White People Need to Wake Up

Here’s the umpteenth thing that’s bugging me about this whole sad and sick mess with Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman: I’ve always told myself a child loses his/her innocence when he or she no longer feels safe. Loss of innocence has nothing to do with knowledge or sexuality–it’s that moment when we first realize how vulnerable we are, that someone or something can hurt, violate, or destroy us.

This definition means some children never have real childhoods. They grow up defending themselves, usually against violent family members. Their coping skills are honed to keep others at bay emotionally or physically. I can remember the moment I first understood what rape meant. I can remember the place and time my childhood ended. It’s a crossroads; you can never retrace your steps and go back.

The trial and verdict of George Zimmerman may have been a crossroads for countless children in our country. To fear a stranger with a gun is bad enough. What saves many of us (or used to) is the comfort of thinking the rest of the system is designed to cushion and protect the victim. We may cross paths with an evil stranger, but at least society as a whole is in our corner.

That’s a fiction.

We can’t tell ourselves racial violence is a part of our history, not our present, or that justice is likely. We can’t point to a certain behavior or dress code for safety. We can’t say it’s only rough in larger cities like New York and Chicago.

As a woman, I look over my shoulder. I am tense when walking from a public place, across a parking lot to my car, which I lock right away. I think about what I wear. Too provocative? Will this dress garner the wrong kind of male attention? It’s become somewhat automatic, but let’s face it: I know rape is hard to prove (he said/she said), that rape kit evidence may be collected and not processed, and that if it goes to trial, every effort will be made to make an assault look as if I asked for it and deserved it.

The way Trayvon Martin did.

We are holding victims to an impossible standard: if you are threatened, you’d better be a good and proper victim. Don’t be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yell and scream as expected. If you fight back, do it the right way. If you are frozen with fear, you must have wanted the violence, right? If you fight too much–and the perpetrator gets to put a gun to your heart, pull the trigger, and get on with his life.

Learn how to be a good victim and you might be safe.

That’s a fiction, too.

At least I’m not scared of the police. I’ve never been stopped and questioned without cause. I would find that situation terrifying. The police have authority and power most of us don’t have. The Zimmerman trial has shown that such powers have been extended to just guys with guns. If I were the parent of African American children, I would not know how to protect them or how to tell them to protect themselves. I would not know how to instruct them in being good victims.

The other lie we tell ourselves is about race. It’s a cultural construct, not a biological one. There are no breeds of people. We are related by DNA. If we trace our genetic heritage back to the earliest evidence, we are all African in origin. We are brothers, sisters, cousins. Skin color is just that.

It’s a color. No color is superior to another. That’s the artist in me talking. I want all the colors. They work best in relationship to one another, contrast and complement, hue and value.

So what does an aspiring author of children’s books do? Stories seem feeble when faced with cold realities. And yet. My instinct is to fight. Words and images are my only weapons.

Growing up in a home where racism was not tolerated has a downside. I don’t see racism clearly. It can sail past my radar. As a result of this lack of awareness, I am, to a degree, contributing to the problem. I underestimate racism the same way some of my male friends laugh off sexism, sexual harassment, and even rape. I must be too sensitive. Too whiney. It can’t be that bad, can it? Why can’t I just let it go and move on?

Because I am not a good victim. Neither was Trayvon Martin.

I’m tired of hearing all the yappity talk about how people of color are supposed to dress, behave, and be. Why? Why do they have to navigate someone else’s possible hatred? The reason is survival and safety. It’s an unrealistic expectation. No matter what we do, we cannot shield ourselves from hate or violence to perfection. I could do everything “right” and still end up brutalized by a rapist or killer.

A child of color can do everything right and end up dead. She can do everything wrong and end up dead.

Her death still matters.

White people need to change. If you are a white person who thinks racism is lessening because you are not (or try not to be) racist: WAKE UP. We can be part of a positive, active solution. We can be on the lookout for weeds and yank them up before they take root.

Maybe one of us will recognize and stop the next George Zimmerman.