Sometimes it’s Easier When We’re With Our Own Kind: On Race Martin and Zimmerman

I didn’t expect to cry when I heard that George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin. I knew that I felt strongly about this case, I knew that it had tragedy written all over it and that Florida’s stand your ground law was terrifying but I didn’t expect to cry because I thought maybe the jury would at least find Zimmerman guilty of manslaughter.

Manslaughter, you know, when you slaughter a man. Even if it’s a boy. Even if the boy is still a teenager and not yet grown into being called a man.

I sat at dinner with my son two hours ago and at first I tried to explain the Zimmerman case to him and then I just sort of gave up and told him about my experience with our neighbor. Across the street from us is a teenager, in a few weeks he’ll be 17 and and he’s approaching 6’10 at this point. He’s African American and when he bends down to hug me I still see the same big eyes that I saw when he was eight years old standing on boxes and peering over our fence. He’s a good kid and he’s just a kid and I love that boy like I love all the kids on this street (maybe a little more because he was just so cute poking his head over the fence looking for someone to play with).

I live in a part of Los Angeles that’s not particularly mixed. In fact quite a few of the 4.4% of black people in my neighborhood are probably the family across the street. This might not be the easiest place to be non-white.

73% white

About four years ago I was at the grocery store when I noticed some checkers keeping an extra close eye on a teenager who was shopping for candy. I quickly realized it was my neighbor’s son (who was almost six feet tall and about 12 years old at the time). The checkers, who I’d come to really enjoy, were looking at this child with suspicion and something else, something I can’t give a name to and something I’d hoped never to see. Something my white children are unlikely to ever experience. I felt the bile rise in my throat and I walked up to him and said, “Hi honey, what’cha buying? Can I pay for your candy today?” All while glaring at the checkers. He, of course, declined. Having his own money and, quite candidly, his parents make more than Mr. G and I ever have.

This was one of those moments where I understood that my whiteness could protect me and my children and that, tragically, my whiteness would protect my neighbor’s boy from a community that distrusted him. A community that didn’t see a sweet pre-teen with a ridiculously bright smile, but rather a criminal because he’s the wrong color and he’s bigger than they are.

We are not post-racial.

Meanwhile Twitter has handed over user data in a French inquiry into hate speech where #UnBonJuif was a hashtag used to discuss what a good Jew does. According to some in France #AGoodJew is in a gas chamber. This speech is illegal in France and it’s a story worth following because certainly folks will be prosecuted and this will make them stop hating Jews. Oh wait…

I like free speech. I like hate speech. I like knowing who hates who and I’m going to say something that is easy to misinterpret:

It’s easier for us all to be with our own kind.

When I was 15 half my head was green. My boyfriend had tattoos and we looked like every Punk Rocker you’d ever want to avoid. Sometimes people would lock their car doors when they saw us approaching. I know this because you used to have to use your hand to push a button down to lock your car.

I never thought anyone would shoot us. It was never particularly dangerous to be a punk in LA.

When Derrick Jaxn was a teenager he looked like someone who would get shot in Florida.

Derrick Jaxn

He says of himself on his Facebook page:

In 2007, I was a 17 year old boy in high school who at first impression could be profiled as a criminal. I wore baggy clothing, had a foul mouth, and I fit the physical profile of guys who commit crimes every day. A lot like Trayvon.

After Trayvon’s death, white supremacist, Klanklannon, hacked into Trayvon’s email to try and find more pictures of him with gold teeth and smoke, things that would “justify” killing him as he made his way back to his family unarmed.

But what he found was college scholarship applications. Yes, Trayvon Martin had hopes of going to college to study aeronautics. He was also taking honors courses in high school. Even though Trayvon and I are a lot alike, that’s where we differ. He was actually achieving more than I did and had much bigger dreams as a junior in high school.

Another way we differ, is in the opportunity to live out our potential. I’m sure a neighborhood watchman wouldn’t have picked me to obtain a degree 5 years later, start a non-profit, write a book, and go on to reach thousands every day. And he didn’t pick Trayvon either, so sadly we’ll never know what his story could’ve been.

All of this to say, even if you don’t consider yourself racist, be careful of the stereotypes you draw based on looks. Everyone isn’t what they seem, but everyone deserves a chance to prove that.
R.I.P. Trayvon.

Maybe people in Derrick’s community wouldn’t be scared of a 17 year old boy in baggy pants who is posturing because they’d rightly see it as the affect of a teenager experimenting with rebellion and necessarily separating from his parents. If Derrick was a white suburban kid with a skateboard and one of those horrible stretched out ear things white folks wouldn’t be afraid of him, they’d just think he was a dumb teenager. Adolescence and early adulthood is marked by poor decision making and outrageous moments. It’s normal. It’s good.

It’s easier for us when we stay with our own kind. We aren’t challenged to look at another culture, another rebellion or another phase. We just look inward and see our kids as being good kids and everyone else’s as being dangerous or lost.

Nothing worth doing is easy.

So I’m challenging you, all of you, to look at children as children. When I told Jane that Zimmerman was acquitted she said to me, “But he was holding a bag of Skittles.” That’s right about when I started to cry.

Our criminal justice system is a good one. Florida couldn’t prove that Zimmerman was a murderer so he’s not going to jail. That doesn’t mean that Zimmerman is innocent or not a killer. This doesn’t exonerate Zimmerman, proclaim him to be a good person or make him trustworthy. Zimmerman killed a child and no one is arguing that point. I’m sad that Zimmerman won’t spend his life in prison but I’m comforted in knowing that his world will serve as a virtual prison and that the bulk of society will shun him and hopefully keep him under enough of a microscope that he won’t be able to hunt someone else’s child. Our criminal justice system is set up to keep the innocent out of the system and the burden of guilt lies with the state. I wish today Zimmerman was in prison but it just wasn’t to be.

It’s easier for me as a white suburban lady to look at a teenage boy with a snarl on his face and a skateboard at his feet and recognize normal teenage rebellion. Sometimes that boy will be smoking a cigarette or even a joint. Part of me even smiles when I see this because, though it’s miserable for the parents, it’s a normal part of development. Bad decisions are part of being a teen and a young adult.

Here’s my challenge to you. And I would never issue a challenge to you that I wouldn’t take on myself. My challenge is for you to look at African American, Mexican, Native American and Pacific Islander teens the same way you’d look at your own white teen. My challenge to my caucasian readers is for you to look at these kids for what they are. They’re dopey kids making silly decisions. They aren’t a threat to you and they’re some mother’s pain the ass. They’re finding their place in the world and making a 4 mistakes to every good decision in exactly the same manner you did at 17 and possibly at 22.

It’s easier for all of us to stay with our own kind. It’s also insanely dangerous and I’m asking you today to get outside your comfort zone. I’m not asking you to identify yourself or you hidden prejudice (we all have it). I’m just asking you to be a better person. I’m asking you to make a change.

My neighbor’s son needs to be able to buy candy without a white lady to help him.

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Comments 9

  1. Beautifully written. I have a black son covered with tattoos and a big skateboarding gash on his face. He’s tall, 22, and has a severe mental illness that handicaps him. I took him in when he was in 6th grade because his biomom is extremely toxic. His father was a fireman killed on duty. JP comes home when he needs me or he needs a feeling of calm and good feelings that he cannot and does not get from his psychomom. I worry about him out on the street. He takes off for Louisiana for tattoo school and I hold my breath and pray he will come home alive. He came home 2 days ago and his mind is clear and he is full of good thoughts and ideas. He has plans to attend art school in the fall. However, I see how our neighbors look at him with suspician, moving their kids away from him. I’ve seen those uneasy glances at him and watched how people try to figure out why this fat Jewish gray-haired is with this large tattooed black kid with his pants falling down (we’re working on that.) I love this kid and I fear that one day a George Zimmerman might come after him, assuming the worst. We are a nation of racists and my kid is the target. It sucks.

  2. Audrey Holden provided a link to your blg this mrning, and I am so glad she did. Well done, Jessica. Well done.

  3. Jessica, Audrey posted a link to your blog on Facebook this morning, and I am so glad she did. Well said, Jessica. Well said.

  4. Incredibly honest and beautifully written. You’re right…Zimmerman is NOT innocent and he will spend the rest of his life as a killer, jailed or not.

  5. Jessica I really like this story and it’s something every mom needs to think about because how we raise our kids is about where they go and who they see. It’s so important, as you said, to get out of the comfort zone, the bubble. Thank you for writing this.

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