Face It: Trayvon Martin is Dead Because Many White People Are Afraid of Black People
It’s been a while since we've chatted about the invisible knapsack of black privilege in the age of Obama. Tragically, the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman demands that we black folks engage in some “real talk,” as I like to say, about our special role in American society.
During the last week or so, I have spent a good amount of time listening to white folks talk about the shooting of Trayvon Martin. I have talked to friends, been invisible as I sat next to white people at bars and cafes, and eavesdropped on conversations while riding on the bus. I have watched Fox News and lurked on right-wing Web sites to get a fair sense of “real America’s” collective pulse on this issue. I truly care about white people. I am their best friend because I always tell them the truth.
After doing all of this research, I have come to a conclusion that may be a bit upsetting to some of you: Black people are scary. In fact, I have come to realize that as a black man, I am a member of a group that scares white people more than any other in America.
I think we should own this fact. Could it be that the disproportionate coverage we are blessed with by the news media has convinced white America that we are a threat to them? Always suspicious, dangerous and suspect? Is this fear a result of a deeply held, almost primordial belief that still lurks in the collective subconscious and racial id of whiteness: that black men are naturally more vibrant, masculine, dynamic, virile, and athletic than white men?
Who knows where this fear comes from? As black men, we are left to deal with the consequences; the mysterious ways of (some) white people are not ours to divine or to understand.
However, I am sure of one thing: regardless of how we may be dressed, many white people find us scary.
It could be our cool pose, our energy, or the mere fact of our existence that scares some white people. Black men are so scary, that even when wearing suits in order to mute the power of our habitus, we are subject to extra precautions and security measures by the police, as well as individuals like George Zimmerman who have nominated themselves the protectors of their communities. Ironically, for some white people there is nothing more terrifying than a dignified, intelligent, confident and attractive black man wearing a fine, tailored suit.
Given these facts, it is only reasonable that a hoodie would frighten white people–and those who think like them–such as George Zimmerman. In all, common sense dictates that people wearing hoods cannot help but be anything but terrifying.
Because he was 17 years old (and, we cannot forget, 6 feet tall), there are some white people who are quite upset that Trayvon Martin is being labeled a “child” or a “boy” in the news media. Given that American society treats black children as though they are adults, this protest is both reasonable and fair. We must be empathetic and understanding here: for the white gaze, a black boy (Ronald Reagan’s “strapping young bucks”) is always a growth spurt away from becoming a “giant negro” such as Willie Horton or a “superpredator."
One of our unique privileges in the United States is that we are forced into adulthood early; black people are spared the luxury of a purely innocent childhood. At an early age, we are made aware of the realities of race, “niggerized,” and forced to understand what it means to be a problem.
These are necessary life and survival skills in America, even post-civil rights, with a black man as president. This reality holds for both black girls and black boys. It is especially true, however, for the latter, lest they end up like Trayvon Martin.
In her essential book, Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison suggested that whiteness as a color, abstraction, symbol (and indeed a "race" of people), has not been associated with purity, justness, and comfort by most people around the world.
Given the facts of European colonialism, imperialism, the transatlantic slave trade, and other assorted barbarisms, white people have wrought terror and destruction around the globe. In practice, the “white man’s burden” was a cruel contradiction in terms. Morrison’s deconstruction of whiteness, and how its owners have created a self-validating and benign sense of self, is spot-on in many ways. But however trenchant her analysis, Morrison overlooks our unique and singular ability to frighten white people.
In the minds of white people (even those armed with guns), blacks have the magical ability to transform harmless objects into deadly weapons. So afraid are they of this power that white police (and others) actually believe candy bars, house keys, wallets, cell phones, and other objects are capable of lethal force when held in our hands.
So deep is our power to scare white people, that many of them have developed a subconscious association that links black people, apes and gorillas. These white folks are so terrified of black people that they are significantly more likely to give black defendants the death sentence during criminal trials. Historically, white people have been so afraid of black people, that even when they outnumber us 50 to one, such numerical superiority was not sufficient to guarantee their sense of safety.
Black people are also uppity troublemakers. We make a habit of going where we are not wanted, and of appearing in the most surprising places. During our centuries of bondage, black people absconded, killed overseers, and searched out their kin. The South would witness hundreds of slave rebellions during which African Americans fought a white supremacist military state and the overwhelming force it possessed. Blacks fought and served in America’s wars, dying by the tens of thousands, even when the country treated us as second-class citizens.
As more evidence of our willful natures, African Americans earned jobs and positions in industries, universities, colleges, and offices where the vast majority of rank-and-file whites resented and resisted our presence. In the year 2012, some black people have the authority to tell white people what to do on a daily basis; one black man was even arrogant enough to run for the presidency of the United States of America and to win. What nerve!
Blacks migrated by the millions from the South to escape Jim and Jane Crow, leaving everything behind, in order to seek out freedom and opportunity elsewhere. We dared to achieve and succeed. Black people had to be at least twice as good to get half as far as the average white person.
How can a people with that level of hardheadedness, drive and determination not scare those Americans who were born into racial privilege?
Black people have given whites a gift: a sense of cohesion, community and meaning. There would be no “white people” if there were no “blacks.” As Ralph Ellison famously observed, the first word the European immigrant learned upon arrival in America was “nigger.” This gave him or her an automatic foot in the door of white American belonging.
Those Europeans, and especially those who we now know as white ethnics, had to come to America and take slaves, kill the red man and exploit the yellow man, in order to no longer be called Irish, Norwegian, German, Dutch, Polish, Italian, or Greek. This is the odd and synthetic mix of loathing, fear and need that creates the ties that bind together white racial identity. To be “white” is to be anything but “black.” Most importantly, whiteness is an identity defined in juxtaposition to blackness.
What would America be like without us?
It would certainly be less culturally vibrant, interesting and democratic. But in our absence, whiteness would have to create new “black” people. Why? White people would eventually realize that being “white” is a lie, and all of the prejudices, stereotypes and insecurities that are transferred onto black people would have to be processed elsewhere so the collective white psyche could remain intact.
Empathy matters. As we think through why black people are existentially and perpetually scary to many white folks, we should also take an accounting of the white soul. Could this fear be a manifestation of something pathological and unhinged? Could there be something amiss in the heart of whiteness?
White people have witnessed many radical changes in the racial order of this country. Black people went from being property to citizens; from the periphery of America, to the center of its life and culture. There is even a black man and his family living in the White House.
One of the great ironies of the post-racial era, is that a white America that spent many years denying the very existence of racism against people of color, has now discovered it for themselves, as conservatives and right-wing reactionaries boo-hoo and fret over “reverse discrimination” and how white people are oppressed in the year 2012.
Could it be that many white folks are scared of black people because at a root level there is anxiety about karmic justice, that as Brother Malcolm suggested, the proverbial chickens could potentially come home to roost?
Most white folks are good and decent. A notable few have been allies of people to color in our struggle to make America a more fair and inclusive country for all of its citizens. But in total, white Americans have demonstrated quite a bit of naivete and innocence about matters of race. For example, at the height of the civil rights movement public opinion data suggested that most white Americans believed that black people were treated equally and fairly in America. In their eyes, there was apparently no “race problem.” Decades later those numbers are little changed.
This is not necessarily a function of malice or bias. It is simply the privileged and cultivated ignorance of life that comes with being on the other side of the color line. Given our special insight, people of color must be patient with our white brothers and sisters on these matters.
In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin killing, black people need to be especially careful of the feelings, anxieties and fears of white folks. Many of them appear willing to work with us on this issue; we must be sure not to antagonize them, or ask too many difficult questions. Because black Americans are the conscience of a nation, we must also ensure that George Zimmerman’s rights and liberties are respected. We must always be role models on matters of justice and fairness.
The murder of Trayvon Martin has pushed the national conversation on race one step forward. White folks have been kind enough to share their deepest fears and worries about black men. As a reciprocal act, black men need to acknowledge our profound power as we imagine ourselves from the point of view offered by the white gaze.
Dress up. Smile. Grin. Show some teeth. And don’t wear a hoodie. If we do these simple things, white folks and their anxieties will be soothed. Black people, and black men in particular, are privileged and blessed. We are the most envied and imitated people in the world. With this privilege comes a special burden.
Let’s acknowledge how we scare white people. Once we take this step it will be possible to move forward as a country, and all of us can find peace in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s murder.