The media has been doing its strange web weaving, contributing to the polarizing of America by painting Trayvon as both a Skittle eating football player getting ready to apply to college and also as a troubled druggie kid. It has painted Zimmerman both as a horrible racist and also as a protector of the law and all things good who we should feel sorry for.
What if the truth lies in the middle?
This case may actually be a metaphor for the state of our nation on racial issues right now. And yet, it’s not just a metaphor, it’s smack dab in the middle of real.
Earlier today, I was reminded of something that happened when I was seventeen or eighteen, about Trayvon’s age. For some background, I’m a white woman and I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia.
One summer evening, as the Atlanta sun was just beginning to go down and the air began to breathe between the sky and the asphalt heat, I was hanging out with a group of friends in a park-square area in Little Five Points. I left the group to go into a nearby pizza parlor to use the bathroom. To get there, I had to walk between several parked cars, one which had someone in it, though I hadn’t noticed until I walked by.
“What’s a pretty little thing like you doing walking around out here by yourself?” A white man leaned out of his open car window and began pushing the car door open. I was now between him and the other car, but just past the door.
“Oh, I’m just hanging out with my friends up there,” I said starting to walk off.
I guess my friend Darrell saw me and wondered who I was talking to and what was going on. So, suddenly Darrell was beside me. He was one of the sweetest guys around, one of those guys women say is like a teddy bear.
“You doing okay Liza,” Darrell asked me.
“Yeah, I’m just going down here to Fellini’s,” I said, trying to move us on by.
“What’s a girl like you hanging out with a N____?” Darrell is Native American.
“What’d you call me?” Darrell asked and took a step toward the man in the car who was slurring his words and obviously drunk. But drunk didn’t matter, he said the N word and in the crowd I hung out with, that really wasn’t okay. I walked to Darrell and tried to pull him away from the scene to go with me
“I called you a N_____, N_____,” the man said and pulled out a gun. He waved it back and forth between us and said the n word at least one more time.
I was pulling on Darrell, “it’s not worth it, it’s not worth it,” I repeated.
Those minutes seemed to last much longer than they probably were. I looked around. Was anyone seeing this? Didn’t seem like it. Drunk racist man was going to shoot us and no one would see until he drove off. There was a cop probably forty feet away talking to a bouncer at a bar, probably the bar the man had been in. He didn’t see what happened. He never knew what happened, which made me even madder.
We walked away and the man drove off. Darrell only moved with me tugging on him, at least for his dignity. The guy drove off. He might have said something else. We might have. I wrote about it soon after but now I can’t quite remember without digging up those old notebooks, but the part of the scene I recounted is clear in my mind as if it was last week not so many years ago.
When you grow up white in the south, you learn about race, even though white privilege can let you get away with not dealing with it. Up to that point, I had seen and heard all kinds of things about racial issues up until that point, but that day was the day I realized I needed to deal with it even if because of my privilege I didn’t have to.
For a while I thought it wasn’t actually me who was held up in the situation, it was Darrell. Sure, the gun was aimed at both of us and was waving back and forth in the hands of a drunk man, but he was holding up Darrell because of the color of his skin. Yes, he was, but he was also holding me up for associating with him.
That was years ago, about 21 to be exact, and things have changed. I don’t even think that’s a Fellini’s Pizza in Little Five Points anymore, but I think the story is still a haunting truth for our nation.
Lynchings and murders of black men have more recently been mostly traded in for black men doing prison time, but overt violence against people because of the color of their skin still exists. Trayvon is a reminder of a time when it happened often and a reminder that it hasn’t ended. His death and the movement of people around it is also a WAKE UP call to America that things have to change.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have thought different things about Trayvon’s murder. I have thought Zimmerman intentionally murdered Trayvon because of the color of his skin.
I have thought maybe he didn’t intentionally murder him because he was black, but either way, he is influenced by racial stereotypes like everyone is and reacted to those stereotypes by also being afraid and shooting Trayvon out of his own fear.
I have thought that it is possible that Zimmerman in his role of self appointed “neighborhood watch captain” was all pumped up on testosterone, fear, and his mission to save the neighborhood and keep the women, children and everyone else safe (which is what Patriarchy demands he do as a man), and that combined with racial stereotypes in his head made him react rashly and shoot Trayvon.
I don’t know what happened, but I do know that I am not a person of color and do not know first hand what it is to be regularly persecuted in many different ways because of the color of my skin. I do know racism is ingrained in our society so deeply that white people often don’t see it and don’t have to because of the privilege they get from their skin color and they don’t often see that either.
I know white people who will say they don’t think there’s a problem with racism anymore and they don’t understand why a lot of black people are so angry.
Trayvon’s murder looks like a hate crime, whether premeditated- like there’s a black kid, I’m going to kill him or look at that kid, he’s up to no good (and somewhere deep inside of Zimmerman- because he’s black).
It is a sad situation for all involved, even for Zimmerman who shot and killed another human being- a teenager who wasn’t doing anything wrong. That can’t feel good. I don’t believe you can be okay in yourself and in your emotional state having done that.
But what will happen if Zimmerman doesn’t go to jail and what will happen if he does?
On some level, I think people who can’t stop themselves from being violent should be locked up, but on another level, in this situation- what will it change? Another person of color in the prison system. Yay? Is that really justice?
Maybe it will teach America that you can’t just shoot someone because they’re a person of color and get away with it. Maybe.
I don’t know what happens to Zimmerman, but on a larger scale, there needs to be more education around race, racial dynamics, hate, and African American history. There needs to be more education about how racism still exists in America, like how it plays out and how it can change. White people might be able to recall James Byrd and now Trayvon, but they will think of them as isolated incidents and not truly see the full picture of every day racism going on institutionally and personally in people’s lives. There needs to be education, a push for more equality within society, and a cross-race movement to stop violence.
The Trayvon Tragedy has moved people to action, but for what? It must go forward to solutions for a better society where things like this don’t happen and hate crimes are a thing of the past.