Saturday, July 27, 2013

trayvon martin and the privilege of invisibility

Amid the media frenzy over the George Zimmerman acquittal on July 13th, I came across this Jet interview with renowned scholar and activist bell hooks.  When asked about how African American parents should talk to their kids about the dangers black children face today, hooks reminds us that our current crisis doesn’t present a new dilemma for African American families.  She explains that black parents have always practiced what she calls, "parenting for justice"--a phrase she uses to describe ways black parents teach their children to be activists for justice while also raising their kids’ awareness regarding the inequities and dangers they will face growing up black in America. 

Reading the interview I was immediately reminded of a performance by my fellow Listen to Your Mother cast member Taya Johnson back in May.  Taya's piece, Peanut Butter and Jelly, recounts the tragic and sudden loss of her husband and the subsequent challenges she faces raising their special needs son alone.  Embedded in this story, however, is the fear and weighted responsibility Taya and her husband felt in the moments when they discovered they would have a son.  Taya notes that parenting is terrifying for everyone, but adds, "our fear was doubled as raising an African American boy presents a unique set of challenges and concerns."  She continues that racial "anger, fear, ignorance and hatred is often directed to and acted upon black boys and men." In the face of these threats, Taya and her husband made a plan: their family, with a strong emphasis on the role model of the father, would help their son Marcus to navigate these challenges. 

Sadly, Marcus's father did not live to see that plan through, leaving Taya to rely on male members of their extended family to help Marcus know the man his father was. Still, I find it remarkable that even though they wouldn't have used this language, Taya and her husband had planned how they would "parent for justice" before their son was even born.

Of all the fears and anxieties I felt when pregnant with my son, I never worried that I was bringing him into a world that would not welcome him.  I have never worried that someone in our neighborhood might perceive my son as a threat.  I have never counseled him on how to avoid arousing the suspicions of others.  I have never advised him about how to stay safe if confronted by the police. 

I have never had to deliver these dire warnings because Gareth enjoys a privilege that white people, including myself, take for granted.  It is the privilege of invisibility.  Gareth’s whiteness lends him a legitimacy and a belonging that allows him to walk regularly to 711 to buy candy without fear. He is invisible because no one notices him.  No one suspects him.   Of course, I worry endlessly that he will step carelessly into traffic, but in all the times he has made that trip, it has never crossed my mind that he might get shot. 

Such freedom of movement should not be a privilege; it is a right. 

The work of securing this right for all young people should not fall to African American parents alone.  White people can “parent for justice” too. 

First, we can educate ourselves and our kids about racial profiling.  I don’t just mean that we should understand that it happens.  Rather, we need to understand what it’s like—or admit that we don’t really know so that we can ask questions and find out. 

Have you ever felt targeted by the police for something beyond your control?  This has only happened to me once in my life, and arguably, it wasn’t beyond my control.  In January 2001, I went to DC to protest the election of George W. Bush.  Despite my peaceful intentions and my right to free speech, the police repeatedly treated me like a threat to society rather than as an active, socially conscious part of it.  They blocked my way, barked orders at me, refused to look at me, and refused to answer my questions.  At one point, when the police unlawfully blocked the protest route, I turned down a side street chatting and laughing with some fellow marchers.  Two police officers came out of nowhere and attacked the young man walking just in front of me.  They threw him to the ground and raised their clubs at him, yelling for him to lie still.  I watched in horror before I was corralled away by additional officers (no, I was not arrested). 

Later that afternoon, as I was driving home, I contemplated my treatment and the mixed emotions it had evoked.  I had felt indignant, angry, misunderstood, and sometimes afraid.  Most surprising to me, the unfair treatment made me want to fight back.  I wanted to yell at the police, point my finger in their faces and tell them how wrong they were about me.  I wanted to push them to make them acknowledge me when I was talking to them.   I didn’t do any of those things, but I was shocked to discover how quickly the police could make me want to. 

While driving my car and marveling at this surprising turn of my character, a police cruiser drew alongside me on the highway.  When I saw that black and white in the corner of my eye, I flinched and cowered a bit in my seat, expecting him to pull me over.  I had learned to feel like a criminal in just one day.  Then I remembered that this officer had no way of knowing that I'd protested earlier--that I was no longer the subject of his suspicion and ire.  By getting in my car and driving away, I had disappeared back into the privilege of my invisible self, a self who was free to move about the city without question.  I felt a tremendous sense of relief. 

My one day of minor mistreatment doesn't even make a drop in the bucket when compared to the systematic infringements of racial profiling.  If I could feel so targeted, so angry and so vulnerable in such a short time, what must it be like for young black men who endure the suspicious gaze of those who unjustly fear them on a regular basis—and during the formative years of their childhood no less?  How often do they feel afraid?  How often do they alter their plans to avoid trouble? How often are they incited to violence they wouldn't otherwise commit?  

I have heard arguments that profiling is an insignificant problem because innocent people should have nothing to fear.  That argument overlooks the more far reaching damage done to a population that falls perpetually under a suspicious gaze.  Even more importantly, the argument ignores the fact that racial profiling subjects the same population to repeated risk of dangerous conflict.  Eventually, someone gets really hurt, or as happened in the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, someone dies.  

That is unacceptable.  To truly bring an end to racial profiling however, we must overcome an even greater hurdle: our fear. 

Have you ever felt unduly afraid or suspicious of a young black man?

I've spent a lot of time studying things like race theory and the history of slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights and stereotype.  Still, I live in this society that privileges whiteness while demonizing blackness, and I am not immune to its influences. 

I admit that there have been times when I have looked twice at unknown black teens who have walked through my neighborhood or past my car.  I am ashamed of those feelings, but instead of hiding them, I think we should confront them.  We should ask ourselves where our fear originates: in personal experience, or elsewhere?  Far more than personal experience, we will find the seeds of fear in Hollywood, on television, in the news, in the application of the law, and in the law itself.  

As these many sources of fear show, no one of us has single-handedly created this culture, but whether we like it or not, we are all stewards of it.  Understanding the root of it can empower us to resist.  Instead of blindly perpetuating fear and stereotype, we can question them.  We can educate ourselves about their origin and history, and we can “parent for justice” by teaching ourselves and our kids to look beyond stereotypes to see the promise and the humanity they mask. 

Without fear, the practice of profiling would die, and we could finally guarantee young black men the privilege of invisibility--the privilege of moving freely without evoking suspicion and incurring harassment. 

We can do all that, and if we think Trayvon Martin should be the last innocent black child to die for our fear, then we must. 


  1. Bravo Deb! As with your piece regarding sexual abuse, awareness and responsibility from Listen to Your Mother, you've delved into a different side of the issue and written it wonderfully.

    1. Thanks Taya. I appreciate your coming by!