Now, before you go all gooseshit on me, take a gander...
A young white man walked down an uncommonly deserted New York side street at one AM. Approaching him from the other direction were three black youths. The closer they got the more the white man felt discomfort. Whether this could be attributed to the time of night, the lack of fellow New Yorkers about, the dark clothes the young black men were wearing, or the conspiratorial air they were giving off, the white man couldn't tell you. However, he became keenly aware of the hairs on his arm standing at attention and the wallet in his front pocket banging against his thigh every time he took a step. He cursed the fact he didn't take the longer route on the more brightly lit, more densely populated thoroughfare.
Just before the youths passed, they spread out, causing a wider birth for the white man to skirt around. Even with that obstacle, the white man took a larger-than-necessary sidestep to his right almost tripping and hitting his knee on a hydrant, which caused the youths to break out into laughter. After recovering, the white man picked up his pace to the end of the block. When he got to Seventh Avenue, the white man turned to look down the darkened street. The echo of their laughter had died out, the youths were gone.
The white man in the above narrative was an incredibly naive me in my twenties. The youths, to my knowledge, I never saw again. Did they at any point mean me harm or mischief? I will never know the answer to that. Besides, that piece of the story is theirs to own. What's mine to own, and the piece I take away from this incident, more than anger or humiliation, is shame. Shame that I allowed myself to feel threatened. Shame that I bought into common stereotypes. Shame that I took an unnecessarily large sidestep. And that shame lives with me to this day.
I've asked myself over and over, why did they laugh? It's the strongest part of my memory. I would rather their laughing had nothing to do with me. But there's this you know better than that flicker that nags at me, keeping this memory to the forefront. And after President Obama's speech the other day, I am more than certain those young men laughed because of my overreaction to them. Just as the ladies who clutched their purses when alone in an elevator with young Barry Obama, so did I with averted eyes and wary demeanor slam those youths with the prejudice they've experienced every single day. Their laughing wasn't joviality, it was resignation tinged with payback.
But this can't be about those boys. They aren't here to support nor deny. This is about my perception and then subsequent reaction. After all, it was my hard-wiring, my experiences (or lack thereof) that informed me that three dark men, in dark clothing, on a darkened street could only mean trouble.
In this way, going back to my opening statement, I get George Zimmerman. I get the need to protect what is ours. I get the pang of fear that touches something primal inside, causing hyper-vigilance. And I get how difficult it is to feel safe with our media, our entertainment, our government routinely instilling fear, creating boogeymen out of passersby.
If we're honest with ourselves, the knee jerk Zimmerman felt towards the boy called Trayvon is understandable. It's a knee jerk we've all experienced.
In fact, we've all encountered Trayvon in our lives. And that's not to say Trayvon has to be black, or even male. Think of Trayvon as other. Someone who doesn't look or sound like we do. Someone whose beliefs may be different. Someone who intimidates and is even a little scary. Someone who talks a different rap, eats a different food, wears a different hat, dances a different jig. Think of who Trayvon is to you. Someone bigger perhaps, someone of the opposite sex, someone deeper-voiced, shriller, lighter, darker, more fanatically religious, more sexually permissive, more gregarious, more pensive, more, more, more... Someone more...
And to be fearful of Trayvon is human. The world is challenging at best, and being on our guard and withholding our trust is not necessarily a bad thing. I would even argue to discriminate against Trayvon in an unguarded, fleeting moment is human. We all come with tricky programming, and like the Avenue Q song clearly states, "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist." So, if Zimmerman had a racially profiled spasm of thought I could even let him off the hook for that...however, his actions didn't stop there.
I want to kill that Asian motherfucker who just cut me off!
Okay, racist brain fart, sure. Admit it to yourself, then move it out of the way to work on at a later moment. Next, weigh in with logic and calm to deduce whether killing the motherfucker is in anyone's best interest. (Hint...usually it isn't.)
Yes, I get how George Zimmerman was überaware of the lone youth on a rainy night. But can you imagine me in New York those many years ago, and this time I'm armed? My heart was pounding, my senses on high alert, my flight or fight mechanism wound so tightly. What if when those three youths spread out making it harder for me to pass, instead of a wallet in my pocket I felt a gun?
I think of my youthful ignorance. I think of how individual moments carried so much more weight. I think of my lack of judgement and my impetuousness. Could that night have ended differently?
People of color, this last bit isn't for you, although feel free to read along if you feel so inclined.
White people, we have got to take the reins in repairing race relations. After all, it's our Eurocentric culture that routinely raped, murdered and enslaved those of a darker hue.
So, stop whining about how we aren't allowed to use the N word, and can't plan that plantation-themed wedding we always wanted! (Paula Deen, I'm ashamed of you!) And for the love of a Hostess Twinkie, stop insisting that Cracker is in any way, shape or form pejorative...it's a snack not an epithet. Bottom line, white people, I find your poor me attitude embarrassing.
Now, admit it, we've had a good run. But just like the only child whose mother gets pregnant, we need to move over and make room for all our brothers and sisters. It's true you won't be given as much attention, and your shit will probably stink a little bit more, but its what we as humans must do.
And here's a tip: when you next approach someone with darker skin, try not to grimace, clutch your bag tighter, or reach for your gun. Try eye contact, with a smile and see how you are received.
b. February 5, 1995