President Obama has stated that he hopes “Gatesgate” can become a “teachable moment”:
My hope is that as a consequence of this event, this ends up being what’s called a teachable moment where all of us, instead of pumping up the volume, spend a little more time listening to each other and try to focus on how we can generally improve relations between police officers and minority communities, and that instead of flinging accusations, we can all be a little more reflective in terms of what we can do to contribute to more unity. (Source)
I am not sure where the term “teachable moment” originated from. But I was first exposed to the term when I was a preschool teacher about a half lifetime ago. What it meant then in that context was that—though a good teacher carefully creates and executes lesson plans for children that are age appropriate, engaging, and high in educational content—the excellent teacher is flexible enough to take advantage of those once in a blue moon opportunities to teach something not originally in the plans. So, for example, yes we may be in the middle of a week-long lesson on colors and shapes. But on Wednesday when the children excitedly discover a bird’s nest with freshly laid eggs right outside the classroom window, the lesson changes to one on birds…baby animals…which animals fly, swim, and walk on land…etc.
The main point is that in the preschool classroom, teachable moments are driven by the needs, interest, and motivation level of the students combined with the presentation of a unique opportunity.
Given my background, it is understandable that I judge teachable moments by this metric.
So. Does/can Gatesgate be a useful and informative teachable moment?
First: the Interest Test. Presumably, there is a lot of interest in this case. Almost a morbid curiosity in some cases. So perhaps it passes the “interest” test. But interest to who? Who is going to be “taught” by this incident? The officer? The professor? The President? Police forces across the country? Communities across the country? The public at large?
In my preschool classrooms, although the bird’s nest is generally interesting (at least temporarily) to all the children—due to novelty, proximity, rarity, or other reasons—in a couple of days the children’s attention span has started to ebb. Jamahl is still highly fascinated—and will be for the rest of the school year. Claude, however, had moved onto other interests the day after the discovery. Miriam, whose mother is pregnant, is interested—but for very different reasons than other children not expecting a new baby brother or sister. DeAnte and Cesar and Brie become most fascinated by the dead baby bird with its guts spilling out all over the playground lawn that appears on the Monday after the discovery. That Monday Vanessa—who had been highly interested—is now more interested in cars as a result of the new one her uncle bought over the weekend…
So, too, in today’s public sphere around race. “Interest” is fleeting, multifaceted, multi-sourced. So on second thought I would have to conclude that we are really not that interested in “having a conversation” about race. Some of us are interested in airing grievances. Some, in getting others to come around to our way of thinking. Some want to use these “conversations” to further spew racist poison. Many of us will be interested—even open to true conversation—but only until the next shiny interesting quasi-news story comes along to steal away our attention. Some are pretty beat down and have little hope of things changing for the better so, hey, why talk more about it. Plenty of folks just want “race” to go away….
Now for the second test. Is this Gates incident a True Opportunity? Is Professor Gates really the right poster child for a demonstration on the evils of racial bias?
As one blogger has commented, Professor Gates’ experience and its aftermath may be yet one more example of “All the victims are male and all the oppressors are White.” Those of us decrying racism have little rhetorical capital when the only incidents worthy of protest are when victims are Black, heterosexual, and male. (And—in this incident—upper middle class, highly educated….a “proper” Negro.) And when the oppressors are White and male. And bonus points for a White male police officer—the most favorite buggaboo of affronts to Black civil rights.
Then there is the ambiguity surrounding the case. I do not doubt for one minute that race played a big part of the professor’s and officer’s interaction. I fully recognize how police can abuse their power, and that the ranks of police forces across the country contain out-and-out racists as well as those who experience subconscious racial bias.
But I think that class was the compounding factor. Is it possible that police officers in Cambridge have to put up with elite, privileged, self-entitled college folk all the time? Yes, I think so. I also think testosterone compounded things even more. This was a male-on-male thing as much—or more than—a Black-on-White thing.
Adding to the gray area was the outcome. Professor Gates—thankfully—suffered no physical injury, no loss of property, no loss of life. Yes, dignity is important. But it is not clear that the opportunity here is the best to provide that important lesson about race. If anything, it makes the (presumably) working class, lower paid, public servant the injured party. Can you imagine being lambasted in the international media by the President of the United States?
If this is a teachable moment, then it should be about how we, in a free society, want our rule of law to be carried out by those entrusted to protect us. (See here and here, for example.) It should be about the boundaries of State power, including police officers, and what offenses count as arrestable and freedom-limiting activities. But that, actually, is an even bigger conversation than race. It gets to the very heart of how we see our democratic society. What a boring conversation, in contrast to the high drama and titillation of race and racism…
I say all this as someone who has held something of an intellectual crush on Professor Gates for many years. I was consumed with envy and awe when a grad school friend got the opportunity to meet him after one of her family members was profiled in his African-American Lives 2. I love his intellect, his sense of humor, his somewhat sly smile. Even his cane gives him that extra flair, that je ne sais quoi, that is just appealing to me, an academic geek (and proud of it). I do not have a bone to pick with Dr. Gates—in fact I freely admit that I felt for him because I see myself in his same socioeconomic class and his arrest brings home even more how much a Black man or woman with a PhD is still “just” Black first.
I also say all this as someone who has never signed a petition in support of a Black male death row prisoner, or Black male taser victim, or Black male supposedly railroaded-by-police “innocent” bystander. My reasons for this lack of overt support are many and deserve a separate blog post. But suffice it to say that I am in the camp that would like to see more support for the victims of Black-on-Black crime and injustice, than the far fewer in number victims of White-on-Black crime and injustice. And I would definitely like to see more Black compassion for Black female lives and bodies—at least as much as wee seem to have for Black male lives and bodies.
Finally, I also say all this as someone who has supported and followed President Obama ever since he was a young, unknown Senator with a funny name just making a speech on a national big stage. I believe most of the criticisms of him range from par for the course (e.g., he has taken on too much) to the ridiculous (e.g., he is not US-born). He is in a unique position of walking a racial tightrope, and in all cases he will generally be damned if he does and equally damned if he does not.
In this instance, however, I think this “teachable moment” is for President Obama and President Obama alone.
In my preschool classroom, that was a definite no-no. It is great if I just happened to be a bird enthusiast, had a closet full of bird teaching materials that I have been just waiting to use, and that this dovetails wonderfully with the children’s interest and with the unexpected arrival of the bird and her nest. But it is not OK if I try to manipulate interest or opportunities to satisfy only my own needs.
This may be one case where the teacher is teaching for the benefit of the teacher.
President Obama needs a win. He needs to make up for what some are reading, charitably, as a mis-step and others are reading, with relish, as a tool for a potential upset come re-election. He is probably interested in recapturing the glow from his widely acknowledged groundbreaking speech on race from the campaign. (Which, it is important to note, was also forced upon him through a “teachable moment.”) He is motivated to maintain the sense of balance, the air of racial objectivity, that he likely feels he needs as the first non-White president of the United States. He is also likely motivated to bring this incident to some closure. It was not in his original lesson plan and he wants to get quickly back to health care and other “real” issues.
I hope, for the President’s sake, that the menfolk-downing-beers-in-the-White-House move works out. But this is not a teachable moment for the country on race. Perhaps we will have one at some point. But this ain’t it.