The internet is been alive with rage and protest in response to the February 26th murder of 17 year old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL. Martin was a slight boy of 160 pounds armed with nothing more than candy, an iced tea, and black skin. He was gunned down in cold blood by a man with more than ten years and dozens of pounds of advantage on him who walks free and protected by Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law that categorizes his actions as self-defense. In the intervening weeks the focus has shifted from Trayvon to his hooded sweatshirt. I have to admit that I find this concerning. Why? Because America — white America — needs to sit up and admit the truth to itself and others: Trayvon was not shot because of what he was wearing. Trayvon was shot because he was black.
It’s all well and good that everyone’s putting on a hoodie and saying “I am Trayvon Martin,” but here’s the fact of the matter, white folks: You’re not, and white guilt isn’t going to change that. As a brilliant friend of mine said recently, “unpack your white privilege.” The hoodie is a red herring. It’s an excuse for America to blame something other than blatant and pervasive racism in this country for the death of this young man and, let’s be honest, thousands, millions just like him. It’s not ok that Trayvon is dead. It’s not ok that his killer walks free. It’s not ok that this country gives one race the power in this country. It’s not ok that this country sees other races and their children as expendable. It’s not ok that we’re not honest with ourselves about it.
Trayvon was somebody’s son. He was a young man with a future he will never realize. We will all miss out on what he could have been, because we can’t see beyond the end of our noses. Sitting in my class discussing race theory last week, the discomfort was palpable, because we can talk gender and class and sexuality until we’re blue in the face in this nation, but we still can’t talk race The class only had one American student of “non-white” decent (although, ethnically speaking, she’s Caucasian, but all that matters in this country is skin color, unfortunately), so the discussion was largely held by white people and a couple of newly-arrived international students who are new to the nuanced complexities of racial relations in America. The young white male leading the discussion was obviously unfamiliar with people not of his own race, and he said the magic words: “Well, I’m not a black person, so I don’t know how they feel.” And that did it for me.
Here’s the deal, folks. People are people. It’s not hard to imagine how they feel. They feel how you would feel about most things. They feel the same rage, helplessness, grief, loss, frustration, isolation, and injustice that any of us would feel when faced with discrimination, oppression, threat, and murder. Everyone loves their children. Everyone is devastated by their deaths. Everyone would come straight out of their skin if their child’s killer walked free. It shouldn’t take a stretch of the white imagination to recognize the black experience in this country. Granted, no one can be an expert on any direct life experience other than their own individual one, but we should be able to recognize when justice is done and when it isn’t. And we shouldn’t tolerate the latter regardless. And we shouldn’t have to focus on what a victim was wearing, whether the case is rape, assault, robbery, or murder. Saying the hoodie got Trayvon killed is no different than saying the low-cut, knee-length cotton sundress I’m wearing today would get me raped walking my dog around my neighborhood this evening. Clothing is a performance. Clothing is an excuse. It isn’t what makes criminals act out and hurt other people. Don’t get mad about the hoodie. Get mad about the person. Get mad about the national mindset that reduces the person to race or gender. Get mad about the truth that Trayvon is dead because he was young, black, and male, and THAT is what makes a person suspicious and somehow less than a person in America still. Today. In 2012. That is inexcusable.
I have to admit that my heart breaks every time I see Trayvon’s face in the media. In that child, I see in it the face of so many boys I know and love. It’s a sweet face. It’s a face I can’t help but think was the light of his family’s lives. I think about the friends he had. The friends he would have had. The people he would have loved. The people who would have loved him back. And how that’s not going to happen now. Why? Because he was young, black, and male, and in America something that we view as criminal. As threatening. As subhuman. As disposable. We need to fess up to that. We need to be honest with the fact that many of us cross the street when we see that coming, hoodie or no, and that’s not alright. It’s so not alright. That young black man is your neighbor. He’s someone’s son. Someone’s brother. Someone’s boyfriend. Someone’s friend. Someone’s nephew, lover, co-worker, classmate, pet owner, and a million other things that makes him human. His life, his experience is not different from your own, except that he has to live it as a young, black man in an America full of George Zimmermans. God, that has to be scary. Scary for him. Scary for his mother. Again, take a minute and imagine that. It shouldn’t be a stretch. I know I feel bad enough when people cross the street to avoid me with my big dog — and yes, that happens all the time. I know the small white girl isn’t the perceived threat. Well, I can’t tell you, but I can imagine what it must feel like to be seen as the threat yourself all the time, every day, 24/7. It’s got to feel awful. It’s got to color your life. It’s got to make you wish it would stop. And you know what? We need to fucking stop it already. Stop with the guns. Stop with the gated communities. Stop living in fear of the people who live down the street, walk down the street. Stop being afraid of ourselves. Shutting yourselves away and arming yourselves in fear. THAT, my friends, is what got Trayvon killed. When we take the time to know each other and what it’s like to be someone other than ourselves, it’s a whole lot harder to see someone else’s son as something you can shoot. It becomes a whole lot harder to pull that trigger.
I get the hoodie thing. I really do. It’s a brilliant protest icon. It’s a savvy rallying point. It’s something white people can put on and make them feel like they’re doing something. The semiotics of it is something we can all recognize. The sign and the signified work together beautifully in our brains that want to believe we can do something small that will wash our hands clean. But, if we learn anything from this case, if we are going to do Trayvon and the America that killed him any justice, we need to stop relying on what he was wearing to be our rallying cry for justice and start focusing on his humanity — and ours.
It seems simplistic and idealistic to say, but this case, this turning point, needs to be the last straw for us. We cannot let it go. The protest needs to be one of honesty and accountability. We need to not pretend like racism just showed up. Like it was just hiding somewhere in some Southern backwater and we’d forgotten all about it. We need to recognize that it’s here, all around us, everywhere, every day. It’s an experience every person of color lives with every minute of their lives in America. They don’t get to take a vacation from it. It’s their reality. “Post-racial American” is a myth that only exists in the mind of white people, because we are the only ones who can afford to believe in it. We (and by we, I mean EVERYBODY) need to stop treating people of different colors as “others.” We need to stand up for black men and stand against what we keep doing to them. We need to recognize our parts in it. We need to make the change meaningful and lasting.
When I did my first master’s degree, I wrote about an organization of women in the 1930s and 40s who ended lynching as an accepted practice in the South. It was called the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, and, with what they learned about community organizing from their roles in the preceding Commission on Interracial Cooperation, they worked to make it happen. Go ahead. Look it up. We don’t talk about them today, but we have them to thank for standing up for social justice and instituting social change because they dug in their teeth and they didn’t let go. It can happen, people. All it takes is saying, no. Enough. This man is a man. He is my brother, and I’m not having it anymore.
I am not Trayvon Martin, but Trayvon Martin was my brother. And I say enough. He was a man. He is our loss. And I’m not having it anymore.