Presumed assumption of guilt or why we don’t fart in public

Integrity is an important ethic for all of us to uphold, but it seems as though there are many times when the line is not so clear and people cross it.  Perhaps they see how others seem to get away with it and figure, well if they are doing it, why shouldn’t I?  We see it in the news everyday it seems in Hawaii.  Someone is getting fired because of embezzlement or other criminal acts for which they must think they won’t get caught.  I’m sure for some people, they must figure they have nothing to lose.  Others may get caught up in their own power and think they will never get caught, or as a friend of mine would say, “my shit doesn’t stink.”

But then there are those of us, people of color in public positions with much to lose, who feel as though we need to uphold the highest standards of ethics for fear that those in power assume we aren’t trustworthy or waiting for the opportunity to catch us making a mistake.  Relando Thompkins-Jones writes about a similar notion, the presumed assumption of guilt. The notion is that if something goes wrong, I might be viewed as a suspect in the case.  In other cases, nothing may go wrong, but you are still suspect. Whether it may be happening or not, it is something that we need to be attentive to and, at times, be better than average.  Even when we obtain significant power within our organizations, we may see this as having a bigger target on our backs.  And yes, this is a chronic stressor attributable to race/ethnicity within the dominant culture.

I recall when I was a doctoral student at the University of Washington and we were sitting in a seminar among my colleagues.  In the middle of the lecture, I suddenly smell the scent of a fart.  I recall the notion of who smelt it dealt it, so I first try to ignore it.  But then, I notice there is only one other person sitting near me, an attractive white woman who most would not assume would be the culprit.  I think, damn, everyone will think its me!  So I suddenly start to raise my nose in the air to emulate that I smelled something rank.  I even turn to a friend across the room and signify to my friend that I smell something rotten and that it wasn’t me.  Being a larger native dude, I felt I had to do something or I would be pegged as the nasty farter of the group.  Who knew if anyone smelled it or if they even cared who dealt it, I just didn’t want them to think it was me.  All the while, the woman near me behaved as if nothing was wrong and sat attentive to the lecture.

The take away here is not that I would prefer if I didn’t have to uphold high ethical standards or that public flatulence was acceptable.  But, I do have to be attentive to perceptions of others due to my social identities and the presumed assumption of guilt, whether something is about to go down or not.