I participated in a training session once that opened my eyes to something I didn’t want to see in myself, something I didn’t even realize was there. And I am ashamed.
All the participants in this training session were given a photograph similar to the one above. We were told to write down our initial reactions. We were told to be specific about what we thought of this family, this man, his home and job, his needs, the baby’s needs, their life. We set off scribbling madly. We were to write based on immediate gut reactions, taking no time to ponder. I should tell you the group of us in this room were all college educated, working adults. We were volunteers, giving back to our communities, time and money our currency. Everyone in the room was financially stable, if not charmed. I was the only person of color, an Indian woman. The facilitator was an articulate, sharp black woman. Most everyone else stared across the table with blue eyes.
Here’s what our group wrote about the photo:
- Unemployed man with no college education
- Living in an apartment, possibly subsidized
- Living paycheck to paycheck, unstable employment
- Possible criminal record
- Baby needs diapers and clothes
- No health insurance
- Transportation was outdated and unreliable
- Lives in unstable, unsafe surroundings
- Little to no family support
- No father figure in the man’s life
- Loving and trying to be responsible
- Cares very deeply for this baby
- Wants to do what’s right but lacks direction, skills, and means
We were wrong on all but two counts – loving and trying to be responsible, cares very deeply for this baby.
In truth, the man whose photo we saw had a masters degree. He and his wife have been married for four years. She is also college educated, having graduated from brand name universities. Both work in professional level jobs in corporate America. They come from college educated parents and grew up in the suburbs. They live in a nice house in a subdivision and have two new cars. They go to church. They volunteer. They go to playgroups and the park. They love books and covet more sleep.
Clearly, we pegged them all wrong. I am ashamed to admit that I succumbed to stereotypes. Does this make my psyche align with the likes of George Zimmerman? Lord, I hope not. Our group sat in silent awe as we learned the details of this man’s life. My own judgement haunts me. I consider myself to be open minded, compassionate, progressive, and not just tolerant, but embracing of all that is different.
But that’s not all true.
Racial preconceptions cloud my judgement. But the difference, I tell myself, is that I don’t act violently and aggressively toward all that is different. I do not think men who look like the image above are necessarily dangerous or menacing. But still, I judge. And I am ashamed.
The injustice of Zimmerman’s actions leave me with an acrid taste. The whole psyche of America has been twisted and wrung out, and I am left thinking of Timothy Tyson’s words in Blood Done Sign My Name. We have faltered, if not fallen. All of us who share my perceptions contribute to this mindset in aggregate. I can stand on my soapbox and bemoan the injustice, but I must first consider my own judgmental thoughts and notions. What can I, as an individual, do to start debunking these preconceptions that led to the unjust, violent, racially charged murder of a young black man?
There must be justice for Trayvon Martin. There must be punishment for George Zimmerman; self defense, my ass. I heard the 911 call. Zimmerman followed Trayvon even after the 911 operator told him not to. He was on a mission, a manhunt. He had a history of targeting black males in his self appointed neighborhood watch role. We have a neighborhood watch. As far as I know, no one is armed.
This is America in 2012. I am ashamed to live in a world where race fuels violence, where gun rights trump human rights, where the impulsive, racist acts of one man are protected while the murder of a young black boy goes unpunished, and for that matter, un-investigated.
We owe Americans more than this. We have a debt to those freedom fighters whom we take for granted. Julian Bond was my History of the Civil Rights Movement professor in college. I still have my notes from that class. You can imagine how rapt we were with him at the podium sharing firsthand accounts of what we could only imagine with the help of Hollywood. There have been no riots or violence in the Trayvon Martin aftermath. We have come that far, at least.
But still, I am ashamed.