A post script on race, responsibility, and Trayvon Martin
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.
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?
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.