An Honest Heartfelt Dialogue About Race Between Two Mothers: What Can America Learn About Race Post Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman?
Co-authored with Donna Y Ford, Ph.D. Vanderbilt University, author of Recruiting and Retaining Culturally Different Students in Gifted Education, Mother, Grandmother, and Advocate for Racial Justice
We have come together to address a subject that many Americans seem to have a particularly difficult time talking openly and reasonably about — racism. Obviously, reactions to the Trayvon Martin trial verdict, and revelations of one juror, the anonymous B37, has brought questions about race, racism and justice full force into homes, communities, schools, businesses, and more. However, this case and how people feel about racism is not the cause of these issues but rather a symptom of them. Moreover, whether it is a drunken altercation in NYC where a racist term is used and a fight ensues or the quick crumbling of the Paula Deen Empire, these issues are increasingly permeating the public sphere. As scholars, we see this as an on-going teaching and potent teachable moment. As mothers, we see it as imperative to harness this moment and to raise our children to appreciate, respect, and not stereotype or fear those from other racial or cultural groups. It is in this spirit that we have come together to have an honest conversation across race and about racism as concerned mother-scholars.
Dr. Donna Ford:
As a Black female who is a professor with a high regard for social justice, and the mother of a son and grandmother of a boy, I daily experience a multitude of thoughts and emotions regarding racism in America, and definitely in the wake of this murder case and the outcome. My son will be 34-years-old in December; not a day or night has gone by where I have not worried about his safety and life. I don’t just worry at night, I also worry in the day. When my grandson was born in 2011, I had mixed emotions; of course, I was elated, but also sad. How will this priceless, healthy, and beautiful boy be treated by a nation that seems to despise and fear Black males of all ages?
I am a very strong, confident professional. I am deemed a scholar and authority in my profession. I rarely if ever feel vulnerable in academia — when writing, teaching, or presenting. I am at a good place professionally. But personally or family wise, I am very emotionally vulnerable because I worry about Black males like Trayvon, my son, nephew, soul mate, and others in my life who are most often the victim, and I do mean victim, of negative stereotypes and prejudice. Many Black males of all ages are ‘convicted in the womb’ and ‘guilty until proven guilty’. And this applies to Trayvon Martin. My heart aches and my fear is real and justified, as is the case for many Black parents. Although Zimmerman was acquitted by the legal system, I do not find him innocent. Why? He is guilty of profiling this Black male teenager, and the result was the death of a Black male who was guilty of being a Black male.
Dr. Patricia Leavy:
As a mother it is so hard for me to hear of your fears, especially because I accept that they are entirely real and rational. You’ve hit on such an important issue — deep rooted fear of Black males, including children and teens, in our society. I am a White female, also deemed a scholar, and also a mother (I have a 12-year-old daughter). While I share your assessment, of course my personal experiences differ. When I look at the events that lead to Trayvon Martin’s killing this is what I think of: a teenager walking in the dark and rain, in a gated community that he had a right to be in, returning from buying candy, and an adult male following him and unnecessarily engaging him. I assume every teenager under those circumstances would feel afraid, and rightfully so. Parents teach their children to be extra careful and leery at night and when alone.
Why did Zimmerman follow Travyon? Because he was a Black male. Race and gender were at work. There is no other reasonable way to interpret these events. The young man was unarmed and according to Zimmerman was walking slowly — which could be worded differently to say he was walking leisurely — in no hurry, not guilty of a crime, minding his business. Said that way, Trayvon hardly seems “suspicious” as Zimmerman claimed. But Black males in the U.S. are routinely deemed suspicious and guilty of no good. Would a quick pace have been less suspicious? It isn’t the pace; it is the body. Zimmerman targeted Trayvon Martin because he was a Black male.
The same fear was echoed by Juror B37 when she tried to explain the jury’s debatable and controversial decision. In essence, in the final moment prior to the gunshot she believes Zimmerman was afraid for his life. It is so illogical to look at Zimmerman as afraid — the victim — and Trayvon Martin as aggressive or the aggressor. The undisputed facts are that it was Zimmerman who targeted, followed and engaged with Trayvon Martin, who was lawfully (definitely not illegally) walking home. Moreover, Zimmerman was well aware that he was armed. Trayvon Martin was unarmed. I can’t help but think that Juror B37 was really saying that as a White person she be White people would be. How else can we explain her justification for a verdict that vindicated Zimmerman of killing an unarmed boy who was lawfully walking in his neighborhood?
Dr. Donna Ford:
Dr. Leavy, the compassion you have as a White mother is clear and refreshing. I appreciate the desire to understand and not be defensive about my views and experiences, despite very different contexts. We are similar in being females and professionals, but different in other ways — our race, and the race and gender of our children. You have a daughter; I have a son. Your daughter is a teenager, as was Trayvon. My son is an adult — he has lived long enough to leave and give me a legacy. Not so for Trayvon’s parents — their only son will never, obviously, share another life with his parents.
And I really do know that being a mother (parent) of a daughter comes with its own set of concerns and worries. I have several nieces (ages 15 to 33). I worry about them too — sexism, sexual assault and harassment, and teen pregnancy, to name a few. Let me be clear — if one of them had been out that night and confronted by Zimmerman, I am not sure they would have been stalked — as long as they were recognized as a female.
So for me, this case was indeed about racial profiling overall, but more specifically, this murder was about the very sad and troubling reality that Black males are the most stereotyped and feared group in America. It is the combination of being Black AND male. Not one, but both. Had I a daughter, she would not have been alone at night, and I think that holds for females of all racial groups. Mothers and fathers would not have allowed that. But with our sons, moms and dads tend to encourage (or don’t discourage) more independence and self-sufficiency. Males are viewed as less vulnerable or defenseless walking to the store at night. I have never felt that way with my Black son, nephew, etc. I know they are vulnerable to racial profiling, day and night; a proverbial sitting duck. It will be difficult for some to swallow my reality. When it comes to driving, dealing with the legal system, being a student, and getting a job, I must honestly say that I worry about Black males more than Black females; I toss and turn about my son and grandson more than my nieces and sisters. And I love and treasure their lives as much, and we are virtually as close as my being their mother. In essence, I want you and others to know that Trayvon Martin represents so many Black males in America — they are so tragically misunderstood, stereotyped, under-rated, and deemed expendable. This must change. There are no losers when all racial groups work on their prejudices and give Black males the overdue and much-needed benefit of the doubt. I don’t think I am asking too much or being unreasonable.
Dr. Patricia Leavy:
So many of your points hit home for me, and also sadden me. I would never want any parent to worry the way you explain that you do, and so many others must. Every parent can relate to the concern we have for our children’s safety, but as the mother of a White girl, I have never had to worry that my daughter will be profiled or pre-judged for her race. Possibilities are open for her, people don’t draw foregone conclusions, and that is how it should and must be for every child. During the trial, I found myself thinking that Trayvon Martin was being tried for his own murder. It reminded me of how rape victims are often further victimized in legal proceedings with the assertion or conclusion that it was her fault, that she is to blame.
As a White woman, I truly want to believe that many or most White people want equality or, put differently, don’t want to be racist and want to do the right thing when it comes to race. Listening to much of the commentary in the wake of this tragedy, the Paula Deen situation and other current events, I am left thinking that sometimes people don’t know what the right thing is. Here’s an example of a well-intentioned statement I often hear from White people: “I don’t see race.” Even juror B37 said she never considered the issue of race. People are trying to say they don’t think people should be pre-judged based on their skin color. Of course, we can all agree on that. But to say you don’t see race denies that you do in fact see race just as it denies the historical and contemporary realities of race. It further denies cultural differences that are beyond skin color and it turns a blind eye to racism and what it means to live in a body that has a different skin color and experience; like what it means to live in a Black male’s body. I think White people get very defensive talking about these issues but it benefits everyone if we are each willing to take a hard look at our assumptions and biases. This was stunningly illustrated today when students at Howard University’s Medical School (a historically Black school) took two group photos of themselves, one in white doctors’ coats and the other in dark hoodies, like what Trayvon Martin was wearing that fateful night. We are judging from the outside. To my White brothers and sisters, I urge you to look at that photo and get really honest with yourself. There is no shame in confronting the truth, even if it is different than you wish it would be. This kind of honest self and social reflection can bring about new and much needed understanding and change and social progress. You can grow so that you don’t end up on a jury where race is clearly an issue but proudly report, “I didn’t consider race.”
Dr. Donna Ford:
I was walking the day after the acquittal and found myself stifled by the air — I share the air with those who despise my racial and cultural group. Race is in the air. Our nation straddles at least two racial extremes — attempting to be colorblind or hyper focusing on race. Juror B37 professes colorblindness, that race is trivial and insignificant in the scheme of things. Zimmerman, Deen, those you just mentioned, most on Anderson Cooper’s Town Hall (July 16), and thousands of other Black people saw color in the trial and decision; and there are some but not enough White allies, of course. If race did not matter, Trayvon Martin would be alive today. He would have made it home to watch TV with his family and enjoy his purchases. I am convinced of this. I hope all Americans come to see that Trayvon Martin was all of our sons.
Dr. Patricia Leavy:
The dangers of colorblindness are, as you suggest, one side of the coin, with a hyper focus on race on the other. I have noticed this in the aftermath of the verdict. Black people who speak out are often condescended to and told that it is “their” issue or they need to “stop playing the race card” or to “stop being so angry.” They are told that their fear, anger/rage, and indignation are irrational and delusional. This is maddening to me as I freely and strongly talk about these very issues and my race has never come into question. In truth, even in this piece you, Dr. Ford, have had to be far more vulnerable, sharing your deepest fears for your most treasured loved ones. But as you have said, it benefits all of us to see this as our issue, and to see Trayvon Martin as all of our sons.