Reactive Nation

Images of American Reactive Behavior from the last year

We are a reactive and suspicious nation. This has become our norm.

We have become a reactive and suspicious nation. We experience this everyday: walking down the street or watching the nightly news. Fueling this anger is the status quo in our neighborhoods and in our politics. Sometimes we can observe from a distance. But, other times we are drawn into this unrest, whether we like it or not, or deserve it.

My family and I are returning to the scene of such an incident. A year ago, as we crossed the Delaware Bay on the Cape May Ferry, a stranger approached us as I took my annual photo of my daughters on the ferry’s deck. He told me he worked at the Department of Homeland Security and I was taking too long to take my children’s picture. Who was this man and why did we stand out as suspicious? My girls are Asian and I am White. Were we being racially profiled? Was he a Good Samaritan, concerned about the well being of my daughters? Or was he a sociopath? And who did he think I was? He wasn’t sure, but he had his suspicions.

The ambiguity was both scary and intriguing. I wrote about our experience for The Washington Post and the reaction was overwhelming. Thousands wrote to express their opinions. Each reader attached a compelling and visceral meaning to our experience. Some admonished me for calling this man’s actions racially motivated when they thought he was just protecting my children. Human trafficking, they said, was a huge problem and I should be grateful someone was willing intercede. Their anger was often palatable. One writer admonished me for telling my children race was involved, as if my daughters didn’t already know. Another suggested I was a “naive pussy boy yuppie,” for playing the race card. But, sometimes readers’ comments expressed their own struggles. One asked me to consider how lucky I was to be able to approach this stranger without fear of repercussions. “An African American man would think twice about that,” she said. We had been sucked into the social eddies of contemporary America.

These reactions reflect strong fissures in our society about race, terrorism, and security. Our rules of engagement are in flux. When do we react, when do we reflect, and when and how do we choose to get involved? How should we behave in our suspicious world?

Our man from Homeland Security (if, indeed, he was from Homeland Security) could have approached us in such a different way, one that eased his suspicions and opened the door to a more fruitful and friendly conversation. Instead, he saw what he expected to see. And this bias affected every aspect of our interaction.

Howard J. Ross, author of Everyday Bias, says, “Learning to slow down decision-making, especially when it affects other people, can help reduce the impact of bias.” In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, social psychologist Daniel Kahnman looked at how we make these decisions. According to Kahnman, we use two different systems to come to our conclusions. One is fast, automatic, and impulsive: full of impressions, intuition, and emotions. The second is slow and more considered and serves as our self-control. Kahnman writes, “…every human being has had the experience of not telling someone to go to hell.”

Bias ignites our reactive nation. We want things to be simple: nice and neat. Politicians and many in the media reinforce this wishful thinking, conveying the world as black or white and good or bad —full of easy choices. But often we get mired in this mirage of simplicity. Our expectations are constantly battered by a much more complicated reality. From daily encounters on the street to our present “Reactor-in-Chief” Donald Trump, we often react without any hesitation. It has become our new cultural norm.

The relevant subtleties linger just outside our view, eluding us,” wrote Lawrence Otis Graham, a lawyer and African American when describing his and his wife’s inability to protect their children from the racism they grew up with. Despite their economic success, their race trumped it all. No six-figure salary or upper class neighborhood could shield their children from racism. He concluded:

“As we observe each other and think that we have a close understanding of what it means to be black, white, Hispanic, Asian, male, female, rich or poor, we really don’t…. We see things that we think are there but really aren’t.”

Our experiences divide us. Yet they are often the only ones we consider. And we often get it wrong.

Racial profiling is misguided and illegal under most circumstances. Yet, it is widely practiced, institutionally and in our personal encounters everyday. Someone in law enforcement told me, “I would have profiled you. Why? Because profiling works. You may, if you wish, opine the injustice, but not the efficacy.” “Big data” can reveal much about social constructs. But it can also blind us to subtle human differences no spreadsheet can clarify.

My family’s experience is a small reflection of a much deeper and more dangerous problem. Sandra Bland’s encounter with Texas Trooper Brian Encinia shows what can happen when our suspicions overtake our common sense. Their reactions to each other were impulsive, based on years of cultural bombardment. It’s not surprising each reacted as they did. And we are seeing this scenario replay with greater frequency; the cacophony is overwhelming. I often wonder, “Did I really say that or just think it?” The line feels blurrier all the time.

Women from transracial and biracial families recounted poignant reactions to our own story. As adults, going out with their white fathers often raises eyebrows: the older white guy with his young girlfriend, or even worse. One woman wrote to say a total stranger called her a prostitute in a restaurant where she and her father were eating. Many preemptively state loudly in these situations that they are “dad” and “daughter” to ward off these assumptions. But why should they have to do that? We see things we think are there but really aren’t. And these have huge consequences.

When the Confederate flag was lowered so quickly, it caught many Southern Whites off-guard. And they countered by claiming this symbol was part of their “heritage.” However misguided you think that is, talking about their beliefs instead of spewing angry rhetoric was a crack in the institution of racism. And we should take note of that. Our personal narratives weaken ingrained cultural assumptions. I would like to think this might be the tipping point in race relations and we are moving from abstract confrontations about race to more personal interactions. But not yet. Sadly, we will witness many more incidents like Ms. Bland encountered before we reach that point.

My family lives in a diverse community where different-looking families are the norm. Last summer’s Cape May ferry ride forced my daughters to confront the outside world in ways they had only read about. My youngest, never one for the limelight, was inundated with Tweets and Facebook postings from schoolmates the weekend my article first appeared. This made her feel uneasy and exposed. We talked a lot about it. A year later, she is considering using this experience as the subject for her college application essay. Reflection has given her something important to say.

“Will you be taking your annual photograph?” friends ask when they find out we are going back to the shore. I hope so and I hope the girls will want to. It’s a tradition that has documented our family’s history. But, now this stranger’s profiling is a part of our story. And I can assure you he will be on our minds. That’s what profiling does to you. We are not anonymous. And, for many this is a relentless daily occurrence, not a once-a-year thing. Our experience was really part of our culture in upheaval and transition. Reacting without reflecting perpetuates institutional racism. Reflecting before reacting weakens it.

Some of you told me to just “get over it and get a life.” But, as you can see, this is my life. This was Sandra Bland’s life. This is all our lives.

© 2001-2018 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074