i've been waiting awhile to write something about trayvon. it's been about a week since i first saw his story on my twitter feed. (maybe it was there sooner, but i was distracted with work in az.)
i have so much sadness for this situation, and it took me awhile to put into words why. because i tend to be pollyanna-ish about racism. i like to think that i'm not racist (or rather, that if racism is a spectrum, i come in on the low end), and i try to see the people around me as human beings that might have different experiences and culture, making them sometimes different from me ... but never with a different worth or validity. and i guess i tend to assume that those around me (for the most part), are striving to do the same.
the first time i was slapped in the face with the reality that there is more racism around me than i may realize was when steve and i were dating and he told me that there were racists in new york too. i challenged him on it, and he told me a few stories of people who had approached him, knowing that he grew up in the south, and thinking that they could say racist things to him that they knew they couldn't say to others (aka someone like me). i couldn't believe it. in my white, suburban, middle-class world, racism was something we learned about in american history class in 11th grade, denoted by plessy v ferguson and MLK. it was something that old men in the south perpetuated, not young people in new york state.
there were a few black kids in my school and in my grade. i was friends with them, and so was everyone else. they were popular, even. but i didn't understand the idea of assimilation (or think twice about why it was "easy" for us to be friends with them, and whether or not it was "easy" for them to be friends with us) until i saw on facebook that one of my closest black friends from high school had gotten two big tattoos on his biceps in college--one of the puerto rican flag and the other of the jamaican flag, to symbolize the heritage of each of his parents. i had known that his parents were each of jamaican and puerto rican descent, but i had no idea that this heritage meant so much to a kid who had worn abercrombie and fitch and ran cross-country ... which was basically the status quo at my high school. and it wasn't all white wonderbread all the time at my school, either ... i read zora neal hurston and ralph ellison in high school ... i guess that was supposed to give me a window into racism and the black american experience. but i'm not sure that it really did.
i think one of the best things i ever did was work in an urban school. it was only for a year, but it allowed me an up-close, get-to-know-you relationship with the kind of kids trayvon is now symbolizing. you're not supposed to have favorites, but one of my favorites was a kid named elijha. he was sensitive and sweet, and wrote poetry. he was also in a small gang of freshmen. one of my proudest moments (not just as a teacher, but as a human being) was talking to him about the gang, and trying to ask him questions to help him think about it ... like why was he in the gang (for protection, to belong, identity, manhood, etc) ... and were these guys really his friends .... and was it worth it to be in a gang if part of that membership meant fighting with someone you liked (in the context of that week, his gang was scheduled to spar with another group of boys, and as part of his initiation/loyalty, he had to fight a kid from the other group ... a kid he actually liked and got along with). on the day of the fight, he stayed after school with me "for extra help with algebra," though we did more hanging out than we did math. a few days after that, he showed me his notebook of poems, and while they were riddled with 15 yr old sex (yikes!! why is this kid showing me this??), i felt like he and i were not teacher and student, but two human beings relating to one another, sharing the best of what we had to offer, and hopefully making eachother's lives the better for it.
(side note: there was one student i was seriously afraid of, especially one day when he stood up to me and towered over my 5 ft, female frame. this kid was also in a gang, and was actually arrested for jumping a 40 yr old with his friends. their weapons included a two by four and bricks. he was a drug dealer and was in my class because he'd failed. he was white. and scary. there were definitely kids to be afraid of in that school, but it wasn't because of the color of their skin ... it was more because of the choices they made and the lack of positive adults around them to make better choices. or at least that's my inexperienced take on it.)
in that year, i learned that a lot of the things that are stereotypically "black" are actually more true of poverty. things like crime, gangs, drugs, desperation. i read random family and sat in on lectures by a life-long teacher in that district. she told about how her teaching strategy had changed to not expect kids to have things like light-bulbs and free time at home. she shared stories of learning the culture of the students in her classes, and adapting her teaching strategies to help them so that their success wasn't dependent on an unfair assignment (ie watch the debate on tv at home and write a summary due tomorrow), but on their ability to think and perform (which could be done by showing the debate in class and assigning the writing in class, etc).
the following year, we moved to arizona. i don't know if you've been there before, but there aren't really any black people. there are lots of minorities and disadvantaged groups (hispanics, american indians, middle eastern populations), but it doesn't look the same as it does on the east coast or in the south. i moved there thinking i would brush up on my spanish. do you know that the only person i ever spoke spanish with was a dishwasher when i worked in the restaurant? he spoke little english and so he would work on his english with me, and i would work on my spanish with him. it was awesome, because he was the nicest, most positive person i worked with. we were also both very good at miming or pointing to what we needed. his name was marcos, and he was always smiling, and thinking of him makes me smile now.
in tucson, there are invisible lines. there are areas where all the hispanics live, and the grocery stores are the food city, and the churches are in spanish. then there are areas where english is spoken and the grocery stores are safeway and albertsons, and the churches are full of white people. there are white people who will say things like "i never go south of speedway--it's not safe there." it always bugged me because i'd been south of speedway plenty of times ... and while there were more poor people there, and more drugs in certain neighborhoods, the shooting of a congresswoman that got national attention occurred in the more posh white part of town. there are a few areas where there is more intermingling, but it's mostly in the middle class neighborhoods. and i have to admit, the last 6 months that we lived in our apartment complex, a hispanic family moved in across the little alley, and it was refreshing to live in arizona and hear people speaking spanish to each other, after having lived there for 18 months.
and now we live in baltimore. a city that is 2/3 black. steve and i made a conscious choice to not go to the church near johns-hopkins ... mainly because it was full of other hopkins people, and we prefer to not live in a bubble. instead, our church looks like baltimore ... mostly black with some white people and a few asians. i'm really proud of the fact that we have two pastors--one black and one white--and that on a sunday morning, you might hear a rap from the worship team. i'm not always comfortable in our church, because the reality is that i'm not the main demographic of the culture they're ministering to ... i'm white, i'm not bmore-born-n-raised, i've got a grad degree, and i'm white collar. but that's ok for me, because i know our church is a church that i could bring my neighbors to, and not have them feel awkward, be they black or white.
i don't know how to fix racism. and i'm sure i've said things in this post that can be misconstrued or sound racist to the right ear. but instead of being afraid of sounding like a racist to someone, i want you all to know (whoever you are, wherever you live, and whatever your race or situation in life) that race is something i think about ... on the regular. the reality is that i just try to do what i can to treat humans like humans. and today in target, i smiled at every small black boy i saw, because i want each one of them to know that i'm going to do my best to see them the same way i see other boys--as cute kids, not as potential predators. and i made eye contact with every person i encountered, and smiled, and said things like "i'm sorry, let me get my cart out of your way" when we were maneuvering in the aisles. because that's what decent human beings do for other human beings.
and i guess this idea of our humanity is what gets me most about trayvon ... is the fact that one human took another human's life, without an eye-witness, without that other person having any weapons on them ... and somehow, the person who did the killing (even if it was self-defense) is still free. i'm sorry, but whiskey tango foxtrot?? where is the law?? where is the justice?? if it was a mistake, we'd call it manslaughter. even if i can assume that the details were ambiguous, and race wasn't an issue, there still should have been an arrest by now. we're clear on who killed who, and the person who took another person's life has gone nearly a month without any kind of retribution other than the outcry on twitter.
i just can't make sense of it. this is why i couldn't write. i was dumb-founded ... do i not understand how the law works?? am i just being pollyanna again??
and then i thought more about it, and i talked it out with steve on the car ride back from new york, and i realized, that in some ways, to a white woman from the suburbs, trayvon encapsulates all the small bits of racism that add up to one great big mass.
i admit it, i've seen a black dude on the street and though twice about where my wallet was ... it doesn't happen every time i see a black guy, but i do admit that it happens. so maybe thinking that trayvon was "suspicious" is something that many of us can admit to, when we're really being honest with ourselves. but then there was the fact that zimmerman ignored the instructions to not pursue the boy. isn't that where he stopped having the law on his side?? where he went rogue?? how the hell did he end up shooting an un-armed kid, and not just shooting him, but killing him??
and how do the police just take his word for it, that the killing was in self-defense?? how do they bag the child as a john doe, even when he had a cell phone on him?? how do they not identify him to him dad until his dad reports him as a missing person?? how do they go to the dad and use a photo of him, dead, with blood coming out of his mouth, to ID trayvon??
aside from the actual shooting of an unarmed child, most of these infractions can seem ... well ... to be misguided if taken one at at time. the marking the kid as a john doe ... ok, so they didn't look at the phone or records to figure out who he was. not cool, but maybe they overlooked it. or the poor choice for a photo to ID the kid ... insensitive and unkind are words we could use, but again, if that were the only thing done wrong, i guess i could chalk it up to a cop having a bad day at work and not thinking twice about it.
my problem is that i see these seemingly "small" infractions all the time. and i'm afraid to cry racist on the offending party. i'm afraid to wrongly accuse someone of something that has become signified by lynching mobs and the kkk. but with trayvon, it's all there. you can't ignore all the details that all add up to some serious racism that cost a human his life, and yet somehow still to this day, doesn't add up to an arrest. this one poor kid, in a nutshell, embodies all the little bits of racism that i turn a blind eye to ... whether it's willingly, or whether it's out of hopeful optimism that we live in a "post-racist" culture.
and because i see too much of myself ... or people like me who may too often turn a blind eye ... in zimmerman and the sanford police ... this is why i couldn't put this all into words. because i don't want to think about how the little things i let go can add up to a child losing his life. i don't want to think about how my complaisance can play a role. i want my kindness in target to be enough. i want it to be enough that my experiences working with urban kids opened my eyes and changed the way i thought. i want a tweet or a linked post to show that we who try to be on the lower end of that racism spectrum are not the minority of white people.
but what catches in my throat is the idea that it's not enough. that clearly, with a child dead, this problem is bigger than i want it to be.