I Am Not Trayvon Martin: Some Thoughts on White Privilege

 
photo by LaDawna Howard
photo by LaDawna Howard
A note about this post:
This is a blog about writing. Here, for the past 19 months I’ve documented the experience of working on my first book, The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures. I’ve written about research, procrastination, setbacks, pep talks – basically held forth on whatever I’m thinking as I chip away at this manuscript. But sometimes something happens that sort of knocks everything else out of your brain and becomes all you can think about. A colleague of mine has a gardening blog. In a recent post, he reflected on a plant called Snow on the Mountain, green spaces, contemplation and privilege. And Trayvon Martin. So I’m taking a cue from him and allowing myself to express some thoughts that are currently crowding most everything else out of my brain.
 

Last Sunday morning saw a proliferation of hoodies on my Facebook home page. Hoodies and status updates shouting, “We are all Trayvon Martin!” Or sometimes, “We are all Trayvon’s mother.” These were posts by liberal, thoughtful white people — teachers and homemakers, professors and artists. I get the point. It’s a show of solidarity. And even though it’s just Facebook — even though you’re not, say, marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 — still you’re showing up and saying you’re sickened by the blatant racism and brutality of this incident. You’re sickened by the fact that some people are still protesting that racism has nothing to do with the murder of an unarmed seventeen year old black boy. At least that’s what I think you’re saying. But after I closed my laptop and went on with my day, I felt unsettled about all the well-intentioned white people on Facebook shouting “We are Trayvon.” Because it’s not enough. And it’s not the whole picture.

I had an African American studies professor in college who joked that white liberals wanted t-shirts that said “Not me.” The white kids in the class (including myself) laughed uncomfortably. It’s true. White people do some absolutely horrifying things, and I would like everyone to know I am not that kind of white person. (I’m not saying that white people are the only ones capable of committing atrocities against fellow human beings – and animals and the environment — I’m just saying, historically, we’ve really outdone ourselves.) So there’s that. Saying “I am Trayvon” is a big NOT ME. And that’s ultimately worth something. It’s meaningful to state where you stand. It’s important to identify as an ally in the fight against institutionalized injustice and bigotry. Further, I understand that there are white people — folks in the LGBTQ community, women — who deeply understand being a target for hatred and violence simply because of the body you were born into. I get that they identify with this young man and others who are brutalized. I get that a young, white woman who’s been told that her outfit was the reason she was raped can grasp on a gut level why it’s messed up that a black kid in a hoodie has a target on his back.

I get that we feel horrified, disgusted and helpless in the face of laws that apparently allow a grown man to stalk and kill a teenager and a culture that seems determined to minimize the ugly reality of racism at every turn, to whitewash it, make it invisible so that white people can’t even see ourselves for who we are.

But here’s why it’s not enough. While you may have the best of intentions and even some valid reasons to identify with Trayvon and his family, while you may truly believe “We are all Trayvon Martin” there is also reason for good, white liberal people to admit something much harder to say:

We are all George Zimmerman.

Some of you will misunderstand why I say this. You’ll say, “Why should I feel guilty for something I didn’t do, something I find abhorrent, something I could never begin to contemplate?” That’s not what this is about. It’s not about white guilt. As far as I’m concerned, guilt is just another excuse to throw up our hands and say we can’t change anything. I’m saying let’s be brave enough to look at what’s really happening in this country and the role we play in it as individuals. Look with clear and critical eyes at the ways race plays out in the U.S. George Zimmerman made assumptions about Trayvon Martin because of the color of his skin. He deemed Martin a threat because he was a black teenager in a place where he wasn’t supposed to be, because to Zimmerman he looked like a hoodlum. Maybe you never make those kind of assumptions. Maybe you would never act on them. But I don’t think, if we’re being honest, that any of us born and raised in this culture can say we are immune to some racist beliefs. For starters, I think it’s worthwhile to continue to check and challenge our own assumptions about race and privilege.

But we know racism is not merely the sum of individual acts like Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin. It is part of our legislative and judicial systems, part of our social fabric. And sometimes it’s harder for those of us who are privileged, sheltered by the status quo to see it for what it is. The Newton, Connecticut shooting was a terrible, terrible thing that understandably shook and devastated people. But where is the public outcry for the black children who are being gunned down every day in Chicago and other U.S. cities? Where are the status updates speaking out against the school to prison pipeline?

I’m sure some of the folks who posted “We Are All Trayvon” are already active in their local and global communities around issues of race (and class, gender and sexual orientation). They have written and called their congress people and senators to demand that they restore the Voting Rights Act. They’ve refused to patronize retailers like the Gap until those companies sign the international accord to ensure safe workplaces for garment workers in Bangladesh. They give time and resources to organizations that invest in young people of color in meaningful and visionary ways. They know status updates are not enough.

People of integrity have to do more than wring our hands and talk about tragedy. It’s overwhelming to think about the impact of all of our actions — the things we buy, the neighborhoods in which we choose to live, the schools where we send our children. And I realize that there are differing degrees to which people have the capacity to choose these things. But I think we all need to look at every choice we make — and ask ourselves what and whom are we supporting by our actions, and whether it’s what we want to support. What are the ways in which we perpetuate racism in our communities or simply let it go unchallenged? What beliefs in ourselves do we still have to confront? I don’t have the answers. I’m just saying we should be brave enough to ask.

Let’s be brave enough to push ourselves beyond “Not me.” Let’s look with clear eyes at the ways white people with the best of intentions may still contribute to racist institutions, may still cause harm to young people like Trayvon. Let’s ask ourselves what we can do to be better allies against racism. What we can do to be better human beings.

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32 thoughts on “I Am Not Trayvon Martin: Some Thoughts on White Privilege

  1. I’ve read alot of viewpoints in my 50 years..From every angle, every topic, every viewpoint..Alot of us find it difficult to be as honest as this piece was..I’m assuming it took soul-searching; and for that plus your time in penning this very well-written well-expressed write..I thank you. My family near & far thanks you. My ancestors thank you..Acknowledgement is a fabulous start to reaching the end of this much-too-long-chapter in American history. Now this is so fresh pressable! I wish they had a button we could vote for fresh pressing something..

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    1. Thank you for your thoughts! I really felt driven to write this — though I know there’s much more to say. I want this discussion to be happening.

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      1. Me too Sis. Me too…I meant to re-blog your piece! Was so so busy when I read it; actually thought I had re-blogged it. THAT is how crazy busy a Monday its been..I’m going to re-blog it now so my readers can read it. Your thought process should be seen by ALL

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  2. An incredible piece of writing that cuts all of us to the soul. May we not just read this but be moved to take action and to make changes in our communities every day to be better human beings.

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  3. HI. I am a newcomer to this blog and its apparent off the cuff conversation. I have a different perspective because I am not American. I can understand why well-intentioned Caucasians in America feel guilty because of past grave mistakes in the USA. However, the issue of color and the ramifications of slavery of colored people, especially Africans, will not disappear. We meet in the office and other public gatherings, and sometimes at parties and at home, but we still go to different churches, weddings and cultural events. Slavery brought a stigma to the black colored race and an imbedded inferiority complex for most. Zimmerman was found not guilty, period. It was not a race case. But the black community sees it differently because they want to see it differently, only because Zimmerman looks “white”. The imbedded grudge against the white race will never cease to exist, just listen to the President who is half-white half black. Had Zimmerman been black, nobody would have raised a finger. Blacks kill each other daily in Chicago and Detroit, and there are no protests. And racism is everywhere, not just in the USA. In Africa (Arab Africans against Black Africans, Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi, tribal wars in the Congos, Mali and Ivory Coast. In Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, men put marriage ads for “fair skinned” women in newspapers and In Mexcio it’s hispanic descendants versus Aboriginal Indians. The list is endless. Let’s cool off here and try to make the best of it, though I don’t hold my breath.

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    1. I agree that slavery casts a long shadow. Clearly, this country still struggles with its far reaching ramifications, one of which is the deeply ingrained racism in our culture that some find so hard to see. The fact that Zimmerman was found not guilty does not mean this case isn’t about race.

      I raise the point in my post that there are black children killed every day in Chicago and that no one protests. That is about race, too.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “making the best of it,” but if it means accepting the way things are, then no thank you.

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      1. Hi Maia,
        It’s a while since you wrote this but I remember the story it got headlines down here in the South Pacific for a while. Is Zimmerman racist? or is he just a bigot! Your post is remarkably inciteful and incredibly well written, I am sure your writing will go places you haven’t dared dream of. But I digress, John Schwartz, was not very tactful but makes the point that racism, xenophobia, prejudice is a global phenomenon and nothing new. Unfortunately race is an easy target for those seeking to find differences and I think most New Zealanders were appalled but we have had similar cases where the gunman has walked. The last I remember involved the shooting of a kid who was tagging a shop wall. Even worse, we don’t have a ‘5th Amendment’ and hand-guns are forbidden, he was prosecuted under several laws found guilty and had the sentence commuted. I don’t think it was racist but there is prejudice and typically it involves those who dress, look or sound different. If that involves an identifialbe group representative of poor then courts and jury’s world wide seem more likely to favour the majority, model citizen. If the USA did not have it’s slave legacy cases like this would still happen but they would be based on religion, ethnicity, neighbourhood, age(youth’s can be damn scary), manner of dress…..
        Now if I have given the impression that I disagree with your post, I apologise, my writing skills are not equal to yours. Rather I totally agree with it but would make the point that racism is the obvious prejudice, it is less clear when race is missing but persists anyway. It is human nature to categorise people according to what we think we know. Zimmerman seems to have reacted out of racism but was it fear or hatred, maybe even he doesn’t know, should he have walked? I haven’t seen the transcripts and it sure sounded like he shouldn’t have but then they only feed us the sensational stuff, gotta be there I think.
        Some interesting novels that give a historic context to racism are James A Michener: The Covenant, and Chesapeake; Maurice Shadbolt: Season of the Jew; Bryce Courtnay: The Power of One. Lastly ‘Ask that Mountain’ by Dick Scott relates the history of a small conflict, the first indigenous pacifist protest movement and the response of English culture to that (It parallels to some extent what happened to North American Indians but I have found most people find it is easier to feel outrage at what others have done rather than within ones own community). John said make the best of it, bollocks, we’ve come a long a way as the above stories show but we’ve got a hell of a long way to go to overcome basic human nature.
        Cheers
        Graeme

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  4. As one who crossed that Selma bridge for two years to teach in the African American middle and high school not yet integrated in fall of 1966 I found this essay powerful but sad. The power lies in your thought provoking words while the sadness is evoked because while much has changed nonetheless too much remains the same!

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  5. Reblogged this on Berna's Vibe~The Way I See IT and commented:
    I totally dig this write! I absolutely love the honesty seeping through the words..IF only all of us were this honest with ourselves regarding the Black/White thing in our country. This dialogue is far overdue…On both sides. WE can do this together. And for our children, ALL of our future generations, we must

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      1. Thanks go to you my blogging friend..I appreciate your outlook..Honestly? I think it takes far more courage for you to write on this topic; than for me. Loads of respect for that!

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  6. I’m thinking back to a time when I moved to Cleveland in the late 1980’s. I lived in a middle class neighborhood with a large African American population. I took a walk through the local park and felt a sense of discomfort and fear when I saw large groups of black boys standing around in what I assumed was gangster gear. It turned out I was wrong–these kids were not gang members. In fact they were the sons of well-to-do lawyers and doctors and teachers. I had misinterpreted their outward appearances as ones of menace, when in fact they were mere fashion statements. Within a year, I had rewired my faulty alarm system and knew the difference between a regular African American high school student and a young man who might have trouble on his mind (granted, my “radar” was not perfect, just better than it had been). I think we need to recognize that snap judgments are universal and often help us identify danger. But if we do not understand our neighbors we are likely to misinterpret the signs. I do the same thing with white people, but my “alarm system” is far more accurate because I understand the culture better. I am not suggesting that Zimmerman had this type of issue–I think he suffers from overt racism–but I think part of the overall issues is that people who do not understand one another are more likely to fear one another without reason.

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    1. Heartfelt Maia!!!

      Also, to those readers who say there are no protests against the violence occuring in this country or here in Chicago, I invite you to join my church’s weekly protest to stop the violence…www.saintsabina.org

      These Friday evening community marches have proven themselves successful in the reduction of crime in the area, but yet I agree more needs to be done. Encouraged by your voice Maia!!!!

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      1. Thanks so much, Ernie. I know you and others are working hard for safer neighborhoods in Chicago. I just want that awareness to reach the rest of the nation!

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  7. Beautifully done! I love the way you have put this issue into perspective, and have acknowledged that in some ways we are all both the victim and the perpetrator, we all play a part in what allows one to oppress another, no matter the color of our skins.

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    1. Thank you, Deborah. Though I’m not sure I’d put it quite that way. My intention was to highlight the fact that those of us who are privileged by a racist system may unwittingly perpetuate it.

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