Beer Makes it Better? Masculinity & Race on Display

President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Harvard Professor Dr. Henry Gates, and arresting Camridge police officer Sgt. Crowley. Photo credit: Stephen Crowley, New York Times

Yesterday afternoon, President Obama invited Dr. Henry Louis Gates and Sgt. James Crowley to The White House for a beer to discuss the incident in which Sgt. Crowley arrested professor Gates in his own home, as he returned from an international trip to China. This snapshot raises much for me, but the most top of mind reflection, is the way in which gender, and specifically masculinity allows space for forgiveness and bridging of racial tensions. I noticed often, that the dynamic, at least from the outside looking in, between Black and white men, is often mediated of course by masculinity and the attendant (and yes, problematic) notions and stereotypes, that in some ways Black men “out man,” white men, through hyper-sexuality and physicality. Black men are to be feared, posited, cruelly and inaccurately as being animalistic, and thus a threat to the logical minded white man. Some of that has even played out in the reports of Dr. Gates response to Crowley: Crowley was being “rational” and thoughtful and Dr. Gates (understandly the media is quick to say) was exhausted and may have responded irrationally (with his physical or verbal prowess). This analysis seems to suggest that Gates, the Black man jumped to action, while Crowley pondered. I’m sure this psychological trope of response based on racist ideology is also in part why folks responded so virulently when President Obama said Crowley’s acted stupidly. We’re not used to white men (Bush and Quayle’s aside) being called stupid publicly, and certainly not be a Black man, who also happens to be the leader of the free world.

To smooth it all over, President Obama, Dr. Gates, Vice President Biden, and Sgt. Crowley met for a beer at the White House. Somehow this is a particularly gendered event to me – designed to trade on the common attribute of gender: all guys love to kick back with a beer, right? But I find this photo so interesting. Sgt. Crowley looks decidely uneasy (though handsome), Biden, looks distracted and distant, but certainly not present. President Obama as always looks cool and at ease. But Dr. Henry Louis Gates looks as if he might be truly enjoying himself…after all it’s a trip to be an invited guest at the White House, no matter how you slice it.

I have to say, I’m so very curious as to what was discussed.  As apparently were the press corps and every one else according to The Washington Post. Race porn. This country is fascinated with race in the same ways its fascinated with sex. It all leaves me with a question: is it easier for men to negotiate race with one another because they can bond around masculinity? That seems a simplistic question – it isn’t so for womyn of color and white womyn. But it does seem different for men. And if masculine gender does make race different between men of color and white men, what are the reasons for that?

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