I’m going to break blog silence today, and speak, as well as I can, about Trayvon Martin.
Have you heard his name yet? The 17-year-old boy who was shot dead by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman for carrying skittles and walking slowly home in the rain? Whose killer walked free without so much as a night in jail? Who you can hear screaming for help on the 911 tapes? Whose death screams were heard by a witness who was CORRECTED by a police officer when she said she heard Trayvon screaming for help?
It’s been a month now, and George Zimmerman is still free. This is far from an isolated incident, though the circumstances may make it more blatantly a travesty than some. This is what every black mother is afraid of every moment that her son is out of her sight.
Do you know what it is to be afraid for your child’s life? Not afraid that they will do something stupid, or there will be an accident – but that they will be killed, just for existing in their own skin.
All parents have moments of fear for their children. When they don’t nurse like you are told they should. When they fall off the bed the first time. When you turn around at the zoo and find them nowhere to be seen. As terrible as that lurching, dizzying pain is, it is mundane, normal, and thanks to my mostly-neurotypicality it lives in the background, only coming out occasionally.
This is the fear that black parents must live with every moment of their lives.
And in the end I know that if my son gets lost at the zoo, say, he can depend on not only his bubbly cuteness and his wits to find his way to safety, but on the color of his skin.
Because my son is white, he is not automatically seen as a threat as a black boy would be, even at the tender age of five. Imagine a five-year-old black boy wandering alone at the zoo – do you think people would be as quick to offer him help? They would justify their inaction by thoughts that “those people raise their children to be more independent, so he’s probably fine”; or they would call security rather than offering a kind word. And if you think I’m wrong, then you’ve deliberately chosen not to see what is right in front of you.
A few weeks ago we hired a couple of men to help us move. They were black men, charming and friendly and guys I wish I’d met before moving out of the neighborhood. One of them arrived early, and our next-door neighbor, who’s never even spoken to us, told him he looked suspicious for sitting on our doorstep, waiting for us to get back. Do you think a white man would have gotten the same kind of questioning?
Yesterday I took my son to the playground, where a young black boy about his age was already playing. My son barged in front of him and took over the toy he was playing with. I intervened, scolded my son, and took him to play on a different piece of equipment. My son is impetuous and not the best with his social skills, and might have done that to anyone – but I couldn’t help but wonder if he would have pushed so quickly in front of a white kid. I’ve done my damnedest to teach him to treat everyone as equally worthy of politeness, but I’m new at this myself and am fighting a world created out of white supremacist poison that seeps into all of us from the moment we are born. I try, I will keep trying, but it’s not enough, will never be enough – and still my discomfort is nothing next to the pain of a black mother who must fear for her son’s life every moment of every day.
White American culture teaches us not to see race, not to talk about it. Calling someone a racist is the worst thing you can do, worse than pointing out the sort of injustice that led to Trayvon’s death for Existing While Black. We live in a segregated society that allows us to continue our racist stereotypes unchallenged, allows us to live without ever even asking why it is that you don’t know any black people, or thinking because your one black friend acts totally “normal” (read: “white”) you’re totally not racist, nevermind that you never go to “those” parts of town or approach the black salesperson when a white one is free, or even realize that you never quite make eye contact or let your fingers touch the black cashier’s at the supermarket.
Yes, all these things are totally normal and happen every day. Don’t get in a huff and say “well, we’re not *all* like that!” Instead listen to the people of color who talk about these and countless other microaggressions happening to them every damned day, and then ask yourself why they might be a tad tetchy just because you “didn’t know it was rude” to come up and touch their afro without asking. (Would you touch a white woman’s hair without asking? Seriously?)
And if you’re still so convinced that you’ve never done anything like this, how about you get mad at the white people who do, rather than the black people who call it out for what it is – institutionalized, normalized white racism, designed and perpetuated for the purpose of making black people less than human, giving the prison-industrial complex fodder for its money machine without the need to muck about with tawdry things like evidence and justice.
If I sound angry, it’s because I am. And yet this is not about my life. I can post this secure in the knowledge that nobody will appear in the comments calling me a n****r because I too have the unasked-for power of my white skin protecting me. I wear black today in memory of Trayvon and his fallen brethren, but I can never take off my white skin or know what it is to be black in this country. I can witness, and listen, remember, and let people of color mourn in their own way, and try to speak up when I see other white people doing stupid racist shit.
You can do the same. Start by listening. And if you don’t know how to confront someone who is being a racist ass, consider that a well-placed raised eyebrow can work wonders. Don’t let it pass unremarked. Don’t laugh at racist jokes. If you don’t know if it’s racist, flip races and see if it’s still funny. (The same trick works for genders and sexist jokes.) Even if you don’t think you’re racist, this stuff gets in you and becomes normal because it’s so pervasive. Learn to see it. Learn to see.
My challenge to you: add some of these blogs to your feed reader, and take a few minutes each week to listen to the worldview of a POC.
Date: March 21, 2012