Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Recently on NPR, Robert Krulwich did a piece on crows and their ability to recognize humans. The story featured two researchers who band baby crows, then undergo outright hostility from the crow community. The crows yell at the men even if they’re on the other side of town or playing tennis, circling overhead and scolding.

One researcher decided to wear a caveman mask when he banded crows, and noticed that every time he wore the mask the crows would find him and scold him. So he tried getting others of different sizes and gender to wear the mask, and sure enough the crows scolded them too. He tried a Dick Cheney mask, but the crows didn’t respond to it. He even tried wearing the caveman mask upside down. The crows would twist their heads around to peer at the face then start scolding again.

The researchers concluded that the reason why crows recognize humans is because their survival depends on it. Crows have to learn who the friendly and unfriendly people are. One person might feed them, another shoot them. Humans, on the other hand, have a difficult time telling crows apart. On NPR they created a crow lineup of photos and sure enough Steve Innskeep couldn’t tell them apart.

As a person of color I’ve learned to size up people pretty quickly, and to gravitate toward some and stay clear of others. You could say, like the crows, that my survival depends on this evolutionary skill. As an Asian woman, my survival may not be staked as high as an African American man’s survival. However in a white-dominant society, those who do not fit the mold have learned to watch their backs.

But white privilege means that Caucasians don’t have to recognize me. I can be just one of those nice/smart/sweet/petite Asian girls. After all, unless I’m their surgeon, the survival of whites in America doesn’t depend on my being friendly to them. In a white supremacy, whites can pretty much go where they want, avoid neighborhoods that make them uncomfortable, and say and do what they want without having to expend effort getting to know people of color.

How many times have I not been recognized? Once I taught a poetry workshop and afterwards a white student told me there was another Peggy Hong in Milwaukee who was also a poet. He saw her perform a few weeks ago and thought I should meet her. No, I gently corrected him, there is not another poet named Peggy Hong in Milwaukee. Yes, he insisted, indeed there is, what a wild coincidence, and on and on. Even though he’d just spent two hours looking at my face he could not recognize that I was the same person he’d seen previously, OR he was assigning my name to another Asian woman poet, thus conflating us.

Another time, I said hello to a white neighbor at my child’s school event. We’d lived across the street from him for six years and he stared completely blankly at me. Even after I explained to him how we knew each other—I’m Meiko’s mom, I live at 4061—he drew a blank. In fact we teach at the same college and I’ve seen him around campus, but I didn’t even try to explain this to him: too much work.

Many people in their most honest moments admit they have difficulty telling people of other races apart. One needs continuous exposure and lots of practice. Why bother if you don’t have to?

And finally we arrive at Skip Gates at his home in Cambridge, where his neighbor failed to recognize him entering his own house. Lucia Whalen was walking down the street from her workplace at Harvard Magazine at 7 Ware Street. An elderly woman stopped her, concerned about the men on the porch of 17 Ware pushing on the front door. Lucia Whalen decided to call the police to let them know of this unusual occurrence. Apparently neither woman recognized Dr. Gates, neither as a public figure nor as a neighbor.

Many such incidents, taken in isolation, seem unrelated to race. But after the 5th, 10th, or 20th similar event, one would be in denial not to see a pattern.

Every Asian American child has had the experience in school of kids or teachers mistaking them for someone else, or of being lumped together with the other Asians. Teachers can often get away with not really knowing their students individually, but students must know their teachers. Just as students have to know their teachers and their pet peeves and predilections, people of color have to know the white people around them.

Gates stated in an interview that when he moved to Lexington, MA, he marched himself down to the police station to introduce himself. I live at this address, I drive a Mercedes, I work at Harvard… to make sure the police would recognize him. He admitted he had not introduced himself to the Cambridge Police and that he should have. But should that really be necessary?

I also went down to my local police precinct to introduce myself. On an ordinary Saturday evening a few months after we moved into a new neighborhood, a neighbor called 911 on us for a “suspicious vehicle,” a front storm door ajar, and a blinking light at the door (installed by the previous owner, it has been blinking for years, perhaps decades). My 18 year-old son was home alone and luckily found a bank statement to prove he hadn’t broken into his own house (his driver’s license didn’t have our new address). Lucky too he didn’t have friends over, especially, God forbid, black male friends.

After a series of frustrating phone calls with the police about this incident, I wrote a letter to them, explaining that I was an artist and activist who often hosted large gatherings of diverse friends. I also explained that we are a mixed-race family and that my young adult son lives with us. I delivered the letter in person and had a meeting with the captain of the precinct for a full hour. How many white people have to hold meetings with their local police department in order to avoid arrest or harassment?

Just as crows recognize us, can we also recognize our human brothers and sisters? Dismantling white privilege means giving everyone the same right to be truly seen, truly recognized.