It seems like every major news outlet has been weighing in on the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Gates. Someone observed Gates trying to break into his home (having lost his keys), the police were called, tensions mounted, and he was arrested on charges of disturbing the peace. Now, the question on everyone’s minds: Was Gates a victim of racial profiling?
As usual, the answers to this question seem widely polarized and subjective. For some, this incidence sparks anger and resentment, and further proves that we are living in a society suspicious of Black men. For others, this is yet another example of African Americans needing to “get over it” and stop being so sensitive.
I wonder, though, if there is more to learn here, and if the answers are not so black-and-white. I’m not even sure if the question of this police officer’s racial bias is even the most relevant question here.
When I do couples counseling, I often educate couples about something I call the “sunburn principle”. It goes a little something like this: If my husband walks up to me and gives me a friendly pat on the back, it probably isn’t something that should be painful to me, and isn’t likely something he is doing to intentionally hurt me. However, if I have a severe sunburn on my back, and he does the same thing . . . it’s gonna hurt. I will be in pain, whether he meant it or not. Now this translates into marriage because most of us are walking around with some level of “sunburn” from our childhood. I’ll give you a minor example from my own life. My mother was frequently late to pick me up from school. Now, if my husband is a few minutes late, it shouldn’t be that big of a deal. But because I have a wounding in that area, if he does arrive somewhere late and I find myself waiting for him, I become really, really hurt.
In a loving relationship, a husband and wife should be in tune with each other’s sunburns. I should know the triggers that make my husband feel insulted or unloved, and he should know mine. It’s not my job to fix him, or tell him he’s being too sensitive, or defend myself by pointing out that it’s his issue. My job is to have empathy for him, and to honor him by avoiding further hurt in his life.
This sunburn principle plays out with my children, too. My son was adopted at six months of age. As a result of being passed around between primary caregivers as an infant, he developed some abandonment issues. He is a sensitive little soul, and if he had his way, Mark and I would never leave to go to work, he would never spend time away from us, and there would be little to no separation, even at home. It’s not comfortable for him. As a mom, to be honest, this can get a little old. I like going out for date nights, or having some time to myself, or walking into a different room without a shadow. I could respond to his feelings by lecturing him on how important my needs are, or by challenging him on his anxiety. But the best thing I can do is try to understand how the world looks from his point of view.
Empathy is a powerful tool. So how does this apply to the arrest of Henry Gates?
Here are the facts we do know: Henry Gates felt that someone was being racist towards him. He asserted this feeling, and from what I can read, he was arrested for saying it out loud.
Henry Gates is 58 year old. Segregation was a reality during his childhood. We live in a country with an atrocious track record for treating African Americans, and that past is not as distant as we would all like to believe. Racial profiling is real, and it still happens. There is deep wounding in the African American community, and rightly so. It's time for all of America to acknowledge this pain. And White America: we don’t need to defend ourselves, or talk about how it isn’t our fault, or tell them to stop being so angry or sensitive or whatever characteristic we project to avoid blame for that hurt. It is there and it is real, and some empathy is in order
We can argue all day long about whether or not this police response constitutes racial profiling. But here is a man who was inside his own home, who had offered his id, and was still arrested. In defense of the arresting officer, the police department told the public that he was a man who had often educated others about the problem of racial profiling. He knew about the “sunburn”, so to speak. And yet when Gates spoke out about this possibility, rather than backing down, he arrested the man. I can’t help but think that this police officer’s posture was one of defensiveness. How might this situation have played out differently if there were more empathy and less defensiveness involved? I think the answer to that question may be the real lesson here.