Posts tagged ‘Trayvon Martin’
‘I Don’t See Race’: An Open Dialogue Between Two Scholar-Mothers About the Unintended Consequences of Racial Blindness and the Importance of Celebrating Cultural Diversity
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 came together in the wake of the Trayvon Martin tragedy to talk honestly about racism because we believe the country is in the midst of a teaching moment. As scholars we believe all people have the potential to be lifelong learners, and as mothers we are concerned about racial inequality in our society. While our experiences differ, Dr. Leavy is a White woman and Dr. Ford is a Black woman, our commitment to social justice connects us. It is in this spirit that we have joined together again, in conversation, to talk about the implications of a so-called “post-racial” society where it is common to hear the phrases: “I don’t see race” or “people are all the same, race doesn’t matter.”
Dr. Patricia Leavy:
Dr. Ford, I want to begin by thanking you for your willingness to continue our conversation about race and racism in America. The responses to our discussion about “seeing” race made me want to delve further. When people say “I don’t see race” while they intend to say they don’t think skin color does matter or should matter, they do in fact see race. And the denial, the disavowing of difference and of truth, even when well-intentioned, can be quite harmful. Perhaps it’s helpful to think about it in another context. If we invite adults to our home for dinner, and one of those adults does something embarrassing or rude (say they double dip in the chips and salsa or tell a poorly executed joke), if we see that our child notices we may tell the child to pretend they don’t see anything. We tell the child to act like it didn’t happen. We do this in order to spare our guest embarrassment and/or to spare ourselves embarrassment. There is a parallel here to artificial colorblindness. When we deny that we do in fact see race (that is, skin color), and when we do so in front of our children, some are unintentionally implying and others are actually asserting that there is something rude or embarrassing and wrong about being a different race. And the fact remains that we do in fact see race.
Dr. Donna Ford:
Dr. Leavy, one conversation can never suffice to explain most topics, and race ranks extremely high among the most uncomfortable and awkward. I find it quite disheartening that we live in the nation of immigrants, but so many want to deny that race, meaning skin, does not influence their views about racial groups overall and individual members. As you know, race is the proverbial one or two ton elephant in the room. We see ‘it’ but we don’t want to see it. And your example says as much.
In your example, something negative occurred. This is when focusing on differences seems to become awkward. However, I have noticed that when individuals and groups from different racial backgrounds are harmonious, talking about race is not so disquieting. I hope this example captures the essence of my point. Two or three days after the Trayvon Martin murder trial ended, and my heart still aching from the acquittal, I saw a White male (maybe 50s, clean shaven, expensive car) offer a ride to a Black male (maybe 18, loose fitting pants, t-shirt, cap) walking in the blazing heat. The driver even held up traffic to help the pedestrian who did not, by the way, solicit the ride. I smiled. I got teary-eyed. I called a few of my friends. I was filled with joy. It was such a beautiful sight. I believe the driver was well aware that he was offering a ride to a Black person. But he was not, clearly, intimidated or afraid. You can notice race, but not react negatively or prejudicially to the ‘hype’ about skin color.
That was a priceless sight to me. And perhaps more so given all of this tension and hate over the Zimmerman trial. I have thought of that incident often to keep me optimistic as I watch the news and social media spew such opposing views. The White driver-Black pedestrian visual, that ‘random act of kindness,’ keeps me grounded. Two days later, I saw messages through social media with the caption “What if Zimmerman had just given Trayvon a ride in the rain?” I cried again but this time from sadness and mourning for the murder of a young Black male strolling home in the rain, talking with his best friend.
Race and all that it connotes is a complex. I know that. We live in the most racially and culturally diverse and different nation in the world! But we don’t have racial harmony. To advance socially and culturally as a nation, we must have, like you and I are doing, this necessary and courageous conversation. That is good thing. Recognizing differences does not make you or me a bad person. It means that we want to bridge differences and live in harmony.
Dr. Patricia Leavy:
The image of the White male offering a Black male a ride to get out of the heat is glorious. I too saw the posts on social media speculating what our society would be like if George Zimmerman had offered Trayvon Martin a ride home that night, to shelter him from the rain. As the nation works or struggles to recover, heal and hopefully progress in a positive direction, it’s critical that we examine the roots of colorblindness and then become more honest and open about race and cultural diversity and associated injustices. I actually think when people say “I don’t see race” it is because they do not think they are racist and they do not want to be viewed as racist. They may think that just acknowledging difference, like obvious skin color differences, is itself somehow prejudiced. But this isn’t the case.
This denial of race and associated biases does at least two things. First, it fools people into thinking they have no biases or prejudices based on race, in this case physical features. However, biases often operate on a subconscious level, often out of our own awareness. There was a fascinating story on NPR the other day on this topic. It was a recap of social science research which found that well-respected doctors diagnosed people of different races with the same symptoms differently, based on biases they were not aware of. When the doctors were given the results of the study, they were horrified. They truly did not think they were prejudice and did not mean to act in biased ways. The only way to uncover and breakdown our biases is thus to excavate them. Meaning, we need to acknowledge that we do see race and then we need to dig deep and reflect on what that means: are the images, ideas and assumptions we have negative or stereotypical, and where do they come from? This doesn’t mean we are “bad” it just means we have been socialized in a culture where stereotypical images and narratives have become taken-for-granted over time, and they have seeped in and we need to recognize this. For example, the image of a Black male in a hoodie has been deeply associated with crime in hip hop culture, and this image needs to be acknowledged, confronted, and challenged.
Dr. Donna Ford:
Dr. Leavy, I feel like I am talking to a family member or close friend, although we have yet to meet in person. I look forward to that day. You both want to get it and seem to get it — meaning, empathy and compassion ooze from what you have shared. I appreciate your understanding that the colorblindness philosophy, while idealistic, is unrealistic, and can lead to negative outcomes. I find it so telling that the Zimmerman trial was indeed grounded in a colorblind approach. Yet, it was about the death of not just a male, but about a Black male. I believe he was racially profiled for two reasons — skin color and clothes.
Let me share this with you. A lot of attention is being placed on what Trayvon Martin wore — the now infamous hoodie, his clothing. Trayvon could have worn a cap, and I believe that he would have still been profiled. And the hoodie, I must frankly say, is an excuse to not talk about race. A Black teenage male wearing a hoodie sends a different message than a White teenage male wearing a hoodie. When a Black male wears a hoodie, as you’ve alluded to, notions of hoodlum and thug are evoked. When a White male wears a hoodie, he is often viewed a wearing a sweatshirt with a hood.
My next statement will likely be painful for readers but I hope that it sinks in and is a wakeup call. I feel compelled and obliged to share my worldview in order to protect and save more Black males. Yes, this is a personal and professional issue for me. Our nation is at the crossroad where a Black male wearing a sweatshirt may be wearing a deathshirt! Here are three examples. I have always worried about how my son (and now grandson) will be viewed based on two exteriors — skin and clothing. I get the notion that ‘first impressions are lasting impressions.’ Yet, I have seen my son (at every age) profiled in ‘urban’ clothes (say, sweats, loose pants), casual clothes (buttoned shirt and khaki pants), and a suit and tie. When my soul mate and I get to certain areas, we switch seats; I become the driver in places where cities have a track record of stopping Black males, especially in expensive cars or in suburban neighborhoods. I acquiesce to spare him being stopped and getting a ticket for ‘driving while Black.’
Lastly, and now I add gender (being a Black female) to this… I have been experimenting with how people in my high-income suburban neighborhood react to me on my morning walk. Note that I wear my hair very, very short! I often dress in all black workout gear — with one exception and that is the color of the cap that I wear. I have noticed that when I wear my pink cap, about 90 percent of White males and females greet me or at least smile as we pass each other. When I wear my tan or black cap, 8 times out of 10 (yes, 80 percent) even if they have a large dog, White females cross the street. White males will do so about 50 percent of the time, unless they have a large dog. They ‘stand their ground’, we make eye contact, they notice I am a female, and then we keep going on our opposite ways. Now, here is the most troubling reality — I am the same person in height, weight, skin color — but the color of the cap alone sends a certain message about me as a Black person, as I believe was operating in the case of Trayvon Martin being profiled and murdered by Zimmerman.
If we really lived in a colorblind nation, you and I would not be having this conversation. If we truly lived in a colorblind society, I believe that Trayvon Martin would still be alive. Zimmerman may or may not have sheltered him from the rain, but there would be one less dead Black male.
Dr. Patricia Leavy:
Wow, I hardly know what to say. Your experiences are so painful to hear. As scholars, you and I have such similar career paths, and I think of you as a deeply accomplished person whom I respect. To hear about your daily experiences of prejudice and how you adjust your behavior to deal with this, it is incredibly difficult to swallow and yet eye-opening. Indeed, our society is not colorblind, as your experiences and the Trayvon Martin tragedy illuminate. By pretending race doesn’t matter, we are also saying that experiences associated with race, like the daily prejudices you have experienced, are not important, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Beyond the unchecked biases that arise from false and superficial colorblindness, there is at least a second outcome in the form of missed opportunities. We miss the opportunity to celebrate differences. I know you have a wealth of research experience regarding multicultural and equitable education. Is there a takeaway message from your work that might help people understand the importance of celebrating — not disavowing — difference?
Dr. Donna Ford:
There are so many opportunities for change and progress to become a nation that values and reveres all of our citizens but children in particular. Reports and my experiences demonstrate that our communities, schools, and places of worship are very segregated along racial lines. This is not progress; it is a sign, a painful reality, that we have much work to do. Trayvon Martin was walking in a gated community. Traditionally, Whites are more likely to live in gated communities. Trayvon was, thus, not supposed to be there; nor welcome by Zimmerman. This physical separation in so many aspects of our lives disrupts a sense of community, a sense of being in this life together. When people from different races and cultures are strangers passing in the night, like Martin and Zimmerman, deficit thinking based on color rears its ugly head. Why? Because the less we know about others, the more we make up. We must get to know more about our brothers and sisters. The more we know about others, the less we make up.
Whites kill as many Whites and Blacks kill Blacks…. So stop the non-sense and let’s get back to White on Black crime!!!
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.