We still have to figure out how to talk about race.
I say this because I have been agonizing over how to write about the Trayvon Martin case today, because nothing I have to say about any other topic matters quite as much, and because I feel woefully unequipped to do the tangle of my feelings and thoughts justice.
I say this because I have been reading the pieces my friends have been sharing about this verdict declaring open season on people of color in states with Stand Your Ground laws, pieces full of righteous anger, and I have been nodding my head “yes” with them. Because my reaction to the verdict was shock and disgust. Because I can’t stop reading about how messed up racial relations are, not only in Florida but in the rest of the country as well. And because at the same time as all of this, I want to believe in the judicial system. At least some of the time. I want to live in a country in which people are innocent until proven guilty. And if we’re being honest, I’m not surprised that Zimmerman was found not guilty under the Stand Your Ground law. I have a problem with that law. I have a problem with what happened in this case. I have a problem with all of the ideas and prejudices and stereotypes, subtle and not-so-subtle, that float around in our society and that make us fear and hate each other for what amount to circumstances of birth.
I’ll be frank: I have a liberal arts education and experience writing about the very touchy subject of discrimination, and I’m still afraid to say the wrong thing.
It seems safest to talk in generalities: Racism still exists in America. It can be incredibly subtle or ridiculously overt, but it exists, and it is pervasive, and it is very difficult to weed out. Children, no matter how they’re dressed, no matter what they look like, no matter how much they posture to seem badass, should be safe to walk down their streets. A law that hinges on “belief in an unlawful threat” becomes a powder keg when it comes to people who are armed and who might perceive threats where they do not exist.
These are statements that I’d like to believe relatively few people could argue with. When it comes to specifics, however–this specific case, the specific details of this trial and this tragedy–I feel lost. Because I wasn’t on the jury. I didn’t hear the case as it was laid out with no previous knowledge of this incident. And the truth tends to be more tangled and messy than we’d like it to be.
It makes me nervous even to say that.
It’s because I come from a position of privilege. As many people have been saying to go along with the solidarity campaign from a new perspective, I am not Trayvon Martin. I will never experience the world through the eyes of a young black man, much less this particular young black man. I know that. I also find racial profiling, like all discrimination against anyone for any reason that they cannot help, absolutely disgusting. I want to be a part of the solution for all people who face discrimination. I don’t want to steamroll, to patronize, to appropriate, to deny, to use the privileges that I have to contribute to the marginalization of anyone, or to give anyone a harder time than they are having.
I want to talk about race.
I want to talk about race without assuming that every person of color wants to talk about race or needs to educate me or that race is their primary concern or focus in life. I want to talk about race from a place of mutual respect that allows me to with all my privileged good intentions to muddle things up sometimes, to get things wrong and to apologize and correct myself and learn how to do better, what to do better. I want to talk in a way that allows other people to be heard, to express their anger and frustration and fear and to recognize the soft frail humanity under all of our thickened skins. I want to show my support without offending, but I’m ready to find out when my well-meaning contributions do still offend, and to tease the threads out until I can weave them into a position of mutual understanding.
I think it’s not necessarily a bad thing that I felt so much hesitance at the beginning of writing this post. I think this conversation, these conversations, will require deliberation–deliberate choice of words, of phrases, of ideas, of comparisons, of metaphors. I think they can and should take time, and that dealing with a hard, thorny topic is allowed to be difficult. I also think we need to do this talking despite it being and maybe because it is hard.
I want other people to want to talk about this too.
I hope it’s not asking too much.