Posted by: Andrew | July 20, 2013

Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman and White Privilege

It’s hard to know what to say about the outcome of the murder trial of George Zimmerman.  Yeah, the Zimmerman trial.  He was the person on trial.  He was the one accused of murdering an unarmed child.  There were times when that was not obvious.  There were times that it seemed that he was the victim of his actions stalking and chasing and killing an unarmed child who was not engaged in any illegal activity. There were times when it was clear that the victim was on trial. This was the defense strategy and the prosecutor pretty much went along with it, not even suggesting that the victim had a right to self-defense.  The killer (and despite his acquittal, he did kill Trayvon Martin) was portrayed as victim and the victim, that dead, unarmed child, was portrayed as the aggressor.

I’ve read my share of opinion pieces.  Battle lines get drawn in the media and we rush to our ideological barricades.  That’s expected in our polarized nation.

But what’s most jarring to me, is the reaction of my friends of color. These are people, diverse in background, whom I’ve known since childhood.  Some relationships are or were closer, deeper, than others but they are people that I studied with, did extracurricular activities with, played and laughed and joked with. Some were confidantes, and some were little more than acquaintances.  Despite the diversity of people and relationships there’s a common thread I’m observing in their reactions.

You’ve probably heard about how black and brown parents have talks with their kids, particularly boys about how to behave if they encounter a police officer.  As far as I can tell, it’s largely about being extra-polite and deferential, and doing exactly what the police say, even if the kid has done nothing wrong, or even anything that warrants police interaction at all.  It’s not about manners or respect, as positive as those things are.  It’s about not getting arrested or beaten or shot.  It’s a matter of survival in a world where the color of their skin makes them more suspect than, say, me or my kids.

Somehow, it never occurred to me that my own friends were having those conversations in their homes.  I never even considered that my own friends had to worry about being profiled as a gangster or a thug or any number of other sinister things that they so obviously were not.  And yet, the reactions that I’ve seen clearly show that this is a common experience across non-white America.

It’s an experience that I will never have.  It’s based on a the experience of generations of people who have lived their lives in bodies covered with skin of a color that singles them out for negative treatment at the hands of generations of people with skin like mine.

Think about that.  We’re not talking about a single incident or even a single person’s life.  We’re talking about what has transpired in our country over generations and how it impacts us, all of us today.  When you put it in that perspective, the notion that the killing of Trayvon Martin was an incident free of race is laughable.  Or it would be if it did not involve a dead child who had done nothing wrong.

I know the narrative is that he was fighting Zimmerman and Zimmerman says he was only defending himself.  Martin would say the same thing.  Actually he would say that he was defending himself against the guy that followed him in a car when he was doing nothing wrong and then got out to chase him.  It would be his word (corroborated by the undisputed fact that Zimmerman did follow him and leave his car to give chase) against Zimmerman’s claim of being attacked by the guy he was chasing.  Why is Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense more valid than Martin’s?

Because Martin is unable to make that claim.  Zimmerman killed him.

But that doesn’t make it about race, does it?  Okay, ask yourself this?  If the situation were reversed, and it were a black man having followed and shot an unarmed white kid in “self-defense”, do you honestly believe that it would have taken a southern police force a month and a half to arrest him?  If we take an honest look at the history of this country, we know the answer to that question.  If it were a white kid walking back from the store wearing a hoody in the rain, do you think he would have been followed in the first place?  We can try to equivocate all we want and say that the hood obscuring the face would be enough to warrant scrutiny.  By that standard, any able-bodied-pedestrian in a hoody becomes suspicious.

So yes, it’s about race.  As much as I wish we could say we live in a post-racial America, as much as I wish I could say that the fact that we elected a black president twice (yes I know he’s bi-racial, but if he were the one walking through Sanford, Florida in a hoody on a rainy night, George Zimmerman would not have identified him as such), makes everything right.

It doesn’t.  We have a lot of work to do to heal those generations of wounds that have brought us to this place, and are in fact still being inflicted.

And that brings me back to my reaction to my friends comments, and the realization that while I was enjoying my little multi-cultural childhood utopia, they had very real concerns about how our society’s racial prejudices would impact them.

I’m honestly not sure how to react to this, … what? …revelation? …demonstration?  of the privilege that comes to me from having been born a white male.  Part of me wants to apologize, but for what?  I haven’t sought to exploit the privilege. I haven’t tried to hold others down because of their race or gender or anything else. I’ve even tried to recognize my own prejudices and not use them to judge people unfairly.

And yet, I’ve heard this song.  It’s the song of whites who don’t consider themselves racist and are “tired” of being “labeled oppressors” by a civil-rights culture that has been so “wildly successful” that  a black man is president.

“I haven’t done anything wrong, so why are “they” bringing up race?”

“I have black friends.  You can call me a racist.”

“Dr. King wouldn’t want affirmative action.  If a black applicant is more qualified than a white one, I’ll hire the black one, so we don’t need affirmative action.”

“If you’re not doing anything wrong, the police will leave you alone.”

“People who talk about race are just trying to tear the country apart.”

That’s the insidious thing about privilege. I get to enjoy it just by virtue of living.  I get to teach my kids that the police are safe.  I don’t have to worry about getting followed by security in a store or an “exclusive” community.  I can live my little life and not have to confront the fact that there are people who have also done nothing wrong but can’t make the same statements that I made in the first half of this paragraph.

So an apology seems, not wrong, but not the right answer.  What can I do with my privilege in a world where some don’t have what I have?  Well, to paraphrase a certain comic book icon, “with great privilege comes great responsibility.”  I have privilege.  I should use it for good.  But how?  I mean, I found myself blindsided by the realization that people of color that I’ve known for decades have had to deal with racism.  This really should not blow my mind, but it does, and it makes me wonder about some of the stories and incidents from our youth that they tend to laugh off.  What was he thinking that time he tried to jaywalk to a comic book store and got caught on the median strip while a police car was stopped at a light?  What was he really thinking when he got out of a friend’s car in front of his house late at night and found six cops with their guns drawn on him because the car looked like a stolen one.  And why did he have to sit on curb for two hours even though the car was properly registered and licensed?  Would that police car have pulled out of a left turn lane to tail us out of South Pasadena if all four of us in the car were white males?  And how would my friends have felt if they were in my shoes when  a police car had pulled up next to me while walking down the street so the officer could offer me a ride to a Kiwanis meeting?

So, in a way, I’m clueless, even though I didn’t think I was.  So what can I do?  It starts with listening to people who have had experiences that I’ve never had and never will have.  It starts with learning.  The next logical step to learning is passing on the knowledge.  But that’s not quite right either.  Who am I to impart knowledge about the experience of minorities in this country, especially when there are so many who can ably tell their own stories?  No, that would be arrogant.  What I can do is talk about my own experiences, and my own deficiencies and blind spots when it comes to race.  I can talk about how I really know very little and have a lot to learn, and I can encourage others to become part of the dialog, and to start by listening to those who can tell us about that which we can never experience.  Whites need to listen to minorities and give weight to their arguments.  And it’s not just about race.  Gender? Religion?  Sexual Identity?  Poverty? Those of us in power need to listen to those not in power and recognize that they have something to say.

It starts with shutting our mouths and opening our ears.

So, on that note, I guess I’ll shut my mouth. Or stop my fingers.  Or…you get the point.


Responses

  1. One thought I had recently: what if we started a project to document all those things, like Levar Burton’s recent rundown of his “driving while black” procedure for traffic stops, that people of color do differently than white people to mitigate the impact of their race? And then… as white people… started DOING them?

    It would take a while to make any impact. I mean, once you learn the routine and decide that next time you get pulled over, you’re going to pull the keys out of the ignition, put them on the roof of the car, turn on the dome light if it’s nighttime, and then put your hands on the windshield… it may be a year or more before the next time you get pulled over. My husband’s only been pulled over like twice in his entire life.

    But I’m sure there’s a lot of situations. Job interviews. Fancy restaurants. Valet parking. Business meetings. Shopping. If we collect *enough* information, and we actively stop using our privilege by doing what people of color do… how will Authority react?

    Laughter, at first. I did actually behave that way during a traffic stop during college; the cop laughed. (I didn’t realize that this advice wasn’t relevant to my demographic at the time.) But puzzlement. And, just maybe… they’ll have a little lightbulb moment when they realize that the very things they are reassured by from POC seem just *wrong* from white people.

    It’s just ONE idea. It’s not the only thing. But it’s maybe on a track toward shining a bright light on privilege, so we can take it apart.

  2. In the interest of veracity, I feel I should clarify that we were stopped (detained?) as suspects in a drive-by shooting with a stolen vehicle. And weren’t allowed to sit. The two things I remember the most are how guns being drawn sound remarkably like they do in the movies, and how it felt to FINALLY get inside and be able to pee after standing in my driveway in handcuffs for so long. Later, when my eldest sister latched on to this as A Cause and I ended up speaking to the office of Senator Richard Polanco (she can go full Class Warrior about this kind of thing) I was told that Frank and I matched the description of “three Hispanic males in a stolen vehicle”. I thought they were kidding, but apparently that was what the officers were going on.

    I think I still have Officer Adams’ card somewhere, though I doubt she’d remember me.


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