I have spent a great deal of time in the last few weeks arguing the semantics of the Travyon Martin murder with friends and family who do not believe race had anything to do with the case and who think that George Zimmerman was likely justified in his shooting of Martin. We have gone back and forth about Travyon Martin’s past (suspensions from school and accusations of theft) and George Zimmerman’s past (history of aggression and paranoia). We have gone back and forth about what the 911 calls say about what happened and about whether Zimmerman’s injuries justified his violence or were merely an excuse for the murder.
These conversations had been frustrating the hell out of me, but I didn’t realize quite why until this weekend at the 13th Annual White Privilege Conference.
I was in a workshop led by the incredible Lee Mun Wah, and he remarked, “I’ve seen a lot of people saying or posting, ‘I am Trayvon Martin.’ I think that misses the point. I want to see people saying, ‘I am George Zimmerman’ because whether or not we want to admit it, every single one of us is socialized in a system of White Supremacy that says, ‘FEAR BLACK MEN.'”
Though there are likely some important conversations to have about the semantics in the case, they are not the root of the problem presented by the murder of Trayvon Martin and by the fact that George Zimmerman still has not been charged in the killing. The root of the problem lies in the decision by Zimmerman to follow Martin and to report him to the police as “suspicious,” “on drugs,” and “up to no good.”
In his remarks on the Trayvon Martin incident, President Barack Obama says that the teenager’s death necessitates a time of “soul searching” for us all. I believe Obama and Lee Mun Wah are encouraging the same thing, a process by which we consider just how we may have acted like Zimmerman in the same case – no matter how painful that realization may be.
When I facilitate a workshop and presentation entitled The Wall, I often tell a story about a time I was in Hong Kong. A friend and I were going to get some Thai food in a Thai immigrant neighborhood of the city, and we were told to keep an eye out for pickpocketing and mugging, as there were reportedly some groups of Thai young men who tried to take advantage of tourists. As I walked down the street, I passed Thai young man after Thai young man, but it wasn’t until I passed a Black man that I put my hand on my wallet.
I stopped and thought, “How does that make an ounce of sense? That in this cultural context, I would only fear the one Black man that I passed?”
It’s not hard to realize, though, just how much sense that makes. I was not taught by my grandparents, my parents, and my friends to fear Thai young men. The media did not flood my brain with images meant to caste Thai young men in a terrifying light (though the portrayal of Thai young men is not exactly a great one). The reality is that every aspect of my socialization in a culture built on White Supremacy has told me to fear Black men. Plain and simple.
And I’m not the only one!
In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander highlights a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
[The study] involved a video game that placed photographs of White and Black individuals holding either a gun or other object (such as a wallet, soda can, or cell phone) into various photographic backgrounds. Participants were told to decide as quickly as possible whether to shoot the target. Consistent with earlier studies, participants were more likely to mistake a black target as armed when he was not, and mistake a white target as unarmed, when in fact he was armed. This pattern of discrimination reflected automatic, unconscious thought processes, not careful deliberations (Alexander, p. 104).
Just like those who took part in the study, I have been taught to see Black men as criminal, as dangerous, even when they, in fact, pose no threat. There is a story (not sure of its truth) of a professor at the University of Colorado who used to have two people interrupt his lecture by running through the room and startling all of the students. It was always a Black man being chased by a White man carrying a (fake) gun. Nearly every time he conducted this exercise, when asked what they saw, the students would argue, many of them seeing a Black man chasing a White man with a gun.
It is notable that Lee Mun Wah, a man of color, was clear not to separate himself from the “I am George Zimmerman” critique of our discourse. Many people have noted that Zimmerman is half White and half Latino and that he has many friends of Color. Thus, race could not have played a factor in his judgement to follow and eventually engage Trayvon Martin.
In The New Jim Crow, though, Alexander goes on to point out that we are all products of racist socialization, regardless of how progressive we may think we are.
The fact that you may honestly believe that you are not biased against African Americans, and that you may even have Black friends or relatives, does not mean that you are free from unconscious bias. Implicit bias tests may still show that you hold negative attitudes and stereotypes about Blacks, even though you do not believe you do and do not want to. In the study described above, for example, Black participants showed an amount of ‘shooter bias’ similar to that shown by Whites . . . There is often a weak correlation between degrees of explicit and implicit bias; many people who think they are not biased prove when tested to have relatively high levels of bias (Alexander, p. 104).
Here’s the kicker:
Studies indicate that people become increasingly harsh when an alleged criminal is darker and more ‘stereotypically Black’ (think of Zimmerman’s words about Martin); they are more lenient when the accused is lighter and appears more stereotypically White (Alexander, p. 104 – To see citations for the studies she references, see p. 263).
We have to ask ourselves why Trayvon Martin was followed in the first place. Why was he noted by Zimmerman as being “suspicious,” “on drugs,” and “up to no good” when Trayvon was on the phone, carrying iced tea and skittles, and walking back to his father’s house?
These are the questions we must ask, and as we do so, we must undergo our own process of “soul searching.” We must consider the ways that we would have judged Trayvon Martin in much the same way that Zimmerman did. Further, we must consider the ways that we would have acted if we were the police officers called to the scene and saw a light-skinned Latino or White person who was rattled and had a bloody nose in contrast to a dark-skinned Black teenager laying on the ground, shot dead. Would we have questioned Zimmerman’s narrative in search of due process to charge him, or would we have acted in much the same way as the officers that night, in ways that ignored some evidence in favor of the evidence that reinforces our White Racial Frame.
In essence, rather than claiming that we are Trayvon Martin, perhaps we should all be considering the ways that we just may be George Zimmerman.