Thursday, July 18, 2013

Georgey Had a Gun: One Woman's Thoughts on Race and Racialized Thinking

There has been no shortage of material written about the George Zimmerman trial since the jury handed down their decision Saturday evening. Social media sites, Twitter, the blogosphere, and the internet in general was lit ablaze the second the public heard that a verdict had been reached, and the number of articles posted since then has amounted to nothing less than a deluge.

A friend told me Tuesday evening that she had been checking my Facebook page since Saturday to see what I had to say about the verdict. She indicated that she looks to me (among others) for insights on certain matters, and that she had noticed how “quiet” I’d been. I was honest with her, stating that I had stayed off of Facebook entirely, neither reading statuses nor posting anything myself. This was because I was too hurt, too discouraged, and too angered by what had happened on Saturday, and by what has and hasn’t happened since then, although I wasn’t surprised by the verdict. Instead of responding in the heat of the moment, I decided it would be best to reflect and pray until I came to a place where I could speak clearly, firmly, and lovingly.

So here is my contribution to the mix. What follows are things that I’ve been thinking about for many years. Keep in mind that my thoughts are not just about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. My remarks are, however, confined to the US (although much of what I have to say speaks to the human condition) because this is where I live, this is the place that I know the most about, and this is what I have spent my adult life studying, teaching about, and writing on. I have also limited my comments to the issue of race, although there are many other kinds of “isms” I could discuss. It is my hope that people read this thoughtfully. I pray that everyone can take something useful away from this. I hope that people can lay aside their defensive postures and be honest with themselves, and with God, in the quiet meditations of their heart, if nowhere else.

1. While it’s true that race (and ideas about race) is/are “socially constructed,” it’s equally true that race (and racialized ideas) has/have real consequences in terms of peoples’ life chances and treatment. Being racially sensitive, then, does not mean being “color blind.” It means understanding our nation’s history, and acknowledging that that history has endowed many of the persons who live here with certain privileges and protections by virtue of their birth. It has also imbued everyone who is born here, or who moves here, with ideas about other people based on race and/or ethnicity, really based on birth and appearance when you get right down to it (i.e. Indians are good at math and science, Chinese people are bad drivers, black women are promiscuous and on welfare, Muslims/Arabs are terrorists, etc.). These ideas have become so deeply engrained within the fabric of our political, economic and social systems, and our national and individual psyches, that many people no longer question them, try to understand how and why these ideas arose, and (frighteningly) are often not even aware that they hold racialized ideas. That’s what makes “culturally institutionalized racism” so dangerous: it has become invisible to many of those persons who benefit from and help to perpetuate it.

2. Racialized behavior today does not LOOK the way it did in 1863, or 1963. It is no longer about federally legalized slavery, internment camps, and attack dogs. It isn’t about openly segregated schools, laws against intermarriage, or the accepted usage of words like “Chink,” “Spic,” or “Nigger.” That doesn’t mean that negative, fearful, or condescending ideas about “the other” have ceased to exist. All of us engage in “othering” people every single day. Whether we cross the street when we see a homeless person, or choose not to live in a certain neighborhood because of “bad elements,” most of us think and behave more like the Levite from Luke 10 and less like the Samaritan on any given day. The fact is that racialized thoughts (stereotypes, if you will) still exist; they are just expressed in more subtle, and thus more insidious, ways than in years past. It’s no longer cool (in most circles) to be a bigot, so few people today admit to being racists, or acknowledge that they hold certain, unflattering beliefs about entire groups of people. This is also partly because people in 2013 compare their behaviors to those of virulent racists and segregationists from the past who openly enslaved, terrorized, and lynched Latinos/as, Blacks, and Asians. That’s why everyone I know says, “I’m not a racist.” They would never use racist slurs or promote legalized slavery, but their ideas on certain issues reveal that they have been impacted by institutionalized racism and have internalized nationally held, racialized ideas. It’s just that these ideas are now articulated with a different language. Instead of using words like “Jap,” “Wop” or “Wetback,” people currently discuss “criminals,” “welfare recipients,” “drug dealers,” “immigrants,” and “the lazy poor.” While the language has changed, the fact is that ideas about the inherently negative predilections and/or behavior of “those people” remain.

3. Having one Muslim friend, one black friend, or one Asian friend doesn’t mean you can’t or don’t hold prejudicial beliefs about a larger group, or prevent you from being a conveyer of racialized ideas. It’s very easy to make “exceptions” to the rule and include one person in your social circle. What you’re really saying (perhaps unconsciously) is that that one person is not like the rest of “THOSE people.” They’re like YOU, whether that means middle-class, white, Christian, straight, educated, American, or something else. They make you feel comfortable. They don’t challenge you, or make you feel guilty. They talk like you. They dress like you. They’re “DIFFERENT” from the rest of “THOSE people.” You can thus accept them, and even love them, while continuing to adhere to racist ideas about the larger group to which that person belongs. You can also accept one racial group while harboring negative ideas about another.

4. Only George Zimmerman knows how he truly feels about black people. We can surmise (based on his personal history of 911 calls and other facts in evidence) that he, if nothing else, mistrusts black men. This is why he followed Trayvon Martin. He thought that he was a shady individual, not because he knew anything about Martin as an individual, but because Martin was a young black man in a hoodie. Zimmerman thus engaged in what we would call racial profiling (being suspicious or fearful of someone and concluding that they are “out of place” and possibly dangerous simply on the basis of their looks). At the very least, Zimmerman thus appears to have been affected by our nation’s historical creation and transmission of racialized ideas about the fearsome, criminally inclined, black male body.

5. Only George Zimmerman knows what really happened that night last February. We will never hear both sides of the story because Trayvon Martin is dead. What we do know is that Person A followed Person B in a car down dark and rainy streets; that Person A got out and pursued Person B on foot through yards, alleys and bushes; that Person A and Person B had a verbal confrontation; that Person A and Person B eventually fought; and that Person A, who instigated the entire incident by following someone AGAINST POLICE ADVICE, shot Person B, who did not have a firearm. Person A didn’t shoot Person B in the kneecap, fire a warning shot in the air, or club Person B over the head with the gun. Person A killed Person B.

6. If I were Person B, I would fear Person A, REGARDLESS of their race, age, or gender. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t. Be honest. If you were followed by a stranger at night and then confronted by them, you would run, and you would shout, and then you would fight back to protect yourself by kicking, punching, clawing, and scratching. I know that I would defend myself as best I could, in any way that I could. Fearing for my life, I would STAND MY GROUND, just as I would if someone broke into my house. Under these circumstances, whether Person B threw the first punch is irrelevant. Person B would have never had to throw a punch if Person A hadn’t stalked them in the first place. Nobody should be allowed to instigate an altercation, kill someone when the fight doesn’t go their way, and then claim self-defense. We should all be horrified by this verdict. We should all be terrified by the vigilantism it may inspire (no matter who we are in terms of age, race, gender, religion, educational achievement, wealth, or geographic location). This verdict says that who we are as individuals is irrelevant. Instead, who we (as Person B) APPEAR to be in the mind of Person A is all that matters.

7. My words are not written in order to make persons who belong to groups of inherent birth-privilege “feel bad.” Let me be blunt: white guilt is pointless. White allies, however, are priceless. I write in hopes that persons with racial privilege who read this will acknowledge that while neither they (nor I) created the system, we are all impacted by it. I hope they will admit that white people today still benefit from this system in numerous ways, often without realizing it, even if they don’t ask for or want it. Only when each of us (particularly those persons who have inherent privilege) acknowledges that the differentials and dynamics of racialized thinking still exist will we be able to work together to start the healing process and create new ways of thinking, seeing, and behaving. Sticking our heads in the sand has only perpetuated the problem and caused it to change shapes, to morph if you will, and go underground. Racialized thinking, like any other sin, thrives in fear, darkness, and silence. As my historical heroine, Ida B. Wells, stated so long ago, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

Let me conclude by speaking from my heart. I long to hear more on this issue from those persons of privilege who profess Christ, yet who have been heartbreakingly silent since Saturday (and even before). I long for the day where women won’t instinctively clutch their purses when my black male friends walk by. I long for the day when my friends and I won’t be disrespected in restaurants or followed in high-end stores by nervous sales clerks. I long for the day when nobody considers not having children because they can’t bear to see their sons and daughters subjected to racialized stereotypes. I long for the day when no parent has to have THAT conversation with their child, the conversation that explains racism to them and teaches them how to respond to racialized thoughts, words, images, and actions. I long for the day when NO CHILD has to endure what my man’s 5-year old daughter experienced last week when another 5-year old girl in her gymnastics class said to her, “I can’t touch you. I’m allergic to black people.”

Perhaps I am naive to think that such a day is possible…this side of heaven. Still, I am unwilling to abandon this world to such evil, or abdicate the responsibility I have to shine a light into dark spaces through my words and my actions. I know that I am not alone in this, and I look forward to partnering with and working alongside any person, no matter their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, language, etc. who are interested in furthering the cause of humanity and justice for all persons.

                                                                                      - Dr. Amrita Chakrabarti-Myers