Image via WinterArtwork.
[Trigger warning: Discussion of murder, racism, rape, and intimate partner violence].
On February 26 at 17-year-old Black teenager, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed by the head of the neighborhood watch of the (predominantly white) community where his father lives. While George Zimmerman, the murderer, claims that he was acting in self-defense there is pretty much no evidence to corroborate those claims. According to a 911 call Zimmerman made, he described Martin as “suspicious” apparently because he was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and walking slowly. At this point, Zimmerman hasn’t been charged with any crime, and the Sanford police reiterate that he was acting in “self-defense.”
But I think we can all be honest about this: Trayvon Martin was shot because he was a Black kid in America, and Zimmerman is currently free because he’s a white man. And in a white supremacist society like our own, when we assign values to people, the white man is always more valuable than a Black man.
And this is what happens when we assign these values. Innocent 17-year-olds are shot and authority figures do jack-shit because they’re racist and the institutions they work for — the judicial system, the police — that are supposed to protect us actually just protect the status quo. Imagine if the situation was flipped, if a Black man shot a white kid and then claimed self-defense. No one would have to raise awareness, no one would have to protest the lack of justice. It would be instant. That man would be in jail. Period.
But George Zimmerman is white, so he gets away with this, despite his confession, and despite Trayvon Martin’s family calling for justice. He knew, from his position of privilege, that he could shoot a Black kid for being Black and that when the cops came they would be predominantly white, and hold the same prejudices that he does, and not arrest him. That they would actually give him leading questions and guide his story before officially questioning him in the murder that he admitted to. Oppressive constructions of race need to be examined in this case. Because Zimmerman knew exactly what to say to the police to justify his shooting a young Black man. He called him “suspicious”, and in doing so employed racist ideas about Blackness that have been deeply ingrained in our society. The ideas that Black men are inherently dangerous, animalistic, deviant, and threatening. These are (untrue) notions that have been used since the founding of this country to oppress and justify the killing of Black people. Slavery was a way of “controlling” the “animalistic”, “wild” Africans who were kidnapped en masse and killed to create the economy of the United States and benefit the white people who lived here. Brutal lynching was the response to the “threat” of Black male sexuality as it was (and still is) constructed to the purity of white women. So, aware of this context, or at least of racist constructions of Blackness, given his own prejudices, Zimmerman called Trayvon Martin suspicious and then he shot him.
This is not the first time the Sanford police department has failed to address racially-motivated murders in the community. And it certainly is not going to be the last time something this horrific happens, because our system is fundamentally flawed, fundamentally racist, and engineered to oppress people of color. We’re all to blame when such racially motivated violence as this occurs. When I say we, I mean white people, and I do include myself. How many times have white women bought into myths about the scary, insatiable, dangerous Black male? Despite the fact that a woman is more likely to be raped by someone of the same race, one of the most pervasive rape myths is that of the stranger rape, at night, in an alley, where the victim is typically thought of as white and the assailant as Black. How often have I bought into that myth? How often have I believed racist ideas about Black masculinity and media portrayals of violent Black men and crossed the street just because a Black man walked toward me? Honestly, I don’t know if I can answer that question. Until I came into my feminist consciousness in the beginning of college, I had little knowledge of white privilege. I understood the existence of racism, but I did not understand the way I benefit from that system because I am white. And I did not realize just how much of the American racist ideology I had internalized until I really began to examine my own privilege.
And a certain aspect of that privilege is that I will never know what this is like. I will never know what Trayvon Martin experienced or what his family is experiencing now. I read this incredible post, “How Many More Trayvon Martins?” today (seriously, read this now), where the author explained, that, as a Black woman someday she is going to have to talk to her son about racism, about white people who hate him for being Black, about unmitigated violence like the murder of Trayvon Martin. She writes,
This is what Black and Brown folks go through when we decide to have children. I’m not saying that white people don’t have concerns when they raise their children, but this experience is uniquley ours. You can take a look at the statistics, and see that racial profiling the Black and Brown people have to deal with simply doesn’t apply to white people. For example, look at the NYPD’s “Stop and Frisk” practice. In 2011, they stopped a total of 684,330 New Yorkers. A total of the 87% of the people stopped and frisked were Black or Latino.
And she’s completely right. She goes on to say that white people don’t have to explain racism to their children. We don’t have to enumerate such threats to our children’s lives, we don’t have to explain racial oppression. But we should. We have to. We have to so this stops happening. Travyon Martin’s murder, and the subsequent collusion of the police department with Zimmerman, will play out again and again until white people acknowledge their privilege, which ranges from finding make up in the white “nude” shades to not being shot because of one’s race, and decide to fucking do something about it. We have to educate ourselves, understand the lies we have been told, understand the context of white supremacy that we have been indoctrinated in, and learn to check our privilege. We need to learn to shut up, and to listen to people of color, and we need to challenge our society and its institutions. Teaching Tolerance from the Southern Poverty Law Center is an excellent resource on how to be a white ally to people of color and how to understand your privilege. (And this is a great guide to being an ally as well).
We need to examine the media we see and our responses to it, which are often based in our own racism, even as progressives and feminists. Why was Herman Cain pushed out of a presidential campaign for allegations of sexual assault (please note, I am not defending Herman Cain, I think he’s a fucking scumbag), while Julian Assange is lionized as a persecuted liberal hero despite having allegedly raped two women? Why do we only ever talk about how Chris Brown assaulted Rihanna (again, not defending Chris Brown), and never about how Michael Fassbender abused his girlfriend, or how Sean Penn abused Madonna? And as quelola on tumblr points out, why do we only care about crimes against Black children when a Black man is the perpetrator (Joseph Kony) and yet there is seldom outrage when a white man kills a person of color?
Addressing this injustice is a change.org petition to charge Zimmerman with murder that keeps getting more signatures. Everyone should sign this, the more signatures and the bigger the outcry, the more likely a positive (as positive as it can be) outcome. And on March 21st you can wear all black in respect for Trayvon Martin and others who have been murdered as a result of racism and who have not seen justice.
(Note: I capitalized Black and not white in consistency with the style used in the article “How Many More Trayvon Martins?”)
Edited at 11:44 a.m. to link this post from the Crunk Feminist Collective which says everything I wanted to say but does a far better job.