Monday, July 15, 2013

Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, and Me

The verdict is in:  George Zimmerman is not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin.  It's been pretty hard to escape the media coverage of the trial and the verdict.   And maybe just as hard to sort out the racial implications of the trial and verdict, maybe harder if you are white?

Just looking at the case from a common sense standpoint, it seems to me like George Zimmerman made a pretty poor choice when he chose to follow someone who he thought was a criminal.  It seems like it's a pretty bold thing to act surprised when you follow a perfect stranger around and then have that perfect stranger act aggressively towards you, especially when that perfect stranger is a young man, when young men are not known to be particularly level headed and clear minded.  I just find myself saddened by the whole thing; if George Zimmerman had used a little common sense and thought ahead he might not have found himself in a situation where he felt threatened.  Trayvon Martin might not have reacted aggressively.  A gunshot would never have been fired.

But then there comes the question of common sense and racism.  Did George Zimmerman kill Trayvon Martin because he was black?  I'm not sure I believe that he killed him because he was black.  But I am pretty sure George Zimmerman's series of choices (the following of Trayvon, the 911 phone call, the fear he felt when he was attacked) were probably influenced by how Trayvon Martin looked.

Which is where I as the mom of a black boy find my heart skipping a beat.  The reality of life is we are human and we make judgments about others all the time based on appearances.  Often is more than just appearance, a combination of things like appearance and behavior.  But it still happens.

We look at a 30ish Hispanic couple walking down the street, talking in Spanish and assume they work in certain industries and cannot speak English when the reality is they are both pre med students who are fluent in English and Spanish.  We see a bald, white man who has tattoos up and down his arms, with a chain attached to his wallet, and an earring or two standing outside of a bar and assume he is just another tattooed guy who likes to drink when the reality is he's waiting for his wife to come out of the shop next door and he's actually a youth minister.  And we see a young black man, wearing a bit too baggy of pants and an oversized hoodie, while walking through our neighborhood, and because we don't recognize him and think he looks a little like trouble, we assume he's up to no good when he's really just walking home.

Can you see how that last scenario impacts me as a mom?

That's why the racial implications of the George Zimmerman trial matter.  Because for certain segments of the population, the racial aspects of the story take on a whole new meaning.  Most white people (especially those who are my age or younger) grew up in an era that some have tried to describe as "post racial."  In other words, we have come so far that we are now past race.  It's a well intentioned idea, one that is rooted in the fact that lots and lots of white kids who grew up in the late 70's, 80's, and 90's were taught so well that race doesn't matter.  These kids know that outright racism is wrong.  They have a long list of don'ts which revolve around racism.  Don't tell racist jokes.  Don't use racist names.  Don't discriminate in the work place.

But what is hard is that for most of the kids (who are now adults in the 20-40 age group) is that they have not had to think through the subtle side effects one's race has in life.  They have never really though about if their son might be misidentified as a criminal and shot.  They have not wondered where they will find a boy doll that looks like their son.  They have not wondered if their son will have his heart broken by a father's refusal to let their son take his daughter to prom.

I am not a proponent in making trouble where there is not.  Sometimes, situations just are what they are and it's an issue of a miscommunication or an accidental offense.  And I'm not sure I would define it as "white privilege".  To me, privilege implies something earned or a choice one makes to accept the benefits.  I don't think that's where a lot of white people live.

Instead, I think it's an issue of perception.  I once heard issues of racial sensitivity compared to having a sunburn.  Because of past experiences, many black people walk around with varying degrees of sunburns.  Start with slavery and the lack of civil rights as the first layer of the burn.  (Yep, it's over but it still stings to know that is where you came from.)  Add in any bad experiences at elementary school, things like having someone tell you they don't want to play with you because you are brown (probably not racist just a kids' way of saying "I don't want to play.")  Pile on more experiences like a store manager who follows you as a teenager, maybe because of your skin color or maybe just because you come off as a loud teen, or feeling forced to laugh at jokes that use the n word.  Maybe add in a true racist incident where someone did call you a nasty name.  And by the time you are an adult, you have burn after burn.  So then when something that has racial overtones happens, it's as if someone slaps your sunburn.

For most white people, they don't have those layers of burns so the incident doesn't carry the same weight as it does for a black person.  And that's is one of the complexities of being a transracial family.  I don't have the burns but there's a good chance my kids may find themselves at least singed.  So now my ears perk up and my thoughts go a bit deeper.  Not because I am looking to make a race issue but because I have a better understanding of how it might look through the eyes of someone else.

Can I say I hope that is one of the messages of the Trayvon Martin death?  That we as white Americans need to think and consider why our perception of an event might be different than that of someone else.  That is is okay to not share that same perception.  That is is not racist to make assumptions about someone based on appearance but it is racially insensitive to not think through those thoughts.  That there is a reason why blacks and other minorities might be more sensitive.  That loudly asserting how wrong those feelings are is not really helpful.

This week I've read quite a few things on the Martin/Zimmerman verdict.  Here's a few of the more interesting ones, ones that I don't agree 100% with but writing where some of the words resonated.

Truth in the City's Will We Ever Just Get Along?
Jen Hatmaker's Letter to Trayvon Martin's Mom
CNN's Trayvon Could Have Been My Son

1 comment:

stephanie garcia said...

I really appreciated your post and hope you don't mind that I quoted you this evening in your discussion of the "burns" - it was such a helpful way to explain. Thank you for your candor and sensitivity.