Obama, Gates, Crowley, and the Baggage We Each Carry

Much of my work over the past several years has wrestled with issues of diversity, specifically among the generations. My research has shown me time and again how powerfully and unconsciously our past experiences color the way we perceive events today — and how easily we form the wrong conclusion by judging another person through our lens.

I’ve come across dozens of examples of mistaken impressions among the generations. For example, Boomers and X’ers are likely to react very differently if the corporation they’re working for asks them to relocate. Boomers tend to be generally pleased, equating the request with greater opportunity, a promotion, a “win,” while X’ers are often uneasy, concerned about moving too far out on the seemingly tenuous limb of trust in one institution. Both of these reactions are logical, based on each generation’s observations and experience with corporations throughout their lives.

More importantly, each generation often interprets the other generation’s reaction negatively — many Boomers jump to the quick conclusion that X’ers lack commitment to or interest in their careers, while X’ers may be seriously miffed by what they perceive as Boomer arrogance. Both of these interpretations are unfair and inaccurate.

The experiences we’ve had — the impressions we’ve formed — stay with us. We carry them forward and use them, consciously or not, as the context through which we view each new situation. They are the baggage we each carry. Our mental baggage affects not only how we interpret the “other guy’s” actions, but also how we ourselves react — or in some instances, over-react — and are in no way limited to generational differences. Just this week I had an interaction in a professional context that many of you would have viewed as mildly annoying but largely insignificant. For whatever reason — perhaps I was too tired, pressured, whatever — the interaction hit a raw nerve. My reaction erupted out of thirty-five years of the slights and struggles that were common experiences for professional women in the 70’s and 80’s (and still are, occasionally, today).

The recent arrest of a distinguished black professor in Cambridge and President Obama’s subsequent comments about it illustrate the powerful ways our personal experiences shape our actions and reactions. I can imagine that, whatever happened during the incident itself, for Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., it triggered memories of a lifetime of humiliating, painful events. He was returning from a long trip, probably tired, stressed. His reaction undoubtedly sprang from the baggage that is his life experiences.

I found the single most interesting statement from President Obama’s press conference not the one that’s gotten all the attention (about the police acting “stupidly,”) but rather his preceding comment that “any of us would be pretty angry.” This reflects his context and, I suspect, explains why such a normally measured speaker would make a comment that grated on so many others. He assumed we would all operate from the context that “any of us would be pretty angry.”

Actually, this is far from true. As a white woman, I am pretty sure I would have been comforted by the officer’s presence and, if anything, perhaps amused at my predicament. Anger would have been the furthest emotion from my mind. But I understand why it was part of the Professor’s reaction.

Profiling — whether based on race, gender, generation or any other dimension of our diversity — is a two-way street. It affects the person who acts, but it also affects those of us who react — and those who comment.

Many are asking whether the officer would have acted differently had the professor been white? This question in itself contains a bias — it considers only one dimension of this complex interaction. Would the professor have acted differently had he been white? Would the professor have acted differently had he been a woman? Would the President have commented in the same way if he carried different baggage in hand?

Undoubtedly so.

My baggage differs from the professor’s, the policeman’s, and the President’s, but, like theirs, mine shapes my reactions in ways that are similarly powerful — and, I suppose, sometimes surprising and misinterpreted by those around me.

I would love to hear your stories. Can you identify a time when your experiences have influenced the way you reacted to an event in your lives?

Read the original here, by Tammy Erickson @ Harvard Business Publishing