About a month ago, on February 26, 2012, a 17-year-old, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed. Sadly, as a black/African American boy/man, this isn’t surprising on the surface – it happens far too often in the US. This case, however, was a bit different than prior cases – it made it into the media. Whether it be by way of social capital – the class background of his parents – or the glaring injustice, after a few weeks, the story finally trickled into mainstream news and the incident that happened in Florida was featured on one of my friend’s Facebook posts, where I learned of it (in New York).
The details of the case are shady, at best. Afterall, Trayvon is dead and cannot account for his side of the story. George Zimmerman, who shot Trayvon, made many claims as to what happened that night and even as of late, there are many holes in his story.
The simple pieces that we know to date is that despite the claims by Zimmerman that he shot Martin in self-defense, Trayvon had no weapon on him. Trayvon was returning to his father’s fiancee’s home with Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea. Based on multiple pieces of evidence, the only thing he was apparently “guilty” of was being a black young man in America and wearing a hoodie.
Today I received an email from Colorofchange.org calling for the Republican National Committee to acknowledge the racial tensions and profiling of Trayvon Martin that likely lead to his death/murder. Sadly, I have serious doubts that this petition will make any difference in the rhetoric that is employed by the RNC and GOP, however, I wanted to contribute to the call. Below is the content of what I wrote and is but a fraction of what I could say about this case (I’ve added details in parenthesis). I recommend those interested in learning more about the racial tension in America and white privilege that often goes unacknowledged, to read a blog post by Erin K. Vest, “When a white boy wears a hoodie.” It matches up nicely to what I would also write.
I was privileged to grow up as a dependent in the military. My father was in the enlisted ranks, which is often far more racially diverse than the officer ranks. Systems of privilege and oppression were evident to me at a very young age and in retrospect, even the lack of racial diversity in the officer ranks signaled to me a deep divide in this country. It is ironic that those who fight for our freedoms do not have the same access to these freedoms.
As a result of living on base, the very first friends I had as a three and four-year old did not look like me – they were of Asian decent and African-American/Puerto Rican decent (and also had one white parent, to my recollection). This taught me very early that to recognize and acknowledge race is not a bad thing. I later learned that in fact, in a society where access to jobs is different when your name is Lateshia instead of Jennifer, it is important to recognize race in order to have empathy for the struggles that your friends confront because of what they look like.
In high school, one of my best friends, who was black, wasn’t in the same classes I was in. That despite the fact that I had been in a remedial english class in 9th grade, when I moved to a new school, my white skin put me on the fast track to college-prep courses while my friends who were black were taking entry-level and remedial courses, even though they were smarter than I was and also wanted to attend college. My best friend from that time has since received a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics.
When I walked with this best friend in the mall or went to the movies with my best friend, people stared at us – this behavior did not happen when I walked in these spaces with white friends.
People treat each other differently based upon race and to deny or ignore that is to remain complicit in old notions of race. It will take admitting our stereotypes and prejudices that we all learned in order to learn how to move beyond them.
Therefore, it is critical that the Republican party get on board with this discussion. It is not admirable to use or cling to color-blind ideology when you use it as a means to ignore different treatment and material consequences of race in America. It is important that we aspire to treat one another equally and equally important that we recognize that many are not treated equally – to do so, to fulfill the destiny of America and the principles of this country, we must have honest conversations about race. This will not be easy.
We’re all invited to the conversation. I hope you attend with an open heart and open mind. I hope that you attempt to understand life from someone else’s vantage point and instead of denying the reality of someone’s story, you attempt to genuinely listen. It will not be a comfortable process. It will take courage, strength, and integrity. The question is, are Americans, particularly white Americans, willing to work that hard?