Friday, July 24, 2009

White Masks and Race

After some recent extended conversations with Kirk, one of our black studies contributors, about literary theories and the ambiguity of language, I began noting how we (humans) are seemingly destined to misunderstand each other. The drama related to the recent arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University, seemed to confirm my suspicions clear, concrete meanings.

Among other things, I imagine Sgt. James Crowley was less aware of how he was perceived when he showed up at the professor's home and asked to see Gates's ID. The idea of "a white policemen" perhaps circulates in the mind of a black men in ways that it does not for non-black men, right? Perhaps Crowley was unaware of what the implications of the white mask he was wearing signified for Gates?

There's no question, too, that Gates likely misunderstood how he was being viewed as well. The police report, which was later dropped, noted that Gates was arrested for "loud and tumultuous" behavior. I doubt, he would have viewed himself that way, and clearly he misunderstood or underestimated how a loud black man might be viewed by white policemen.

My readings of Ralph Ellison and others over the years have always led me back to the issue of masks and masking. Sometimes in the past perhaps, I focused too much on what the person behind the mask was deliberately trying to hide, when just as important, if not more, might be the notion that masks are always invoking ideas and being interpreted in multiple ways. Often, maskers are unaware of all they're invoking. And even more, they frequently are unaware that they are wearing masks.

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