Thanks to social media I heard about Zimmerman’s acquittal within minutes of it happening, and just a few minutes later, after sharing the news with a friend, I told him, “I’m not going to write about this.”
On one hand, I hadn’t been following the trial closely enough to thoughtfully comment on the verdict alone. (Tweets of shock and support for Black communities are one thing, but spouting off knee-jerk commentary based on my experience of not being Trayvon Martin strikes me as very inappropriate.) More importantly, on the other slightly-more-informed-about-things-like-racial-privilege hand, I didn’t feel like it was my place to write. Not because I’m not Black so the trial and verdict “didn’t concern me.” This, after all, would be a terribly ignorant thing to think that already evidences loads of racial privilege, as if racial injustice is merely a problem for Black people. I didn’t want to write precisely because of my privilege, because I didn’t want to do that arrogantly-entitled thing that a lot of White people do which is assert, “I know what’s going on here so listen to what I have to say.” In short, I think it’s important for privileged groups to shut up and listen from time to time, to recognize that marginalized people should speak first, and to let them speak for themselves.
Rather than presumptuously thinking I had something helpful to say right away and try to be among the first to write, I thought it much more important to wait, listen, and understand what others, Black folks in particular, were thinking and feeling at such a momentously tragic time. I wasn’t put off when Black Girl Dangerous posted “For the rest of today, Sunday, the Black Girl Dangerous FB page is a POC-only space. White folks, please don’t comment on anything we post here today, even if it’s in support. We need space to process our feelings without you in the conversation.” While creating safe community spaces makes some White people upset and defensive, I appreciate its necessity. To think otherwise is another mark of arrogance which assumes that White folks should be able to move through whatever spaces, whatever neighborhoods they wish without being questioned – again, not a privilege that is often enjoyed by Black people like Trayvon. I also appreciate that so many Black people have chosen to share their experiences and reactions in powerful ways, like this piece from Questlove.
As I continued reading articles about the trial and how the verdict was (finally?) setting off “talk of race,” I noticed mentions of the “all-women jury” in headlines and started to wonder about what people would say given that a group of women let Zimmerman walk free (I guess I was too caught up in other things at the end of June to take note of the fact that an all-woman jury had been selected, let alone a jury of mostly white women). Since sexist stereotypes about women make them out to be more emotional and irrational then men, I anticipated that at least some of the outrage over the non-guilty verdict would be directed toward those women as women. For instance, the fact that they reached a non-guilty verdict could be spun in a couple of ways: “Wow! These women defied stereotypes by NOT being emotionally sympathetic to Trayvon.” Or, “Wow! These women were SO IRRATIONAL that they didn’t convict an openly racist man who stalked and murdered an unarmed Black kid and claimed it was a matter of ‘self-defense.'”
I don’t know what would have happened in America if Zimmerman had been convicted or what kind of feminist attention it would have garnered, but I am pretty sure I wouldn’t be writing this post because I wouldn’t have been slapped in the face with this status from The Crunk Feminist Collective:
Calling all white feminists allies: Where are y’all? <looking far and wide> Your silence around the Zimmerman Trial speaks volumes. Six white women (some say five) decided that a young Black man was responsible for his own murder, and they believed that a young Black woman could not be a credible witness. Where is your (OUT)RAGE?! Where is *your* intersectional analysis about white privilege, that not only calls out the operations of racism, but the particularly gendered operations of racism in the hands of these white women jurors? Where is the accountability? Where is the allyship? Why AGAIN do we have to ask you to show up? It is time for y’all to do the work. We refuse. We are tired. We are choosing to take care of ourselves and our communities.
I know that taking the opportunity to be silent about race is a mark of privilege and that to be apathetic about race is to be part of the problem. So when white feminists were being called out for not speaking up, I started to worry that maybe I was one of those white feminists. This can be a bit confusing since I’m half-Asian and I blog and vlog about race a lot but, whatever, I get it – at a critical time I wasn’t publicly offering a feminist analysis about a decision of six people who happened to be women and also happened to not be Black. In that respect, I guess it could be said that I was acting pretty White, and I’m not comfortable with that. (By the way, if you think that recognizing my “Whiteness” is simply a matter of skin-color that would be confusing! I talk about the difference between being white and acting “White” in this little video, which might throw new light on CNN’s controversial labeling of Zimmerman as a “White Hispanic” and why the Crunk Feminist Collective could state that “Six white women” were on the jury even though Juror B29 is “a young woman of color.”)
Then I found the white feminist responses (well, a couple at least) about how white womanhood has historically had a very unfortunate connection to Black masculinity and that this likely influenced the jury’s decision. For instance, Feministing published a brutally-honest post by Katy Otto. She called it out like this:
This [verdict] follows a lineage of white women crying rape (yes, I said it, I said it because that was often what happened–unjustly, untruthfully, when there really had been no rape–I say this as a survivor who believes survivors and finds this an affront) by black men who were lynched. Black men who were slaughtered in protection of white womanhood and its purity. The collusion of white womanhood and white supremacist patriarchy is clear–but let me be clear about something. The violence I have experienced–domestic and sexual violence–has been at the hands of multiple WHITE men. I don’t see white men being shot for that, nor do I want them to be…But I am ashamed, and women like these women on the jury ARE white women’s problem.
Jessica Valenti unabashedly wrote similar things about white womanhood: “Yes, white women—all of us—are taught to fear men of color. We need to own that truth, own that shameful fear. Most importantly, we need to name it for what it is: deeply held and constantly enforced racism.” I agree that white womanhood has been and often continues to be constructed in relation to highly racist stereotypes about Black masculinity. It may even be possible that the white ladies of the jury “would see Zimmerman as their son sooner than they would Trayvon Martin” (although I think it’s slightly problematic to bring up the gendered expectation for these women to have acted as more sympathetic mothers in particular). And I definitely think that White people in general should put in the work to identify and dismantle their own racial privilege (Sunny Drake is willing to help identify lots of ways to do this!!).
But unfortunately, in this case, I don’t think that any of that work to undo racism would have helped change the verdict. It wouldn’t have mattered if the jurors were all wearing white hoods. They made the right decision. And Nobel-Peace-Prize-Winner Jimmy Carter agrees.
Carter states, “I think the jury made the right decision based on the evidence presented, because the prosecution inadvertently set the standard so high that the jury had to be convinced that it was a deliberate act by Zimmerman that he was not at all defending himself…It’s not a moral question, it’s a legal question and the American law requires that the jury listens to the evidence presented.” (In light of this statement, one might assume that President Obama also agrees.) It’s not a happy decision. In fact, it’s one that should make us all justifiably sad and outraged at the same time. But it’s a bit more complicated than we might initially think, which means we have to figure out exactly why we are outraged and what we have to do about racism in America.
If the jury made the right decision based on the evidence that doesn’t mean that they aren’t a bunch of racist ladies. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are, either. (Although now-infamous and publicly-outspoken Juror B37 is pretty obviously harboring some racist sentiments). It just means that personal prejudice on part of the jurors is presumably irrelevant to the verdict. In other words, even if the jury had been wholly made up of white-race-traitor-feminists who stand in solidarity with all oppressed people, or only members of Trayvon’s family, or non-raced aliens from another galaxy, the way of the law would lead us to believe that everyone should have arrived at the same decision. Not guilty.
If that sounds nuts, it probably is. But that’s the legal system and the effect of institutionalized racism, folks! You know things are messed up when laws are written in a way that enables, protects, and allows for a racist individual to be acquitted of second-degree murder of a Black kid while a Black woman is sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing warning shots to defend against domestic violence.
As a nation, we definitely need to work at the level of individuals if we want to dismantle racism. Intersectional analyses on behalf of all people of color, white people, and even white feminists are crucial aspects of that work. For example, if Zimmerman, a person of color, had done the work to be a better person in general and less of a racist threat to others, there’s a good chance that the confrontation with Trayvon would have never happened. (Given his record and shockingly explicit manifestations of racism, I’m totally comfortable with calling him a violent, racist menace. That’s never really been in question anyway.) If nothing else, in a better society and as a better person, Zimmerman might have made a series of different decisions and not had access to a gun (I’m comfortable with suggesting that gun control is an issue here, too).
But it’s too easy for people to dismissively say, “At least I’m not racist.” Furthermore, racist people don’t make up the entirety of the problem.
We also need to understand institutionalized oppression so that we can identify and say, “That law contributes to racial oppression” as readily as we want to be able to identify and say, “That person is racist.” That’s why the decision by the Civil Rights Commission to investigate the role of racial bias in “Stand Your Ground” laws is a big deal. And that’s why Stevie Wonder is doing awesome things to encourage the abolishment of these crazy, racistly-complicit laws, even if people want to think that his influence as a celebrity-musician is almost obsolete. It’s not. Without these types of efforts, which should continue to be done in tandem with work that is directed at particular individuals and communities, we won’t ever be able to account for and undermine racial oppression on the many levels upon which it operates. Especially with respect to anti-Black racism.
There’s a lot to say about the Zimmerman trial, about the incredibly disappointing verdict that was reached by mostly white women, and about racism in America. After all of this, I’m not sure that I’ve contributed all that much, and I’m still not convinced that people should listen to what I have to say before they listen to others. So, to help illustrate the scope of the problem and the fact that race does matter, I’ll share one of the best posts I saw this week from Angela Davis.
Trayvon’s blackness wasn’t something he could hide, so it wouldn’t have mattered whether he’d worn a hoodie or a t-shirt that fateful night. It mattered that he was black, and it mattered that the person who shot him had a vendetta out for black men before Trayvon ever set foot in the neighborhood. It matters that in 2012, there are more black men in prison today than those who were enslaved in 1850. It matters that blacks, in particular black men, are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and underrepresented in colleges. It matters that the black unemployment rate is nearly double that of unemployment for the general population. It matters that blacks are less likely to be screened, diagnosed, and treated for preventable diseases, less likely to own homes, less likely to receive research grants, and more likely to retire in poverty than their white counterparts. It matters that blacks are less likely than whites to abuse drugs, but more likely to be convicted of drug crimes. None of these statistics are due to a genetic predisposition to violence, poor health and underachievement, instead as a direct result of the disenfranchisement of blacks that has occurred in this country for more than 200 years at the hands of slavery, Jim Crow Laws, discrimination, and the institutionalized racism in our schools, banks, businesses, courts, and prisons that has torn apart our families and fractured our community. Just like Trayvon Martin, race mattered for Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Emmett Till, and hundreds more we will never know the name of who died because of their skin color.