After the Trayvon Martin verdict, I had a lot of complicated and intersecting emotions to process.
As a teacher, I initially thought about my students, hundreds of black and brown young men and young women who often remind me so much of Trayvon. I thought about my older brother: educated, polite, and successful, yet still perceived as “threatening.” Could he come to a similar end on a darkened street because someone felt the need to question his right to walk around his own upscale neighborhood? I thought about race and class and how I’d even begin unpacking the complex mishmash of the two. Between anger, outrage, sadness, and disbelief, it was difficult to tell which emotion would ultimately win out.
Then came the throng of people on social media ready to clear that up for me:
There’s a lot wrong with this sentiment.
First of all, where do people get the idea that it’s impossible to care about more than one issue at a time? The argument that any time spent fretting over the Zimmerman verdict is time not spent on more important issues reeks of the same kind of casual racism that makes people assume blacks need to be reminded not to riot in the streets. It isn’t typical that anyone feels the need to chastise whites for time spent organizing around the climate change or student loan debt or any other issue that isn’t the NSA. No one assumes that if a white person is organizing around, say, immigration reform, that they are doing so at the behest of some other important issue. Evidently, we browns are not given that same luxury.
When you’re a person of color, there’s always someone ready to tell you how you should feel about something. It’s pretty insulting to tell a group of people, people who have again been made to deal with the fact that their lives are seen as expendable, that it isn’t something they should be concerned about. Black people can be left to sort out what issues will and will not impact their lives; they don’t need others to explain it to them.
If you’re white, it’s probably very easy to feel like the Zimmerman verdict is an isolated situation that only serves to divert our attention from “real issues” like the NSA. But when you’re a person of color, you know this isn’t the case. You feel the weight of this issue every day. You live with it; it’s your reality.
According to one report, every 28 days a black person is killed by a police officer, security guard, or vigilante. Of those deaths, only 13% were engaged in some sort of threatening behavior. In a country where the very existence of black and brown youths are criminalized on a daily basis, worrying that your son will be shot and killed is a very real issue. Telling us it’s only a “distraction” is essentially telling us to ignore something that so many of us live out every day. It’s entrenched in a kind of misguided “color blind” race rhetoric that only seeks to further marginalize people of color and the issues they face.
The outcry surrounding Martin’s death and the subsequent verdict is very much warranted. People who posit that it’s “only” about Trayvon and Zimmerman miss the point entirely.
At a vigil for Trayvon Martin I attended at Howard University this past weekend, attendees were urged to connect the dots. It isn’t just about the death of one black teenager. It’s about challenging a system forces black and brown school children out of schools and into the prison system. It’s about challenging a culture that reinforces the attitude that black and brown young people are inherently suspicious. It’s about challenging a system that allows corporate behemoths like WalMart to court black purchasing power in the morning and supports legislation that gets us killed at night.
If you don’t understand why these are “real issues,” then you’re not in a position to tell us what we should and shouldn’t care about.
Finally, to those asking why there were demonstrations protesting the Zimmerman verdict and not demonstrations protesting the NSA, there were demonstrations against the NSA! I attended rallies for both issues. Where were you?