I Am Not Trayvon Martin: Some Thoughts on White Privilege
Sunday morning saw a proliferation of hoodies on my Facebook home page. Hoodies and status updates shouting, “We are all Trayvon Martin!” Or sometimes, “We are all Trayvon’s mother.” These were posts by liberal, thoughtful white people -- teachers and homemakers, professors and artists. I get the point. It’s a show of solidarity. And even though it’s just Facebook -- even though you’re not, say, marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 -- still you’re showing up and saying you’re sickened by the blatant racism and brutality of this incident. You’re sickened by the fact that some people are still protesting that racism has nothing to do with the murder of an unarmed seventeen year old black boy. At least that’s what I think you’re saying. But after I closed my laptop and went on with my day, I felt unsettled about all the well-intentioned white people on Facebook shouting “We are Trayvon.” Because it’s not enough. And it’s not the whole picture.
I had an African American studies professor in college who joked that white liberals wanted t-shirts that said “Not me.” The white kids in the class (including myself) laughed uncomfortably. It’s true. White people do some absolutely horrifying things, and I would like everyone to know I am not that kind of white person. (I’m not saying that white people are the only ones capable of committing atrocities against fellow human beings – and animals and the environment -- I’m just saying, historically, we’ve really outdone ourselves.) So there’s that. Saying “I am Trayvon” is a big NOT ME. And that’s ultimately worth something. It’s meaningful to state where you stand. It’s important to identify as an ally in the fight against institutionalized injustice and bigotry. Further, I understand that there are white people -- folks in the LGBTQ community, women -- who deeply understand being a target for hatred and violence simply because of the body you were born into. I get that they identify with this young man and others who are brutalized. I get that a young, white woman who’s been told that her outfit was the reason she was raped can grasp on a gut level why it’s messed up that a black kid in a hoodie has a target on his back.
I get that we feel horrified, disgusted and helpless in the face of laws that apparently allow a grown man to stalk and kill a teenager and a culture that seems determined to minimize the ugly reality of racism at every turn, to whitewash it, make it invisible so that white people can’t even see ourselves for who we are.
But here’s why it’s not enough. While you may have the best of intentions and even some valid reasons to identify with Trayvon and his family, while you may truly believe “We are all Trayvon Martin” there is also reason for good, white liberal people to admit something much harder to say:
We are all George Zimmerman.
Some of you will misunderstand why I say this. You’ll say, “Why should I feel guilty for something I didn’t do, something I find abhorrent, something I could never begin to contemplate?” That’s not what this is about. It’s not about white guilt. As far as I’m concerned, guilt is just another excuse to throw up our hands and say we can’t change anything. I’m saying let’s be brave enough to look at what’s really happening in this country and the role we play in it as individuals. Look with clear and critical eyes at the ways race plays out in the U.S. George Zimmerman made assumptions about Trayvon Martin because of the color of his skin. He deemed Martin a threat because he was a black teenager in a place where he wasn’t supposed to be, because to Zimmerman he looked like a hoodlum. Maybe you never make those kind of assumptions. Maybe you would never act on them. But I don’t think, if we’re being honest, that any of us born and raised in this culture can say we are immune to some racist beliefs. For starters, I think it’s worthwhile to continue to check and challenge our own assumptions about race and privilege.
But we know racism is not merely the sum of individual acts like Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin. It is part of our legislative and judicial systems, part of our social fabric. And sometimes it’s harder for those of us who are privileged, sheltered by the status quo to see it for what it is. The Newton, Connecticut shooting was a terrible, terrible thing that understandably shook and devastated people. But where is the public outcry for the black children who are being gunned down every day in Chicago and other U.S. cities? Where are the status updates speaking out against the school to prison pipeline?
I’m sure some of the folks who posted “We Are All Trayvon” are already active in their local and global communities around issues of race (and class, gender and sexual orientation). They have written and called their congress people and senators to demand that they restore the Voting Rights Act. They've refused to patronize retailers like the Gap until those companies sign the international accord to ensure safe workplaces for garment workers in Bangladesh. They give time and resources to organizations that invest in young people of color in meaningful and visionary ways. They know status updates are not enough.
People of integrity have to do more than wring our hands and talk about tragedy. It’s overwhelming to think about the impact of all of our actions -- the things we buy, the neighborhoods in which we choose to live, the schools where we send our children. And I realize that there are differing degrees to which people have the capacity to choose these things. But I think we all need to look at every choice we make -- and ask ourselves what and whom are we supporting by our actions, and whether it’s what we want to support. What are the ways in which we perpetuate racism in our communities or simply let it go unchallenged? What beliefs in ourselves do we still have to confront? I don’t have the answers. I’m just saying we should be brave enough to ask.
Let’s be brave enough to push ourselves beyond “Not me.” Let’s look with clear eyes at the ways white people with the best of intentions may still contribute to racist institutions, may still cause harm to young people like Trayvon. Let’s ask ourselves what we can do to be better allies against racism. What we can do to be better human beings.