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.


Louisa said...

Peg, as usual, a terrific article which taught me alot--that you have to introduce yourself to the police to avoid harassment...and what happened to your son--to have to prove he lives in his own home. Your writing is clear with the bite of a chilling mountain stream.
Take care.

Louisa Loveridge Gallas

windy said...

Wonderful article. I am so furious that Malachi had that experience. This question is so beautiful and true: Just as crows recognize us, can we also recognize our human brothers and sisters?

gayle said...

Thank you for this powerful post, Peggy. As always, I love your combination of wisdom and outrage and beauty. I hope many people will find their way here--your words deserve a wide readership.


Prophetic said...

I think you’ve overlooked some evolutionary biological reasons for this phenomenon. All of us have an image of what we consider relative and attractive imbedded deep in our brain. This image is derived from the averages of all the faces that we see often in our daily lives. We gauge people we meet based on the differences between the face we are learning and our image of the average face. The closer the new face is to the average face the more detail in difference we are aware of (kind of like the uncanny valley). But details in faces that are far from our average face become blurred, and thus it becomes harder to distinguish between faces that are far different from our own internal average face. The most pronounced evidence of this is the fact that you can detect even the slightest change in your own face even though no one else except maybe your plastic surgeon can and identical twins can differentiate between images of themselves when no one else can. The more diverse the people you are exposed to the more capable you become at distinguishing between there subtle feature differences. Unfortunately most of us are only exposed to people who look similar to ourselves most of the time.

peggy hong said...

hello all and thank you for reading and commenting!

prophetic--good point. it takes concerted practice to expose ourselves to people who look differently. we are being called to evolve in this global age. we have to change our brains and we do have the ability to do so.

Cyaneus said...

When I read your comment on the NPR article, I honestly couldn't imagine how you were going to relate the two stories. But I think the connections you've made are really perceptive and interesting.

Although I have to admit, as a white person, I have trouble telling people of all races apart sometimes, other white people included. Perhaps if recognizing faces is rooted in the need to protect oneself from threats, I have led an unusually secure life.

Jacqueline said...

Peggy, one thing that has always impressed me about you is your ability to remember not only faces and names but, as a yoga teacher, bodies and all their quirks! I think people with this skill have the confidence to set aside their own identities and really pay attention to another being. But your essay got me thinking about the possibility that for disenfranchised people, it's a survival skill.

I was kind of disappointed in Obama's response to Gates's arrest—that he initially shot from the hip, perhaps oversimplifying the situation, and then overcompensated in the other direction, removing any hint of blame on the part of the police. It's like he wanted to wash away the bad taste of critical social thought with a couple of beers.

While there may well be an evolutionary basis for inability to distinguish between members of a minority group (and I use that term in the mathematical sense—a group that is contextually small)—if one person can be good at this and another can be self-admittedly bad at it (read Cyaneus's comment), then it follows that this is a skill that we can cultivate and develop.

One last anecdote: I am white and live in a mostly African American neighborhood. Recently a car was totaled while parked on my block. It belonged to a neighbor who is a white woman. Another neighbor, who is African American, approached me on the street and said she was really sorry about my car and strongly urged me to call the police. I told her it wasn't my car, but she basically insisted that it was, and repeated the advice about the police. She meant well! But it gave me a taste of what probably happens to people of color every day, with much more negative results.

peggy hong said...

"...people with this skill have the confidence to set aside their own identities and really pay attention to another being."

that is an interesting thought, jackie. perhaps fear prevents us from really looking at someone else. we know that fear is used to manipulate people. so instilling fear of black men prevents white women like whalen and the neighbor from really looking. we have to "set aside our own identities" to see them. hmmmm.
thanks all!
btw this essay will be on wuwm-fm this week.

Heather said...

This blog ws sent on to me by Heidi. This is a great blog on being "of color" among white supremacy. I believe the other group of people-white or not-that have to endure this are GLBT folks. We too have to sixe up a situation for safety, size up people we meet-again, for safety. We, too, are lumped together as a group-not as individuals. Anyway, thanks so much for this article. If the media explained this aspect of the situation with Gates some people may be able to see it through different lenses and understand it on a deeper level.

peggy hong said...

heather--you're absolutely right about lgbt folks. thanks for your comment and insight! p