One of the perks to having this tiny little blogging corner of the world is that I get to write about whatever is on my mind, lofty to lowbrow. After letting things percolate for a few days, I wanted to process and share some of my thoughts about the Trayvon Martin verdict here on Ciburbanity. There are editorials and articles all over the internet/ social media and obviously people have opinions ranging from shock and horror that George Zimmerman was acquitted to those who feel Trayvon Martin got what he deserved. I am whole heartedly in the former camp and, as a white woman, I feel compelled to write about why this is MY problem. Why this verdict is MY cross to bear. Why we should take this as an opportunity to spend some quiet moments considering what race and racism means to each of us.
I’ve broached this subject in the past in this piece I posted on MLK Day. The notion of race is not one that white Americans are comfortable discussing and yet it’s our discussion to have. Racism stems from our blindspots and our naive belief that just because we don’t wear a white hood and burn crosses that we are free of prejudice and racism. People of color are experts on the nuances of race, racism and the implications of being a brown skinned American. White privilege is rarely a happy hour topic. The intersection of race and class is not something you’ll see in your Us Magazine. I’d venture to say that most white folks in our country would whole heartedly assert that racism is rare, and people of color are afforded the same opportunities as anyone else. Try again.
When I examine my Lifetime Resume- private schools, college degree, graduate degree, employment history, travel experience, houses lived in, cars driven, summer jobs, etc.- of course I’d like to pat myself on my back and take credit for my every success and accomplishment and ability. I worked hard for these accolades. Afterall, doesn’t hard work equate to status and achievement? Isn’t this the premiss of the American dream? Sort of… but let me put the spin of white privilege and intersectionality on my little life story here.
Lifetime Resume Redux: I was born into an upper middle class home. My parents are educated and have received high school/ college/ graduate degrees. Their parents were similarly educated. Every day of my life, I’ve had food to eat, water to drink and a bed in which to sleep. I’ve always been warm enough in winter and cool enough in summer. I could move around freely as a teenager without arousing suspicion. The message I received from everyone I came across was that I could ‘be whomever I wanted to be.’ I fit in academically, socially and athletically… no one ever asked, ‘how did you get here?’ College was not a dream but an expectation… a foregone conclusion. The challenges that I’ve had to overcome have nothing to do with survival or personal safety. Summer jobs were a learning experience and not an economic necessity. I never feel like I have to speak on behalf of my entire race.
What’s my point? In her 1988 Working Paper 189, Peggy MacIntosh discusses white privilege as an “invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.” In other words, I didn’t earn any of the items on my Lifetime Resume Redux. Not a one. They were given to me as a function of my white race and my upper middle class. But all of those details made it exponentially more possible for me to avoid poverty, get an education, remain healthy, keep safe, secure a job.. i.e. to achieve Lifetime Resume.
The deeper underbelly of race is where most of us struggle to dialogue. As a white person, I turn on the television and see people who look like me. Turn on C-Span and what do you see? White skin as far as the eye can see. Sitting in a college classroom, no one will look over at me and wonder how I got in. I can go into any hair salon in the country and odds are pretty good someone will know what to do with my hair. History classes will portray my race as the first settlers in this country. I can easily find myriad toys for my children that look like them. And these realities have NOTHING to do with demographics. I don’t care what the latest census data might show, this is not an issue of numbers, this is an issue of power. Of opportunity. Of racial reality. Laws do not dictate social barriers.
Like it or not, positions of power in this country: political, socioeconomic, aesthetic, pop culture, entertainment… are held overwhelmingly by white Americans. Sure, we may have a black president, but go ahead and take a peek at the racial mix in Congress. Or Hollywood. Or Fortune 500 companies. This reality trickles down to our subconscious. We internalize all this. If every hero on the television has white skin and every bad guy has dark skin, guess what we subliminally hold onto? If every boss of every job we’ve ever had is a white person, guess how we start to see leaders? If the people in positions of political power all have a similar background and a similar demographic to us white folk, how are people of color going to be fairly represented when it comes to policy and law and social considerations?
Which is where I tell you the story of a young man walking home from an early evening snack run. Rather than go the long way around, the young man decides to take a short cut leading him through a gated community. Unbeknownst to the young man, a member of the neighborhood watch notices him walking and decides this act alone equates to ‘malintent.’ It’s a little after 7:00 p.m. so not a time to be on high alert for criminal activity. A call is placed to 911 and the dispatcher sends officers to the scene… because of a figure walking down the street. At some point, the same member of the neighborhood watch decides that the police en route aren’t thorough enough, so he opts to get out of his vehicle and make contact with the youth. Conjecture would lead you to believe that pleasantries such as ‘how are you doing on this fine evening’ were not exchanged. The teenager, caught off guard with his snacks and his shortcut, is met by a stranger challenging him for doing something as simple as walking home. When faced with this presumably aggressive (verbal or otherwise) individual, fight or flight reflexes start to kick in. (As an older pregnant white woman, I would take offense to someone stepping out of their vehicle to interrogate me for walking down a public street. Imagine the reaction of an adolescent young man…) The altercation escalates as tempers rise and words are exchanged. The grown man and the teenager engage and the situation becomes physical. Neighbors start to take notice. With a getaway vehicle within site, a community of houses all around and police on the way, the grown man who initiated contact with this young man, now ‘fears for his life.’ So much so, that his ‘only option for survival’ is to remove his firearm , unlock his firearm and shoot his firearm. The resulting bullet takes away the life of the young man walking home early on a Sunday evening with snacks in hand.
Now imagine that young man is home for his winter break from Harvard and he was walking back from the drug store after picking up his mother’s blood pressure medication. He was a White House intern last summer and has plans to join the Peace Corps when he graduates. His mother is a member of the garden club, and his father is on the board of the local Boys and Girls club. He performed as Daddy Warbucks in his high school musical and his most recent Facebook post said he was stoked for an upcoming concert with friends.
With this twist, consider how this story plays out. I have yet to mention race, mind you. If this was the bio of Trayvon Martin, how would you react to the verdict declaring George Zimmerman an innocent man? Would you be surprised that Zimmerman deemed this young man “threatening?” What race do you assume the young man is after hearing a little more background information? What class do you assume he’s from?
So let’s go ahead and declare that the gentleman from Harvard is white. I suggest that one of two things occur: 1) the incident never takes place because the figure walking through the neighborhood isn’t deemed ‘suspicious’ or worthy of a 911 call OR 2) the shooter is immediately taken away for questioning and subsequently convicted of taking another person’s life. Not an accidental discharge of a weapon (Zimmerman deliberately brought the firearm with him), not self-defense (he actively left the safe confines of a car to pursue Martin), and not threatened (under no eye-witness accounts was Martin doing anything other than walking prior to their ill-fated meeting.)
Tell me race and racial profiling do not play into this story and I’ll show you thousands of examples of ways in which people with brown skin are treated with suspicion and presumed guilt in this country every day. (Ever heard the expression driving while black?) Why does it matter what Martin’s disciplinary history was? And why are we so quick to assume that a young black man must have instigated this altercation? Why was Martin’s personal history even up for debate given the basic timeline of events?
(Sidenote: Another troubling insinuation of this trial is that a Spanish American can’t have the subconscious racism that a white person might. A simple definition of racism is the belief in the inherent superiority of one racial group over another. Racism within color groups is just as present and insidious as racism held by whites towards people of color, but it doesn’t bring up the same questions of privilege and power.)
So what are some action items to take away from all of this? Read this post by the amazing Kristen Howerton at Rage Against the Minivan. She’s way more articulate than I am, so I’ll save myself the headache of sounding informative here. The few things I WILL ask you to consider are as follows. How did you react to the Martin/ Zimmerman verdict and why? What would you HONESTLY think if you saw a young black male walking through your neighborhood during dinner? From where have you internalized your opinions and belief system relative to race? When someone tells a racial joke, how do you respond? How would you react if a friend used a racial slur in front of you? What unearned advantages might you have cashed in to get where you are today?
I thank you for sticking with me on this one and at least reading to the end. I thank you for considering that your beliefs about race aren’t exactly what you hope they might be. And I thank you for mulling over the idea that the impact of white privilege and racial profiling on race in this country might have played a part in this tragic case. Let’s communicate within and across racial lines. Let’s not fool ourselves into believing we live in a colorblind society and, instead, consider that we have lots of work ahead of us where the topic of race is concerned.
Don't miss a post! Sign up for email or RSS updates!