In a world where tragedies are reported like weather it is easy to become numb or deal with tragedy in an off hand way. I do not want to be numb to the reality or deal with the actual horror of anyones death as a metaphor or merely a jumping off point. My own loves are a conduit to that. Not in a morbid way but in a way that keeps me connected to my own humanity. I let my heart rest on the notion of what I would be going through if my beloved niece or nephew were shot dead by someone and if the person who shot them were acquitted of that crime. I carry that with me because we owe it to Trayvon Martin and to his family and friends not to merely turn him into a symbol. We owe it to all our children to dare to feel how much we truly love them and we owe it to ourselves to stay alive to our sorrow and to our love.
When I was 21 and about to attend college I went to see a professor give a talk. He was originally from South Africa and now living and teaching in the U.S. After the talk I found myself chatting with him in the lobby. At 21 I was hyper aware of my identity as a white person and so our conversation from my side was going something like this. “As a white feminist I think...” or “As a white anti-racist, anti-imperialist I believe...” and so on. After a few of these statements he put up his hand and said in a very clear, ringing voice, “Yes Ellen, it is good that you recognize being white in a white supremacy however, you should never align yourself with the very whiteness that seeks to destroy us.” His words shook me up and set me well on a path to walking with more than one reality at the same time. This is life long work.
I think it can be positive that white people have posted images of themselves in hoodies or declared I am Trayvon Martin. When I was in 10th grade in Dayton, Ohio I wrote Free Nelson Mandela and No More Apartheid in South Africa on my notebook in big block letters. I knew about him mostly from bands I was into like the Specials. I had their 12inch Free Nelson Mandela which talked about his imprisonment and I had some ideas about apartheid in South Africa from the song Sun City that came out in 1985. The song featured many singers of the time declaring solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement and the video showed images of resistance and brutality in South Africa. This 15 year old white girl in Dayton really had no idea what it was like to live and resist under apartheid in South Africa nor a deep understanding of the complexity of what was going on there. I also didn’t understand my countries involvement in both apartheid South Africa and the reality of white supremacy in America. But what I did know is that when given the choice I wanted to align myself with what Nelson Mandela stood for and against what apartheid stood for. I wanted to stand with humanity in the face of oppression even if I didn’t really get how to do that yet.
At it’s core white supremacist patriarchy is about a complete loss of humanity. I mean our humanity as white people or the humanity of people like George Zimmerman even though he is not white but clearly aligning himself with a white supremacist ideology. Much more has been and needs to be said about this loss of humanity but for this line of thought my point is that to align yourself as a white person with humanity is positive and against what white supremacy and patriarchy stand for. I remember the men in Bangalore, India last year that held a protest after the horrific rape and murder of a woman there. Someone in the Indian Parliament had made a comment about the way young women dressed being a factor in rape. These men all put on skirts and took to the streets in an act of solidarity.
The impulse to claim solidarity with Trayvon Martin and with all victims of white supremacy can be part of a rehumanizing process for white people. Staying clear about standing on the side of humanity but also recognizing you have a different experience is the nuanced approach necessary to deal with being white in a white supremacy. To this point it is also positive that white people are declaring how our experiences in a white supremacy are so different from what happened to Trayvon Martin and other victims of white supremacy. It is just as important to highlight the insanity of racism and racial profiling and to ackowledge who is directly harmed by that system.
For many white people around the country especially younger people the horror and injustice of this murder might be their first experience with how truly evil white supremacy is. We as white people should support them as they find their way and also learn from them as they bring new ideas and approaches to the struggle. Engaging with other white people around the complexity of being white in a white supremacy is not the same thing as throwing our energy down the abyss of arguing with white people pursuing white supremacy. Choose your battles wisely especially on line with anonymous racists. They thrive on conflict. Call something out as racist but then move on. Our energy is better served engaging with other white people that are maybe confused or even defensive but trying to figure it out, even as this can be painstaking work.
And there are real concrete things we can work for in our country. An end to stand your ground, an end to stop and frisk, a call to challenge racial profiling and to change our prison and justice system just to name a few. None of these are easy or quick struggles but they are possible and vital. Trayvon Martin is sadly far from the only victim of white supremacy and patriarchy in our current time. I can name two in my own community just this year.
CeCe McDonald http://supportcece.wordpress.com/
Terance Franklin https://www.facebook.com/JusticeForTerranceFranklin
As white people working to challenge white supremacy as an institution, as an ideology as well as working to heal from the pathology of white supremacy and to be of use to the struggle for justice we must be honest about our experiences being white even as we reclaim our humanity. It is not one or the other but both together that can bring about clarity and action from white people.