Paul Kendrick: Crashing at the Capitol

The Oscar-winning film “Crash” illustrated how everyday interactions can escalate into conflict due to misunderstandings and resentment rooted in cultural differences. A black congresswoman hitting a U.S. Capitol police officer who stopped her would have fit in perfectly in the fictional movie, had it not happened in real life.

I am speaking, of course, of Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) striking a congressional security guard last month. The white man stopped her for attempting to circumvent a metal detector while not wearing her member of Congress pin, but McKinney claimed that the officer should have recognized her. Was the incident racial profiling or an unreasonable assault on an officer? Before we jump to conclusions, we must to imagine the situation from two perspectives.

I can imagine being the security officer. I am entrusted with protecting our Capitol in an age of terrorism. A woman who looks familiar bursts past me, but her hair seems different than I recalled. She wears no congressional pin, and her outfit is not characteristic of a member of Congress.

She could be anyone carrying anything. My job is to protect this important institution, so I must stop her until I know she is authorized to go around the metal detectors. I run toward her and physically interrupt her attempt to enter the building.

But can you imagine the situation through McKinney’s eyes?

I am late for a vote on the floor, so I must quickly pass security, as all of my colleagues are allowed to do. Every morning they see me come through this entrance, and there should be no problem, even if my pin is not clearly displayed.

The security guard asks me to stop.

Never would a white male congressman be asked to stop. I don’t think of this consciously at the time, but anger boils deep inside me. It’s an anger that comes from all the times I was called the wrong name, or mistaken for someone else of the same color. I thought that my status superceded racial profiling, and that I would no longer be eyed and followed by the manager of a store, as if I were about to steal something. I thought my son would not be pulled over anymore by a police officer judging someone based on the color of his skin. I thought I would earn the same respect everyone else serving in Congress enjoys. I guess I was wrong for thinking I could finally be treated with colorblind dignity.

And then he lays his hand on me and I respond with a woman’s instinct.

Who is right in this situation? That is beside the point.

There are truths beyond the sum of our experiences, truths that cause people to react in ways we do not expect. The more we listen and learn from those of other backgrounds, the more we start to understand the cultural or ideological baggage each of us brings to every interaction. Through this learning process, we become better prepared for reactions to our behavior and the behavior of others.

As a white person serving in GW’s NAACP chapter, I constantly question myself about the things I say and do, especially if they would go against the views of members of any race or ethnicity. Rather than always assuming I am right, I try to open myself to deeper cultural understandings. After a year of putting this ideology into practice, I realized how little I had truly known about human interaction, and how much can be found under the surface.

All it would take is one conversation between this officer and McKinney for him to understand the source of her frustration. McKinney could also learn that some people may not hold any sort of prejudice, but are only trying to do their jobs. People’s intentions are not as bad as we may think, and conversations on cultural differences and experiences are so desperately needed in America.

The alternative is two more people blindly “Crash”-ing into one another.

-The author, a graduate student and presidential administrative fellow, is the author of “Sarah’s Long Walk: How the Free Blacks of Boston and Their Struggle for Equality Changed America.”

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