I Can’t Stop Talking About Race (or Maybe I Just Won’t)

07.19.13


I was with a girlfriend earlier today and we talked about Trayvon Martin and what it means to be a young black man in America. Typically I’d refer to him as African American but my friend uses the term black and I’ll appropriate it here. My friend describes herself as multiracial, she’s used the term half black in other conversations. I’m sure, though, that people describing her would describe her as a black lady because when one of your multiple races is black that’s what people can see. This is one of the only times in our friendship that her blackness or multiethnicity has come up in conversation.

We talked about the sadness of the Zimmerman verdict and the horror of a child growing up next door to my own and being treated so differently by the community. We talked about people just not getting it and white ladies changing their avatars to hoodies but not having a single friend of any race other than their own in all of their facebook friends (and presumably in their lives). We touched upon this breathtaking essay by Amir Questlove Thompson in the NY Times where he recounts one of the many times a lady has been afraid of him and he attributes that to his blackness. More on this fear later.

A smart and self aware woman would take this opportunity to delete this post but I think we’re at a point where I need to just swan dive off this cliff and know that a body of water will appear. I’ve used black, African American, multiethnic, and white in two short paragraphs. I do not know what the right term is. I don’t know what won’t offend people and I’m seldom sure that what I’m doing is right. I can’t guarantee that no one will be upset but I know that people like me, people who appear to not be a minority, need to talk about race before more horrible things happen.

When I’m with African American friends who call themselves black I sometimes ask them if I should say black or AA. They all give me different answers, they’re all different people.

In polite society we don’t talk about people’s color. When my kids were in kindergarten I’d ask them about their day and they’d talk about a classmate. I’d ask which kid that was and they’d describe them starting with white, Asian, African American, Hispanic and then move on to hair color and other traits. By the end of elementary school they’d start with hair color and then something about who they were and finally land at race, which is arguably one of the first things we notice about one another. My son is the red head, your son is Japanese, these are things that make them easily identifiable. After establishing these things we can talk about how they both have brown eyes and impossibly long legs.

In our rush to prove ourselves as being color blind are we creating other, larger problems?

Part of me wants to console Questlove and let him know that the lady in the elevator who was afraid of him in his swank apartment building might not have only been afraid of his color. She might have just been afraid of his size (though that’s probably wrong). We all have issues. Recently I was walking in my neighborhood with ear buds in and realized that someone was walking behind me. I turned over my shoulder, got a look at him and smiled, turned forward again and started walking some more. After two turns he was still behind me and I turned once again to look at him (I wasn’t afraid, it was midday and I live in a sleepy suburb, he was a middle aged man wearing loafers and carrying a bag of Indian food) and he freaked out. He apologized, explained he wasn’t following me and then started to walk on the other side of the street.

Some things are just complicated because we are men and women. Adding race to gender issues is terrifying for everyone.

Recently a young African American man named Brian Banks was released from prison after having been falsely convicted of  raping a white girl while they were in high school. Bank’s story is no less important than Trayvon Martin’s. You can’t make it right for Banks, we are incapable of giving him back ten years of living. Would a white teenager have been convicted? Would a white teenager have been accused? Banks’ story has a happier ending than most but it needs to be told and retold.

We have a president who is making us look at race, even when we don’t want to look.

It’s not enough to have an African American Community talking about race. We all have to talk about it and stop whispering. Try having uncomfortable conversations with your friends of other races and if you don’t have any friends whose skin or hair looks very different than your own ask yourself why that happened. How did that come to be?

No one needs answers today or tomorrow but what we do need today and tomorrow is dialogue. When we all pretend that there isn’t a problem and we’re all “ooh I love everyone I’m so liberal and post racial” then we never make changes.

Today’s challenge is to talk about the different Americas we live in. Even when we are neighbors.

 

 

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

07.13.13

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.

Don’t Dress Like a Cholo and Other Things

03.23.12

It’s hard to ignore the slaying of Trayvon Martin. It’s all over the news in every city in America. That the internet and the 24 hour news cycle has made the world smaller is sometimes a good thing. It won’t bring this child back, but perhaps it will spare others.

There was this perfect storm of gun laws and racism that conspired to kill Trayvon. As both a parent and a handgun owner I am disturbed. Florida allows citizens to use deadly force if they reasonably believe they face harm. My understanding is that in California you can use deadly force inside your home. I can’t shoot you on my front lawn… even if… even if… I might be wrong, I’m not a lawyer and I’m also not planning on shooting anyone on my front lawn. In Los Angeles you cannot walk down the street armed without a permit. This is a good thing. We don’t have to fend off hungry bears here.

When I learned to drive my parents taught me the rules of the road and my father taught me the rules of getting pulled over. “Keep your hands on the wheel.” He said, “Don’t be cute and don’t be clever. Take your ticket and say, ‘yes sir, no sir’.” He reminded me that because we were white kids we could drive through places like Beverly Hills and told us about people who were routinely incarcerated during traffic stops, their blackness scared the police. This was all during the reign of Daryl F. Gates, not our city’s finest years.

When we were teens my brother drove a Dodge Dart. He loved that car, it had three on the tree and not much of a starter. It leaked oil onto the cobblestone streets of my mother’s gated community and I’m pretty sure that leak made him love it just a little more. My brother also has black hair and like everyone in the family drives a little too fast. He was late for school one morning and got pulled over on PCH. After issuing the ticket and noting the Bel Air address the officer told my teenage brother that if he didn’t want to get pulled over he should stop looking like a Cholo.

A ticket is nothing. Really.

Something has to change and I suspect it will. I’m an optimist about this because I don’t believe that I live in a country where we go around shooting kids. I won’t believe that.

Worldwide there’s an epidemic of hate and there’s been a massacre in Toulouse. A woman has lost her husband and her two sons to a madman’s bullets. There’s always the sense that “they’d” like to get the Jews. I don’t know who “they” is but they’re always shooting at our kids and our husbands. I wish they’d stop.

I think we’re all culpable though. We talk about bullies and fairness and toss around buzzwords that make you feel like you’ve done something. I’m not seeing people really stand up and say, “It’s never okay to dehumanize another group.”

There’s nothing inherently threatening about a 17 year old black person. Not unless someone told you there is.