Because I wear skinny jeans and have floral tattoos, bigots like to call me “faggot” from their cars as I walk home or to my favorite bars at night (this happens in ultra-progressive Boston). I know what it’s like to feel threatened and targeted because of what I look like (or what other people think I look like) but this doesn’t mean I know what it’s like to be black in America. I can’t. The stalking and murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman are not experiences I can claim as a white man.
Many fellow white anti-racists have realized how insulting and counterproductive it is to identify themselves with victims of white supremacy (see the viral success of the “I Am Not Trayvon” campaign) but few are willing to analyze how they might play a causative role in a highly racist society which masquerades as post-racial and colorblind. Whether we see ourselves “as Trayvon” or not, the result is the same: we are Good White People, unlike all those other Bad White People, by simply holding the morally obvious opinion that child-murder is bad. We view racism as something we can distance ourselves from and be superior to with astonishing ease.
This lack of vision follows from our faulty understanding of what racism is. Structural racism, what socially conscious people talk about when they talk about race, isn’t simply hating someone because they’re black or white. This is called being a mean jerk. Structural racism is the set of assumptions and perceptions (that a lot of us might not even realize we have) that demonize people of color and their culture. It’s disadvantaging non-whites by limiting the freedoms and choices available to them.
The aftermath of Trayvon’s death has shown how minimal the standards for white “allies” really are: so long as we’re not on-board with murdering children we can absolve ourselves of any responsibility, think of ourselves as one of the “good guys,” and sleep soundly. This sort of ally will never help eradicate racism. The allies who only see racism when it’s blatant and somewhere else, but never introspect to excise it from within, will never bring about an end to systemic white supremacy which manifests itself in all forms of our society. As benefactors of a racist order, we are responsible for racial inequality.
We’re taught that racism was on its deathbed when Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington, and any lingering threat of it was destroyed when we elected Obama, twice. We’re flabbergasted when a black kid is murdered and his murderer is absolved, but we don’t want to see how we might have paved the way.
The result has been a lot of Good White People pointing and snarling at those Bad White People so that their Facebook friends can like their statuses or retweet their platitudes. It was illuminating to see a Facebook status condemning the verdict with 60+ likes by a white dude who had just last week posted about how totally not racist it is that the only rap he listens to is Macklemore (and rudely dismissed his friends of color who tried to show him how that probably wasn’t OK). If this attitude persists, we will again be stunned when Jordan Davis’ murderer is inevitably acquitted.
A similar narrative many liberal friends spun on social media was to condemn the South, that last bastion of racism, from the comfort of their lofty post-racial Northern thrones, as if the suspicion we view black Americans with is exclusively found beneath the Mason-Dixon line. It’s not just the South that’s racist, and if we do not take ownership for oppression that happens elsewhere, we are allowing it to continue.
As a white person, I know that both the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman were done for my benefit. Centuries of people who came before me decided that black bodies are a danger to me. To defend ourselves, we have cloistered people of color away from us in “bad neighborhoods,” incarcerated black men at an alarming rate, and enacted stop-and-frisk policies which terrorize dark-skinned Americans.
The structures that malign non-white Americans aren’t always this blatant. How many black protagonists are in the media I consume? Are they portrayed as humans with dignity or are they hypersexual, violent stereotypes paraded around for the entertainment of white folk? Am I supporting politicians who bomb brown children and deprive them of their futures? Does the food I eat or clothing I wear come from corporations that treat their employees of color unethically? These are the questions that reveal my complicity in racism regardless of my intentions.
Just because I’m not burning crosses on Obama’s lawn doesn’t mean that I’m part of the solution. If I don’t speak up when I witness injustice, I’m allowing it to happen. With my silence, I signal that it’s OK to treat non-white people as “others,” as less-than, who can be marginalized and eventually murdered if it is the interest of my security. It’s not enough to condemn the actual violence. The onus is on me as a beneficiary of white supremacy to seek out racism in every form and dissent loudly.
The first time this idea was presented to me, I was offended. When I was a sophomore at Tufts (whose complicated relationship with systemic racism was recently exposed in VICE) there was an incident where a student mistook a wrench carried by a black man through campus for a gun and filed a police report. After the man in question was identified and cleared, my socially conscious peers took it upon themselves to educate the student body about what had happened and connected concerns students of color experience. Their goal was to make white students aware of how we, through a variety of mechanisms, erect these barriers that impede the abilities of people of color.
As a white person, I don’t have to deal with racism on a daily/hourly basis and it was very easy for me to dismiss their activism as uppity and hypersensitive. After all, I wasn’t racist. How was any of this my fault? By choosing to ignore the problem simply because I could (a privilege my non-white friends do not have), I allowed it to continue. This is a reaction that shames me to this day and disturbs me when it manifests in the reactions of my well-intentioned, liberal, white cohorts.
By allowing white supremacy to go unchallenged, I am implicated. Acknowledging that “I am not Trayvon” is not a sufficient counter to my complicity, it is merely a basic, obvious concession that I’m not a victim of the violence I perpetuate. We must critically examine every aspect of our behavior; we must seek out and resist privileges we hold that might not be obvious to us as people in power. If George Zimmerman was found not guilty, the rest of us surely are.