Usually, I would not use this blog to comment on politics or current events. I quite intentionally, perhaps out of the protection for my current and future career, keep this writing focused on higher education and my experience therein. However, in seeing reactions to this unbelievable tragedy from friends and acquaintances on my personal Facebook account, I felt the need to respond publicly in a way that was longer than 140 characters and more permanent than a facebook response.
The first thing I noticed in many of these responses is the lack of understanding of so many of my (usually) white FB people of the privilege that they hold. Most of the responses that I saw that were critical (including comments as to why this death was being seen as so much more of a tragedy than others and why so many were making “such a big deal” about one death) were from those who were white or male, and usually from those who were both. They have never truly felt judged by their appearance and they have never feared that their future would be determined by perceptions about their physical appearance held by others who controlled their fate. They have not wondered whether they would be safe from violence, purely based upon who they were. Their actions and their decisions largely (though admittedly, not exclusively) determine their fate.
As a young woman, I thought I understood this prejudice, as I had felt the sense of being the “other” and the “silenced.” But I learned years ago that my ability to understand depended on my recognition of my privilege, not my identification as other. Perhaps the most important time on this front was my experience as one of very few (two, usually) white people and the only white woman in classes for my masters program. I realized pretty quickly that I had a distinct understanding of being the only one like me in the room but that, more importantly for understanding privilege, I could choose to leave that room and could choose, on most days, to be around others like myself. That most white people will never have an experience in which they are truly the other, among people who they do not know, may be the most important thing keeping us from a greater understanding of continuing racism. I have chosen to understand my privilege while I simultaneously embrace my role as an educator. And so, I choose this space to present some comments on the “hoodie” question and the commentary by some on why this murder is so meaningful.
First and foremost, every death should be mourned. If we truly and meaningfully collectively mourned every tragic and unnecessary death, there might be fewer of them. If we believed and acted as if each tragic death was a loss to our human community, we might fight together to reduce and eliminate their causes. If we lived more as a community that cared for each other and less as protectionist reactionaries, we would respond to people like George Zimmerman and their racist and, perhaps, predictable behavior before it resulted in a youngster’s death. I saw comments from acquaintances speaking to “why so much for this death and so little for the police and firefighters who die in the line of duty” to which I would say that first and foremost, we should not have a limited amount of compassion for those who die but that, just as importantly, this young boy did not choose to put himself in the line of fire. He simply walked down the street.
Second, women in particular, but also their partners, sons, and fathers, ought to be outraged by the language that suggests that a choice of clothing justifies or even explains violence. Do the same people who agree with Geraldo that we essentially know what people who wear hoodies do also argue that those women who were raped were “asking for it” if their skirt did not reach their knees? I carefully choose clothing to meet the expectations of a given situation, but more often than not, these choices are based upon knowing that other choices, especially shorter skirts and lower cut blouses will result in comments and assumptions that do not embrace me for all of who I am but instead put me into a sexualized category. Young professional women in particular are hyperaware (because they need to be, not because they want to be) that they must de-sexualize themselves — pant suits with minimal jewelry and low heels is preferable to make you look professional and serious. I spoke just this week about my personal conflict with negotiating between my feminism and my love of fashion. Yes, I can have both. Yes, I can still be incredibly professional and not be “asking for” anything when I wear 4 inch heels and when I wear a dress or skirt that allows me to think of myself as cute. But the greatest danger for me in my usual settings is that someone question my authority — I will not need to be fearful for my life while in my office. Why? Mostly because I am professional, I am middle class, I live in a suburban neighborhood — and because all of those are made more likely because of the doors opened to me because I am white.
And so, as I see and (to the extent that I can) understand the outrage of people and especially parents of color, I would call on white folks to stand up. To say that we can be more and better than what this most tragic event provides for the world. To say that we recognize our contribution to this tragedy because we do NOT mourn the tragedies of others in the way that we mourn the tragedies of ourselves. And finally to say that this tragedy is not only a tragedy of the black community but of the human community and we cannot act as if this is something that happened to someone else.