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A post script on race, responsibility, and Trayvon Martin

20 July 2013

The response to my letter about the Trayvon Martin case has been nothing less than overwhelming. Tens of thousands of views. Hundreds of comments. Shares I could not count. I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to know that my message is thought worth reading, sharing, and commenting upon. So many of those comments were expressions of allyship, of solidarity, and of love. Many others engaged critically with my words in productive and meaningful ways. To those comments, and the uncounted tweets and emails, I can only say ‘thank you.’

Others were not so heartening. Many were filled with hate, fear, or contempt. Most saddening, many were knee-jerk reactions of denial, accusation, and blame. Though I fear that those ears and eyes may be closed, I feel I must try again. It is to those authors that this post script is addressed.

True colours

Am I a racist? The suggestion, or outright accusation, has been frequent. In addressing myself to ‘whites,’ have I revealed myself prejudiced against them? I addressed my letter to whites because in the many reflections and comments I saw from white pundits and bloggers on this verdict, there seemed always the same incomprehension. Even those who shared our sadness and our outrage seemed not quite to understand where, for us, they came from. So I decided to reach out to them whose incomprehension hurts me greatly and themselves not at all. I tried to add light where I saw only heat, to engender dialogue in the hopes that even though this verdict would not of itself bring recognition of the experiences of the black community, it might yet bring forth opportunities for understanding. Some, it seems, heard only accusations. Some, it seems, could not get past my choice to address them, directly, and speak about how the system that serves them hurts me. Some, it seems, could not bear even to read of the realities of their own privilege.

Is it race-baiting to speak out about the experience of racism? Am I stirring up racial tensions? Fomenting racial unrest? So many voices cried that Zimmerman is not white (he is of mixed white and Peruvian ancestry, I don’t know whether his mother is of indigenous American, European, or mixed ancestry), that I am not black (I am mulatto and never claimed otherwise; it does not exclude me from being seen as black or seeing myself as a member of the black community), or that race does not matter. They called me a political opportunist and a race-baiter and a bigot and a hundred things besides. They told me that I am the problem because I have made this about race. Is it really race-baiting to speak from my experience, as a member of the black community, of systemic racism? Is it truly political opportunism to reach outside of my community and try to share some understanding about that experience?

Two questions have oppressed my mind. The first is why just talking about racism make me a racist? The second why the victims of racism are not allowed to set the terms in talking about it?

Pointing fingers

I know that anti-white racism is very real, and I will not apologise for it. Every prejudice and every bias is destructive, blinding us to one another’s humanity. But I will not concede that the racism faced by whites is a problem on any order close to that faced by blacks. More than that, I will not allow the comparison of individual experiences of personal racism to derail this conversation because the real different is one of kind, not one of degree. Sometimes you face personal racism from blacks. All of the time we face structural inequality based on race.

That is my retort to those who called my words hypocritical, who saw mock rage over an imagined slight and wilful blindness to the responsibilities of blacks for our own misfortune. To those who look at blacks and see criminality, violence, and threat. Who look at statistics of disproportionate levels of violent crime among black men and they see their own racism vindicated. Who cite rates of ‘black on black’ violence as though they proved that violence is in our blood, as though it made my sadness at institutional racism rank hypocrisy, as if I were not allowed to write about the death of one without blaming myself for all the others. I ask who among them has ever shed a tear for these victims of poverty and systemic violence. I hold out little hope for a single ‘I.’

“Where is your outrage?” they cry. “Where is yours?” I reply.

The letter of the law

My words to you were not about the law. I spoke from the heart, about hearts, and, I hoped, to hearts. What I wanted most to say in my letter was that this case meant more to my community than the verdict of one court. This story wasn’t about the laws of Florida, about one man and one jury and one judge. This was a story we all know, though the characters were new. Once, not so very long ago, the role of Trayvon Martin was filled by a certain Emmett Till. Even now it is playing out again, though this time a one Howard Morgan is the principle character. To us this was the story of lifetimes of accumulated injustices, played out in a thousand different places at a thousand different times and with a thousand different names but always the same.

And on every replaying we are reminded by a world that would seem gleeful were it not so cold that our lives matter less. Our killers are always justified, our actions always suspect, our calls for justice always unjust. We are reminded that we are not your equals. We are reminded that this is what you mean by ‘justice.’

Writing history in braille

The story of racism is not history. Wishing will not make it so. So many voices cried that I see racism only because I look for it, that whites have ‘moved on’ and so should I. They are wrong. If whites have moved on it is because they have looked away and chosen not see, have chosen to let the blindfold of privilege hide the suffering of those without the privilege of wearing it. Such whites are blinded by their own hands. Thankfully, many have peeked out from under the fabric of privilege, have chosen to see the face of the world and not the fuzzy outlines that pierce the fabric and look like equality, like black entitlement, like ‘reverse racism.’ But what is to be done of the blind?

Perhaps we shall have to write our story in braille and call it history. Perhaps then they will see.

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. JanCorey permalink
    20 July 2013 5:19 pm

    It was great that Sybrina Fulton will use Trayvon’s name to expand his legacy, maybe with her own line of handgun-accessories like hollow-point-thug-bullets or perhaps some marijuana items like a Trayvon-brand-pot or maybe some bongs and roach clips or maybe some burglary tools like crow bars, lock-cutters, and glass cutters or maybe have a t-shirt with a gun-target on it with a picture of Trayvon inside the bullseye.

    • Carol-Ann Phillips permalink
      20 July 2013 6:10 pm

      Your lack of compassion for this WOMAN who has had to bury her son is beyond my ability to comprehend. As a person, I find it truly sickening to read your hate filled comments about this mother. When you wake up you will recognize that you are this woman and she is you. Hopefully it will happen sooner rather than later.

    • 23 July 2013 3:25 pm

      JanCorey There is something seriously wrong with you. You should seek help. Evil, disgusting comment!

  2. 20 July 2013 5:56 pm

    Some people can be reached. They’re maybe ignorant, maybe just not paying attention, maybe in their own bubble. These statements which simply describe what it’s like to be marginalized can reach those people. And those people, the reachable ones, will slowly turn around as they think through their own opinions, and begin to question what they’ve been told. Perhaps the world is bigger than what they’ve experienced.

    Some people are unreachable. Good, sincere, Christian people what are utterly convinced they have everything in a neat tower of theology and practice. Church, school, home. No room for the unwanted and unwatched and unwashed. I don’t think these people can be reached, not at first, not until their tower falls down.

    You’ll get both people responding, of course. The reachable ones will be all over the map–some will be starting their journey of rediscovering their humanity. Some will be well along the way.

    And the unreachable ones, fully convinced they have no lumber mill in their midst producing logs of just the right size to fit in their eyes, will simply try to derail the discussion.

    It’s too bad there’s such a mix, but that’s what we have. Wheat and tares. Sheep and goats. Wise and foolish. You still sow the seed.

  3. Carol-Ann Phillips permalink
    20 July 2013 6:35 pm

    What a sad person.

    ________________________________

  4. Kristy permalink
    20 July 2013 8:27 pm

    George Orwell once said, “In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” For any of a thousand reasons, the most basic of which is sheer laziness, in my opinion, those of us who live in a state of privilege have deceived ourselves and each other for too long, Matt, and it’s high time for some truth. I’d rather face an ugly truth, especially when I’ve had a part in creating it, than surround myself with self-satisfying lies.

  5. jrickford permalink
    20 July 2013 8:39 pm

    Matthew: I’m delighted to have been the first to respond to your terrific post, after seeing your URL in commentary on my own blog at http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=5161.

    I’m working on a new blog now about Dialect Prejudice, Race and Criminal Injustice in America, for I don’t think the focus of our analysis and action should be Zimmerman, who is just one individual who benefited from the “system,” but the millions of black (and brown) people who are unjustly treated in the courts because of racial and dialect prejudice.

    Think about it. Zimmerman’s defense attorneys said in reaction to President Obama’s news comments yesterday that the verdict in this case was in line with the “facts.” But as Mark Geragos has reminded us on CNN, “facts” are filtered through the prism of one’s experience and prejudices.

    Allthough Rachel Jeantel knew MORE about Trayvon Martin and about the lead up to the tragic events of February 26,2012 than any other witness, we’ve learned from juror B37 that the jury didn’t BELIEVE her and couldn’t UNDERSTAND some of what she was saying.

    Think about the fact that jurors didn’t bother to ask for clarification of her testimony, any more than they bothered to ask for specific, follow-up clarification of what “manslaughter” meant. This was both an injustice to Jeantel and to Trayvon. Rachel was the closest proxy in that courtroom to Trayvon, the glaringly, achingly absent eye-witness.

    Now think about the millions of African American vernacular speakers who get stopped, prosecuted and jailed in disproportionate numbers because of their race (recall Geragos’
    comment–contra juror B37–that 90% of what happens in courts depends on race). AND
    because of dialect misunderstanding and prejudice (recall the ugly, ignorant and dehumanizing things that were said about Jeantel on social media because of her dialect.)

    How many AAVE speakers, I wonder, suffer injustice because judges and juries find their
    testimonies incredible, filtering them through the prism of racial and dialect prejudice?

    Note that I’m all for helping African American and other vernacular speakers develop fluency in writing, reading and speaking Standard English in addition to their vernacular (like many, Jeantel already understands understand standard English “very well”), so that they have two communicative tools or “weapons” (if you will). But we must not assume a one-to-one relationship between the kind of English (or language) one speaks and justice or truth.

    Recall James Baldwin’s 1979 remark: “We should not forget that it was in perfect standard English, in the Dred Scott decision, that the court said that Black people had no rights that the White man must respect.” And, on the flip side (relevant since Jeantel’s mother is Haitian): “For the normal, unpretentious Haitian, use of Creole is the symbol of truth … and French is the language of bluff, mystification, and duplicity” (Hall 1966, Pidgins and Creoles).

    I should also add that the prosecution failed to help Jeantel (and Trayvon) get justice or a proper hearing in this case by not preparing or presenting her adequately. Ideally (if controversially) they should have had a translator or interpreter for the most crucial parts of her testimony, and had someone read out loud the written transcripts that Don West kept putting before her, (since it seems that while her speaking ability in complex, grammatical vernacular is fluent, her reading ability is not).

    I’ll develop this and this points in another forum, but thank you again for getting this important dialogue started on your site.

  6. 21 July 2013 12:09 am

    Please, stop with the ablest metaphors.”Writing history in braille”? Really? A communication system used by an oppressed group becomes your metaphor? Physically blind suggests morally blind? Please, stop it. Get a little education about language and disability and all that stuff. And then write more awesome stuff about race.

    • 21 July 2013 7:43 pm

      John, you are asking a writer not to use metaphor? Should Matthew just paint descriptive pictures, instead? Metaphor has been a function of writing since the creation of clay tablets. Have a little more sense before you criticize. If you want to avoid metaphor, go read a tech manual and stop reading blogs.

      • 21 July 2013 9:07 pm

        Not to use an OPPRESSIVE metaphor. But go ahead, take up the privileged position and tell us that we are wrong to complain.

      • eila permalink
        23 July 2013 12:42 pm

        Thank you, John!
        Metaphors that imply that disability characteristics equate with “bad” or lower moral standards, codes, capacities, functioning, etc. are absolutely OPPRESSIVE to an entire class of humans who live with non-normative physical, sensory and neurological characteristics.

        At this point in history, it’s still only thoughtful able-bodied folks that are able to follow the line of reasoning that John raises issue with— those are the people who will change language habits as a result and hopefully set new trends.
        People with disAbilities are already so utterly disenfranchised and invisibilized in every aspect of society, including civil rights dialogues. Phil’s cruel response is typical- he would rather we crawl under a rock than raise our voices.

  7. Rhavimom permalink
    21 July 2013 12:44 am

    Your post script was well written, thank you! I also appreciated the comments from jrickford…your point regarding people discounting, judging AND not REALLY hearing Trayvon’s friend during her testimony should make us all pause. I would like to connect one more dot. In a country where we have so many failing school systems, the likelihood that we can “quickly fix this” rings hollow. We’ve built an education system either intentionally or by lack of attention that “feeds” our prisons and starves the souls of our children. That being the case, how many scientists, economists, doctors, and teachers have we as a society “missed” and how many people have we sentenced to prison wrongfully. To me, these are frightening thoughts.
    One more thing. As a woman of color I was raised to be multicultural….I am fluent and comfortable with Caucasians as well people of color…….you have to be in order to prosper in the U.S.. I am encouraged to see that institutions of higher learning and major companies that do work globally are seeking out programs and creating opportunities for this type of learning and development…their colleagues AND the institution benefit.

    Funny, thing though independent of work or school, I think only a few Caucasian Americans would sign up for intensive study and learning about the diversity in their backyard. Fewer would see it as a means for them to prosper and grow if their career lack of interest and fear are the correct barometers.

    Quoting many that are much better known than me, it is time to “lean in”, “seize the moment”, and to “grab the ball and run with it”! Change is in the air…..

  8. Johnson permalink
    21 July 2013 4:55 am

    1.) You’ve already gotten my attention or I wouldn’t bother to post.
    2.) If you put whites on the defensive you won’t get too far in bridging the gap.
    3.) Please define what you mean when you say white privilege and systemic inequity.
    4.) Thanks for continuing to post.

    • 21 July 2013 5:43 am

      If you can’t get the “meaning of white privilege and systemic inequity” from reading the first blog and the consequent discussions, you can’t be helped, in my opinion, and are simply trolling.

      Blacks have NOT put the whites on the defensive, you put yourselves there by being a part of and perpetuating the continuing inequality of the application of laws/justice/free enterprise, etc… This is not a one time event…these types of events have been happening since our ancestors were first brought over in slave ships, and in no culture/race is this happening MORE.

      • Johnson permalink
        21 July 2013 6:30 am

        It’s not easy for me to view ALL whites or ALL blacks in one huge group. I’m reading what the author of this blog wrote as if he were writing it to me personally and I am responding in the same way.

        I’m just one person…I don’t control very much of what happens in the apartment building I live in let alone the neighborhood, city, etc. I feel your reaction to what I posted was a bit harsh, and yet I do realize this is that kind of subject.

        It would help me to be further engaged in this exchange if I knew exactly what is meant by those two terms. I hear them used frequently, but as I stated I’m unsure of how the author would define them. I’m listening and doing my best to examine these ideas.

        What I said about not putting whites on the defensive was intended as a reminder that people (on either side) cannot receive what you have to say, if they are put in the position of having to defend themselves. This said from wanting the discussion to continue, not as a way to silence anyone.

  9. 21 July 2013 5:44 am

    The word “you” is not to be taken personally, I am using it in its universal meaning.

  10. 21 July 2013 8:36 am

    “Please define what you mean when you say white privilege and systemic inequity.”

    Through the judicial lens of people of color, “white privilege” means the assumption of innocence until proven guilty. “Systemic inequity” is 400 years of being judged and marginalized by western european standards, a measure by which “all others” must succumb. I’ve traveled the world, Brazilian, Egyptians, Middle-easterns, Asians, South Africans; all look to “the standard that has tightly woven and inundated itself into the subconsciousness of the world’s people. The unraveling of these standards will take just as many, if not more years to bear fruit ripe enough for all to eat.

    • Johnson permalink
      21 July 2013 6:35 pm

      Floyd, thank you for your response. You are saying what I perceive as a basic right (innocent until proven guilty) is not afforded to blacks to such a degree as to be missing altogether. This is part of the reason why I think I get confused by the word privilege…however, if I felt it was not a right I had ever been afforded I can see why I would view it a privilege rather than a right.

      Furthermore, you are saying this kind of prejudice has so permeated society that it withholds basic kinds of rights or fairness from black people at all levels and across continents.

      Am I understanding you correctly here?

  11. 21 July 2013 11:14 pm

    Thanks again, Matthew, for your insightful response to some of the comments. (I think you have a lot more patience than I would in your situation.) I agree with nearly everything you’ve said here. And thanks, Floyd, for your comment, which clarifies Johnson’s question.

    Matthew, I’d only have one disagreement, with a locution you’ve used here: “racism against white people.” I don’t think it exists. It’s always seemed clear to me that “racism” refers not ONLY to individual behavior or attitudes, but includes *institutional* acts of violence that are enacted by our courts, our legal system, our schools, our government, our corporations, against nonwhite people. This goes all the way up to a foreign policy carried out by the U.S. and other Western nations in parts of the “Third World.” Speaking from a U.S. perspective, racism IS pervasive across all these institutions, public and private, that form a part of our culture and the ways we live within it. And they all have many entrenched modes of communicating, to us, their own agendas and their own self-protective needs, in ways that will inevitably influence our minds and our consequent behavior—as Floyd said, sometimes in unconscious ways.

    So, anyone may act out of rage or prejudice. Any individual might harass, insult, and even kill another person because of the color of their skin, or another physical trait that would cause them to dislike, suspect, or disrespect that person. But the thing is, when you’re black (and in some times and places, Latino, Native American, Asian, or Middle Eastern), you come up against state power in ways that white people experience only rarely, if at all. If, as a white person, you find yourself in a conflict with a nonwhite person, how would is the LAW likely to read the situation?

    It runs deep, and systemic inequity is closely linked with white privilege. A long time ago, as a young woman living in New York City, when walking alone or riding public transportation, I was treated to innumerable catcalls, come-ons, obscene gestures, and so forth—delivered by men of all races, but very often by black and/or Latino men. I hated it, and it was dehumanizing. (Even now, it makes me angry to remember it.) Sometimes I’d respond angrily, which of course only made matters worse. Eventually I learned to keep my eyes forward, my gait even and fast. I affected a tough demeanor and a no-nonsense, “don’t fuck with me” pose, in order to navigate the situation.

    Yet I also somehow knew that if push came to shove, the law would be, so to speak, “on my side.” There was no question about that. Moreover, because I was a white woman, and visibly so. So the police weren’t likely to pull me in, or dismiss me as a prostitute. Underlying my actions, there was that confidence: the certainty that, even iIN SPITE OF my “radicalism” and run-ins with the police on other matters, they would protect me on the subway or on the street. This send a strong message, as its opposite does. And this knowledge, this message that I was probably only dimly aware of at the time, surely affected my life in INNUMERABLE ways that enabled me to live differently—in a distinctly privileged way— than if I would have, had I been black or brown.

    This story is only one example among the many millions of what “white privilege” looks like.

  12. Kim permalink
    22 July 2013 1:14 am

    Black people have the same problems everywhere they live; maybe the entire world is out to get them. Or maybe they are just the lesser man among men. Better to blame white people.

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