Last month, in Complicity, I wrote how infuriated I became when confronted with a white woman who shared with me her unsolicited world view: “They can’t follow instructions….Black people.” The second to last paragraph garnered angry letters and comments. I concluded the piece by writing about our family’s move just a mile outside our integrated town to an all white, rural street.
"When I moved several months ago, a mile from our old home, to just outside Yellow Springs, I ran around and introduced myself to my neighbors, who are now all white, casually mentioning my younger daughter is Korean and my son African American, and that he often forgets his house key, so please don’t shoot him if you see him prowling around the house and breaking in through a window. This was offered with a smile and a plate of cookies my son made. "
I was accused of over reaction. That I was a “white racist.” That I was painting white folks in rural communities with a kind of NASCAR-NRA-shoot-first-ask-questions-later brush.
The issues, however, are far more nuanced. If the problem could be that easily identified, Trayvon Martin would not be dead.
In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell illustrates the neuroscience of racism in the second half of his book on decisions we make in nanoseconds. From trusting “intuition,” to make rock solid conclusions, correctly identifying a forged piece of art for example, he then moves to explain the downside of snap decisions and racism reigns at the forefront of that discussion. He even explains how, even though he is half African American, his response time associating positive qualifiers to people of color was slower than when he associated these same qualifiers for white people.
I get this. I get ingrained stereotypes and how people fight them everyday in small and large ways. That there are covert forms of racism and prejudice.
What is undeniable is the fact Trayvon Martin was not shot in a blink of an eye, or because of the horrid tragedy of our own horrid history lying latent in someone’s mind. As tragic and inexcusable as that set of circumstances would be, his death is even more horrific. And jaw dropping baffling his killer walks free.
Trayvon is dead because of the potent and deadly cocktail of fear and racism chased with expansive gun rights and a grandiose cowboy mentality. This in a country which consistently finds suspicion with intellectuals and finds resonance with brutality and force and, ironically, the "rights" of the individual.
As a white parent of a black child, I watch daily how everything I understood intellectually, is now punishing my heart and generating real fear for my son. As he has grown, my fear has grown visceral.
When John was little, everyone, even strangers were supportive and sweet and kind. He was adorable—wispy down soft hair, burbling giving away to soft babbling and then to speech. Now, at 13, he stands in the mirror looking twice Trayvon’s age, perfecting the teenage blank stare, hoodie up. He does not understand how some people will think that stare is a threat to their life.
Two months ago, I left the movie theater with my two youngest. Walking across the parking lot, John started rough housing with this sister. There was grabbing and squealing. She’s tiny and cute, and impossibly loud. I saw four people get out of their cars and watch him. Hoodie up, they could not have seen his face, which was full of younger brother glee. I walked fast to catch him and put my arm around his shoulders and then behind closed car doors, I lectured them both for the millionth time about the dangers of acting out in public and not to do it. I never had this talk with my two older white children. There was not the fear one of them would be shot.
I am plagued with a recurring nightmare that burrowed its way into my psyche after Ohio passed its conceal and carry law. I am sitting in a parked car. John is grown, big, tall, his face wildly expressive and he is laughing really hard, head thrown back, and then I start to tickle him and he me. We are laughing and tackling each other. Suddenly we are showered in bullets, the windshield exploding. He is dead, covered in blood. I am screaming. White people surround the car and ask if I am all right. They do not understand he is my son. They are convinced he was hurting me. They won’t let me touch him. I can’t speak.
I’ve had this dream four times and I never have nightmares.
John will stand close to seven feet tall. When I first heard this from the pediatrician, I knew his manners would have to be impeccable. His mere presence will be seen as a threat. I will fear for him the rest of my life.