Why are so many White people invested in arguing that George Zimmerman was justified in shooting and killing Trayvon Martin? Why, when so many people of color are saying, “This is what racism looks like,” are so many whites saying, “No, no, you misunderstand. This is not about racism. This is about self defense!” Or faulty judgment, or a suspicious looking kid, or basically anything but racism.
I have a theory.
A depressing one.
White people don’t want to admit that George Zimmerman’s acts were motivated by racism because it is easy for us to imagine ourselves in the same situation, and we don’t want to admit that yeah, that in fact makes us racist.
Okay, so we can’t imagine ourselves following a kid we find suspicious. We can’t imagine getting into an altercation and shooting that kid. We don’t have a laundry list of documented racist and abusive behavior in our past. We don’t think of ourselves as vigilante cops. We can separate ourselves from Zimmerman’s personality, his rashness, and his bad decisions pretty easily.
But many of us can’t separate ourselves from the thing that set the events in motion on the night of Martin’s death: that moment when George Zimmerman perceived Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, as a troublemaker and a threat to his community.
Let’s face it: a huge number of White people look at Trayvon Martin’s photo, read the description of him on the night of his death, and think to themselves, “Yeah, I would have found that person suspicious and threatening, too.”
We wouldn’t have tracked him down and shot him, but maybe we would have called the cops on him. Maybe we would have watched him through our curtains. Maybe we would have called a neighbor and asked for their opinion. Maybe we just would have remarked to our friends later that the neighborhood just doesn’t seem as safe as it once did.
So when we read about Zimmerman and we see people calling him a racist, we want to defend him because we really want to defend ourselves. We don’t want to admit that the situation is rooted in intrinsic racism because that would mean admitting that we are racist.
And that’s the thing: we are.
I have used “we” and “us” and “our” throughout this post because I want to make myself clear: I am including myself in the problem here.
When Trayvon was first killed, and I first began to hear about the story, I was horrified by George Zimmerman. I still am. I knew I had nothing in common with him–nothing at all. It was only when I started trying to figure out why so many people were defending him that I began to believe that people must identify with him. White people identify with George Zimmerman over Trayvon Martin. That led to my holy crap moment: do I identify with him, too?
I don’t like to admit this because it’s embarrassing and contrary to everything I believe, but I have internalized a lifetime of subtle messages that tell me that Black men may be dangerous. I don’t believe these messages, and yet I have internalized them. In a previous post, I admitted that I commit racist acts, and one of them is that I am inclined to perceive Black men as more dangerous than white men. This is stupid. It’s racist. It’s illogical. It’s offensive. It’s a terrible, hateful thing that I am actively working on changing. Immediately after this kind of thought runs through my head, I demolish it with logic and reason and what I know to be true. I get angry at myself every time this kneejerk reaction occurs.
But those messages from a billion hours of TV and movies, from news broadcasts and internet comments and poorly written textbooks and morning talk shows and conservative talk radio to get my ire up–all of that has accumulated in my stupid, arrogant heart to make me make an instantaneous judgment about young Black men.
Even teenage Black men. Even unarmed teenage Black men.
I am not alone in this, of course. Anti-Black racism has not decreased, but has increased in America over the past several years. It can be read between the lines of countless internet comments about Martin’s “guilty past” or dress. It can be seen in the way the defense questioned Rachel Jeantel and how people ridiculed and mocked her. I know it from conversations with White women who hate that they, too, have internalized these messages, and with Black women and men who have to deal with the effects these kinds of snap judgments. (My discomfort and guilt is nothing compared to what it must be like to be the recipient of these horrible judgments.)
Even though I would never get into an altercation with anyone, and therefore I would never find myself in a situation like Zimmerman did, this does not detract from the fact that I have one thing in common with him, despite the great wealth of differences between us: I might have been just as likely as him to perceive young Trayvon Martin as a threat.
So what do I do? Try to deny my own racism and say, “Oh, no, I would only be suspicious of people who dress in a certain way. Or have certain mannerisms. Or use certain words, or walk with a certain posture”?
Or do I say, “This is bullshit. These racist tendencies that are settled deep within me need to STOP, and I need to do everything I can to contradict the racist messages that are polluting our collective subconscious”?
One of those options is a lot harder than the other, but that’s what I’m committed to doing.
The Trayvon Martin murder is about far more than one racist vigilante killing an unarmed teenager. It is about the fact that a significant number of people are so desperate to deny their own racist tendencies that they will defend the blatantly racist acts of others. Even when that racist act ended with the murder of an unarmed teenager.
So, White people, here are some questions for us to consider.
If you are outraged about what happened to Trayvon, and you agree that the murder and acquittal are symptomatic of systemic and institutional racism, then what are you going to do to dismantle the system? How will you use your white privilege to shatter the system?
If you find yourself defending Zimmerman, why? Is there any chance that it’s because you can imagine yourself in his situation, judging a young Black teenager walking home from the store as a threat to you and your safety? If that is the case, why? Is there a chance that you, too, have internalized the racist messages that our culture sends to us every single day?
We have a choice.
Option one: We can push aside this reality and argue tooth and nail that Zimmerman wasn’t racist because he himself was a minority, or because there isn’t enough evidence to prove that he was racist, or because racism is over, or because Martin’s behavior was suspicious, not his skin color.
Option two: We can confront our own racist tendencies and challenge ourselves to consciously work against them.
One of these options perpetuates the status quo, and insures that these types of horrifying incidents will occur in the future. The other allows us to challenge the status quo, to make the world better, to help parents of Black children not have to fear that at any moment their child might be killed for “looking suspicious.” One option is easy, the other is hard. One option is wrong, the other is right.
I want to end with an image that you may have already seen:
White people who are inclined to defend Zimmerman, look at these pictures, and imagine Black Zimmerman shooting White Martin and claiming self-defense, claiming that White Trayvon was “acting suspicious” and needed to be tracked down. Think about your gut reactions and your instincts. Be honest with yourself, and be honest with each other, and think about what you’re really saying when you’re defending Zimmerman.
This post originally appeared on my blog.