Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Gates, Hill and Rich: Musings on Race Relations, Beer and Doughnuts

Frank Rich mused most interestingly in Sunday’s New York Times about the problems Henry Louis Gates, Jr. found himself in recently. Viewed by a neighbor trying to get into his home, Gates was arrested by Cambridge MA police. The details of the incident are a little vague, and any ill feelings have been patched over by the public beer Gates hared with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge Mass. police drank together last week. But the reaction to the incident in some quarters shows just how far the US has not come.

“The one lesson that everyone took away from the latest 'national conversation about race' is the same one we’ve taken away from every other 'national conversation' in the past couple of years. America has not transcended race. America is not post racial," Rich wrote.

The US may have elected a man of mixed-race as president, but the desire to categorize people because of their skin colour has not gone away. Gates himself very discovered while doing research for PBS series that he is almost without doubt descended from an Irish warlord of the Fifth century. Yet under the categories we operate today, he is not considered to be White. He is African American, or Black or whatever term you want to use. We have not changed that much from the old Civil War category in which a Negro was anyone who had any known African blood.

Compare this with the following excerpt by the novel by Canadian writer Lawrence Hill, the child of two Americans, one White and one who, Hill says, called himself proudly a Negro. The couple came to Canada to raise their children because racial tensions are less here, but nevertheless they still exist. Hill's novel is called Any Known Blood, in fact.

"I have the rare distinction — a distinction that weighs like a wet life jacket, but that I sometimes float to great advantage — of not appearing to belong to any particular race, but of seeming like a contender for many.

In Spain, people have wondered if I was French. In France, hotel managers asked if I was Moroccan. In Canada, I've been asked — always tentatively — if I was perhaps Peruvian, American, or Jamaican. But I have rarely given a truthful rendering of my origins.

Once, someone asked, "Are you from Madagascar? I know a man from Madagascar who looks like you..."

Another time, when a man sitting next to me in a donut shop complained about Sikh refugees arriving by boat in Gander, Newfoundland, I said: "I was born in Canada and I don't wear a turban, but I'm a Sikh. My mother is white, but my father is a Sikh and that makes me one, too." The man's mouth fell open. I paid the waitress to bring him twelve chocolate donuts. "I've gotta go," I told him. "But the next time you want to run down Sikhs, just remember that one of them bought you a box of donuts!"

One of the things Rich adds in his Sunday column is that "by 2042 in the latest Census Bureau estimate" the population of the US will be majority non-White and/or Hispanic. This is "causing serious jitters, if not panic, in some white establishments," he adds.

Guess we'll need some more doughnuts, some more beer if we're ever going to work this one out.

Pictures: Henry Louis Gates, Jr, on the left from PBS. Lawrence Hill on the right from CBC.


Inspector Clouseau said...

Every country deals with race differently. The two biggest mistakes in American history once one gets beyond slavery: (1) forced integration by court rulings; you can’t force people to want to associate with, get along with, or respect you; and (2) affirmative action; no matter how one looks at it, it smacks of unfairness and does not make people respect you. What we have today is simply the long-term ramification of bad racial policies. As for the Harvard Professor incident....

Mary Soderstrom said...

Your right about slavery, but I disagree strongly on your other two points.