Oftentimes when having difficult conversations about complex topics, certain kinds of people (the small-minded, feeble-minded, profoundly ignorant, etc.) will try to derail the conversation. There are many strategies these people will try to use, all designed to shift focus from culpability and what really matters to lesser topics that are largely irrelevant or that miss the point entirely. Take rape, for example, and the use of victim blaming as a derailing strategy. When a woman is raped, she is interrogated about her choices that contributed to her rape–what she wore, her level of intoxication, her sexual history, and so on. These derailments serve to shift blame from the rapist to the victim because heaven forbid we ask the rapist what he was wearing or doing or thinking when he decided to commit a crime. Heaven forbid we place culpability where it belongs.
On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old boy from Florida was found shot dead. He was killed by self-appointed neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, 28 years old, who claimed he shot the young man in self-defense. Martin was not armed. He had a pack of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea. He had been talking to a friend before he died. We know now that he was an A and B student, a good boy, not that his nature must be qualified for his death to matter. When I first learned about Martin’s murder, I had nothing to say. There’s nothing that can really be said. It is a tragedy of staggering proportions. It is senseless. The saddest thing, for me, is that I am not shocked. I am not surprised. My initial reaction, if I may be frank, was, “Same shit, different decade.”
I don’t have children yet but I plan on it, one way or another. The idea of having a child, of raising a child, terrifies me for any number of reasons. I know too much about the world. I know too much about the ways in which the world is not safe for anyone. It is hard enough, believe you me, protecting a child inside your body let alone within the walls of your own home or out in the world. I worry because I know too much, have seen too much. I worry about relatively minor things like other kids teasing my child or my child being lonely or getting a cold. I worry about bigger things like doing it wrong or my child having serious medical problems. If I have a girl, I worry about the ways in which the world is dangerous for a girl child. If I have a boy, I worry about the ways in which the world is dangerous for a boy child. I carry all these worries before I even consider the challenges of raising a black child so that they are confident and comfortable in the world.
For much of my young life, I did not know race was something I needed to worry about. I did not know race marked me as different, as Other, as lesser in the eyes of too many. My parents sheltered my brothers and I as best they could. This is not to say we were ignorant about race, but rather, that we felt safe and loved. We were raised to be confident and proud. As we got older, we were taught to be excellent. We had to be excellent because we were different and to get half the consideration, we needed to be twice as good, but this instruction, albeit intense, was done lovingly. I don’t know how else to explain it. Our parents were protecting us by preparing us in the best way they knew how. I did not necessarily know it then but I surely know it now.
We always lived in the suburbs. We were always the only black family, or maybe, if we were lucky, one of two black families who we never seemed to connect with as if we were afraid to give the impression of a critical mass of negritude. I did not know race was something I needed to worry about because it was rarely part of the conversation. When you are the only one, you are more of an anomaly than a threat. My parents were aware of race. As I got older, they would share stories about real estate agents who wouldn’t show them homes in certain neighborhoods, or uncomfortable incidents in the workplace where people did not know how to handle the authority of a black man. We were also Haitian, and that’s what my parents focused on when we talked about difference. They told us about our ancestry and their country, a home they loved but a home they each, separately chose to leave, for reasons that were never fully explained. Some summers, they took us to Haiti. Those trips were a revelation because we weren’t the only anything. Everywhere we looked, we saw people who looked like us and talked like our parents. I understood or tried to understand the problems of that country but I also saw a place that could be something like home. The people around us spoke a language that felt more familiar on our tongues and more comforting to our ears. We saw the most dazzling spectrum of brown skins and we fit somewhere in the middle. I didn’t worry about race as a child because even when I started to understand I was different, I had that safe place to go back to, that fold I could fit myself into. When white people got on my nerves, or started to force their racial intolerance on me, I thought, “I come from a place where we are everything.” I realize now what a privilege it has been to have that. What I want for my children and your children is to have a place where they can feel like they are everything and still be surrounded by people who are different. That should be an inalienable right, too. That is not too much to want.
I rarely know how to write about race. I have no idea what to say. Race feels too big, too complex, but the danger in avoiding complex topics and complex conversations is that you give in, all too easily, to simple, woefully inadequate conversations. You give in, too easily to derailments.
When Trayvon Martin was killed, he was wearing a hoodie and somehow, this hoodie has become one of the focal points of the growing and necessary conversation about this young man’s death, the justice he deserves, and the racial climate in this country that makes a grown man with a gun perceive a 17 year old holding Skittles as a threat because of his skin color. I will admit to having not known that a hoodie was some kind of universal symbol for criminality. I teach on a college campus and I see probably five hundred hoodies a day on young men and women from all walks of life. In my world, a hoodie is a useful piece of clothing. That is a privilege, too, I suppose. When it comes to discussing Trayvon Martin and race, it is important to remember that the hoodie is beside the point. Discussing the hoodie is the same as discussing what a woman was wearing if she was raped. What was George Zimmerman wearing when he shot Trayvon Martin? Did his outfit contribute to his paranoia and vigilantism? Discussing the hoodie is as ridiculous as trying to come up with an answer to that question.
Geraldo Rivera has never been a man you can take seriously. I am old enough to remember his talk show in the late 80s and well into the 90s, Geraldo, that was some of the trashiest daytime television around. Geraldo hasn’t met a subject he is unwilling to exploit. He is an irresponsible hack and on those rare occasions I devote mental energy to him, I mostly feel sadness about the smallness of his mind and heart. It came as no surprise, none at all, that today on Fox News, Geraldo said, “I am urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters particularly to not let their children go out wearing hoodies. I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.” Geraldo Rivera can go straight to hell. He should be urging the parents of would be killers to avoid guns. A hoodie did not kill Trayvon Martin, a gun did.
Geraldo’s commentary is a classic example of derailment. Trayvon could have been wearing a My Little Pony t-shirt and George Zimmerman would have perceived the young man as a threat. We cannot center this discussion around clothing. We cannot allow a piece of clothing to bear the brunt of the responsibility that belongs to the murderer and to the society that created him. This is a discussion about race, about unchecked vigilantism, about a state that encourages vigilantism, about a police department that continues to allow the murderer of a child to remain free, about a country where the parents of black children have to worry about the George Zimmermans of the world each time they let their children leave their homes, and about the fact that Trayvon Martin is not the first nor will he be the last young black man who was killed because of his black skin. If we allow the conversation to be derailed, we do Trayvon Martin even more injustice than has already been done unto him.