The anecdotal interjection of the white male professor who could command authority even in swim wear compared to a crisply dressed woman of color in Chandra Mohanty’s early essay comes to mind when I try to fathom out the meaning of Henry Gates’s arrest in the summer of 2009, due to the Cambridge police’s ‘quick action’ investigating a break-in.2 In that essay, Mohanty—an eminent postcolonial scholar and theorist, reminiscences and analyzes her experiences relating them to the socio-cultural implications of being an academic in America during the early nineties. Nearly 16 years after Mohanty’s essay, underlying assumptions of one’s social behavior and identity based on one’s embodiment as an ethnic body, still reveal the limitations of the way our minds have been socially conditioned to think. For surely and for some people, the Gates incident evidences the lurking idea that a black man in America is only good for vandalizing homes or mugging passersby (recently, however, Hispanics, also hold this ‘pride’ of place). Questions involving Gates’s arrest inextricably border on issues of race, racialization, and racism implying that when one thinks about identity in the psychic ontogeny of individuals, race and ethnicity are prime factors in the process of perceiving and understanding individuality. For most cultural studies scholars who usually avoid talking about race unless in print or in learned conversation, Gates’s arrest and its socio-political and historical implications strongly suggest that the talk of contemporary American culture is not an alternative to talk of race, racism, and ethnicity, but a continuation of the discourse by other means.
That said, I cannot help commenting on the stance of the head of state during this incident, when the intellectual community of the nation was, perhaps, too stunned to react. Initially denouncing the Cambridge police for its outrageously “stupid” behavior, the President later publicly revoked his statement. With the projected intention of starting a civil conversation between the slighted academic and the duty bound cop, I was left apprehensive of the consequences of the beer summit moderated upon by the President—whether or not it needed to be lauded or critiqued. While on the one hand and simplistically speaking, the President’s intervention could well set the context for a sustained, wider, and much needed historico-political dialogue on race and racism, which could counter the euphoria surrounding the death of race and racialization after the results of the 2008 Presidential elections. Although, and as an afterthought, within the limits of his presidential responsibilities, the precinct of the White House is hardly a place to convene a race summit, it is significant to note that the nation’s head honcho created a context for a ‘teachable moment’ which could have been more promising. I say more promising, since, on the other hand, the surge of events following the summit have left me more in the dark.
In its aftermath, we have been witness to the President’s hurried public apology, Gates’s bouquet to Lucia Whalen the 911 caller, his online approbation of police responsibilities and the like confounded me even more. Was the beer summit only meant to be a sort of a teaser for those of us who expected it to segue into a fruitful and alternative conversation about race and identity in America? Was it just another mediatory tact of the President to ease tensions between his good friend and the Cambridge cop? Or did we pin too much significance on the summit to broach race matters, when it was all about the Academic and the System?
The latter observation brings to mind the cynical and anonymous column at Salon.com.3 The author raises certain provocative questions, such as, how much of the ObamaGates (after Watergate surely the media has another Gate-s scandal to talk about!) controversy is based on race and how much of it on Gates’s status quo as a Boston Brahmin at Harvard? Surely, for some, race and its socio-cultural connotations can be effaced by virtue of elite allegiance. Well, not really. For Gates, his Ivy League effect failed to eclipse his more prominent identity—that of race and ethnicity. Thus, if race and class are inextricably linked, then the idea that some people of color may be whiter than others within their community by token of their class positionality, and therefore immune from socio-cultural labeling is worth more thought. As the columnist at Salon argues, in Gates’s case, a racial amnesia induced by his elite professional pedigree proved to be inconsequential for Sergeant Crowley. So, profiling would still occur despite a status quo, and for people to assume otherwise, Gates would be a glaring example. Alternately, this observation provokes some other implications. Would Gates (or ourselves) be as much rattled if a (black) graduate student at Harvard would have met with his fate?
As I leave my conundrums to my readers, I want to clarify that, it would be naïve to admit that race is the only marker in defining and perceiving identity in American culture, although, one cannot not ignore that, philosophical questions about identity and race can only be better understood within richer histories and the contexts of convenient cultural codings than recent philosophy has acknowledged. This is to say, that the ramifications of this incident are far from simple and a prescription is far from providing single and instant solution(s). What is evident from the controversy is that the color of our minds may be too complex for simplistic abstractions.
Probably occasioning more books, articles, and essays, the context of Gates’s arrest and its backlash, for me, represents the need to recognize a turn in contemporary perceptions of identity and belonging. Thus, I would advocate for a reconstructed notion of identity, that can be legitimately understood as cultural and not only as racial and, perhaps the primary function of this critical reconstruction of cultural identity is to construct and perceive it in ways that purge it of its elements of domination and oppression. Until this renegotiation process catches up with our thinking, it is possible that the degree of melanin in our skins is going to condition our conduct and our perceptions about each other even within a civil apparatus, irrespective of who we distinguish ourselves to have become due to our socio-economic status.
1. The a part of the title, is after Henry L. Gates’s Colored People.
3. See “Skip Gates, please Sit Down” at http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2009/07/24/gates/index.html.
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