which resolved well with beers at the White House, is that very few have the political clout of Dr. Gates, so most of us have to recognize the potential for being tested every time we exit our house.  Although it is the job of the police officer to defuse potentially dangerous situations, our teens, regardless of color, need to be prepared for these scenarios.  Being detained by a police office is an inherently anxiety-producing situation, like being called into the principal’s office.  My job as a father is to prepare my children to respond with the patience of adulthood and suppress their adolescent impulses.

 I recommend that parents speak candidly with their newly minted teenage drivers, reminding them that they should respond with respect, patience, and calm in every encounter with a police officer.  Remind your children that they have the most to lose in this situation—their license, freedom, and time—so it’s best that they listen and respond politely.  The consequences of not doing so are too unsettling to contemplate.    

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2 responses to “Check Yo’ Self Before You Wreck Yo’ Self

  1. Hey Michael, I don’t remember reading this one–it seems so timely even though you wrote it four years ago. But while I agree that any driver, or homeowner, should try not to respond with anger or agitation when confronted by someone with authority like a police officer, etc. I am not sure I totally understand why it is Gates’ responsibility (and yours) to be deferential and defuse power. Sure, everyone should check their anger, be sure not to fly off the handle when pressed by authorities and especially when the authorities are misinformed or drawing inaccurate conclusions or assumptions. But should a white person and a black person be afforded different possibilities under these circumstances? A black person has to be deferential while a white person does not as much? Are you saying that because the results are bound to be different for white and black people? (And that is certainly likely, right?) So in order to avoid a disastrous situation, (and one that is probably more loaded and more likely to be severe for a black man than a white man, for instance), black men and women have to be more careful, you are saying. And I completely understand your argument, and I understand the disastrous outcomes, but it seems to me that maybe the responsibility should rather fall upon those who are judging the situation wrongly or unfairly–in this case that would be the officers who showed up–and made a wrong judgment based upon bias. Why shouldn’t they be the ones to be educated, to be helped to understand, to broaden their perspectives, to “check theirselves?”

    *Karen Hammerness, Ph.D.*

    *Associate Professor and Director of Program Research, Bard College Master of Arts in Teaching Program*

    * @karenhammerness*

    *www.karenhammerness.com *

    • Yes, unfortunately, Dr. Hammerness, you are reading exactly correctly. My point when I wrote the article, and still today, even more unfortunately, is that Black Men, disproportionally, fill our justice system, and that is just reality. With that knowledge, Black men need to check themselves before they wreck themselves, because over zealous policing is bad for our health. When I or any Black man is in a position with authority, he must be cognizant of the potential history and work this situation to his advantage–one that doesn’t lead to his incarceration. It isn’t fun to think this or believe this, and even less fun to experience it, but it is and has been my experience. As noted, I have been authentically stopped for transgressions, but I have been in authentically stopped, and when I am, I know that have balance, patience, and perspective will serve me to have the outcome that will be most efficacious for my family and for me. So, yeah, I acknowledge that as a Black man, life is different. Recent example, which I posted on Facebook in October. I was leaving my tony hamlet in RI on my way toward Providence. I was dressed as I am now, in my full Red Sox regalia. I could not look more suburban, save the extra pigment. As I sped away from home, just out of town, a police officer saw me, and I knew that he determined to pull me over. I collected my registration and insurance card, looked into my read view mirror, and awaited his presence. On cue, he signaled my pulling over. He walked up to the car, looked at me, and he said, “Just passing through?” I said nothing, knowing that he was surprised to see a Black Man in my town—16K residents, 160 Blacks. Once he had my license, he ejaculated, “Oh, you live here?” He quickly gave back my materials and let me go. Now, from that incident, I deduced the following: he pulled me over for fairly legitimate reasons, my hastily driving, but chose to do so, because he thought that he had an outsider in his tony, suburban town. He was stunned to learn I lived there and chose class over race in giving me a ticket–my license said I lived and belonged there. But, he stopped me because of race. My calm, quiet response to his, “Just passing through?” Allowed him to err on the side of mercy. What would have happened, were I to have responded indignantly to him? I had much more to lose in that situation, so I chose the path of deference and patience. Most relationships are power based. Whoever has the power can wield it as he or she chooses. In that situation, I had to recognize his power. Once I did, he didn’t feel compelled to use his more aggressively. And, I may add, once he saw my power–a tax paying member of the community that supplies his job–the field leveled some, and I was able to leave with ego and wallet in tact

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