If You See Something, Say Something: On the High Seas with Homeland Security

Gates children on the ferry

Every year I took photos of my daughters on the Cape May Ferry at the beginning of our vacations at the New Jersey shore. © Jeff Gates

In August 2014 I wrote an op-ed piece for The Washington Post on an encounter my family and I had on a ferry ride to Cape May, New Jersey. I was photographing my two daughters on the deck of the boat, as I have done every year since 2001. Suddenly, a man walked up to me and said to my girls “I would be remiss if I didn’t ask if you were okay.” My daughters are originally from China and my wife and I are white. Here is a short except from the story. The full piece can be found on The Washington Post website.

At first none of us understood what he was talking about. His polite tone and tourist attire of shorts, polo shirt and baseball cap threw us off. It took me a moment to figure out what he meant, but then it hit me: He thought I might be exploiting the girls, taking questionable photos for one of those “Exotic Beauties Want to Meet You!” Web sites or something just as unseemly. When I explained to my daughters what he was talking about, they were understandably confused. I told the man I was their father. He quickly apologized and turned away. But that perfect moment was ruined, and our annual photo shoot was over. (Only after we arrived at our rented condo did I find out I had gotten a great shot.)

As I was telling my wife what had happened, I saw the man again, scanning the horizon with his binoculars. The more I thought about what he had said, the more upset I became. My wife and I, both white, adopted our two daughters in China when they were infants. Over the years, as a transracial family, we have often gotten strange looks and intrusive questions from strangers, but nothing like this. Yet part of me understood what he was seeing: Here was this middle-aged white guy taking lots of pictures of two beautiful, young Asian women.

Would this man have approached us, I wondered, if I had been Asian, like my children, or if my daughters had been white? No, I didn’t think so. I knew I’d regret not going back to speak to him about what had happened. My wife warned me I might be asking for trouble, but I reassured her that I would be fine.

Read the rest of the piece on The Washington Post.

The article went viral. Over 2400 comments were posted on the Post’s site alone. And I received over 300 emails. I received a phone call from the head of the Cape May ferry, apologizing for the treatment we received. I told him it wasn’t the Ferry’s fault at all, but it was a very nice gesture. The piece appeared in other newspapers across the nation. Reddit picked it up as did a number of media outlets. I was interviewed by Michael Smerconish on SiriusXM and by Dr. Drew’s On Call program on cable’s HLN Network. I never imagined this would provoke such strong responses.

The op-ed seemed to strike a number of cords with readers. One of the strongest was that human trafficking was a serious problem and I should have been grateful a stranger was willing to step forward and look out for my children. On numerous occasions I responded by saying that human trafficking was indeed heinous. However, this piece was about our biases and our rush to judge (in fact, an article on our inner biases had just appeared in the New York Times a few weeks before). And, indeed, this was exactly what was playing out in the conversation this piece generated. As my children’s father, I was responsible for their protection. If nothing else, I had an obligation to question this man’s reasons for interceding in our lives. I asked those who questioned my feelings what they would do if they saw a stranger come up to their children playing in their frontyard. Any parent would immediately respond.

I also heard from a number of people who said they were field agents for the Department of Homeland Security. In every case they told me the same thing: no agent would observe something they thought was suspicious for merely fifteen minutes. Trained agents are taught to observe for much longer before intervening. And, if this man had observed for longer, he would have seen my children and I go inside and have lunch with my wife, like many other families on the ferry. Each one also wrote there are many who work at desk jobs in the agency, but like to play “agents” when they leave the office. Recently, I had a chance to speak with an agent for Homeland Security. I told him this story and he corroborated what others had said. “Next time, ask anyone who identifies himself as a DHS agent to show his credentials. I carry mine with me, whether I’m on duty or not,” he said.

Finally, one of the most troubling aspects this piece generated was that many adult tranracial adoptees and adult biracial children wrote me to say they were often portrayed as gold-digging dates or even prostitutes when dining out with their white fathers. Again, our rush to judge has consequences. Events in Ferguson and New York City sadly bear this out.

© 2001-2018 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074