It happened again. Another tragedy-turned-headline sparked a torrent of racial debates. I saw this happen time and time again in South Africa, as it often does here in America; people don’t want to talk about the existence of racism, they say it’s not a problem, and then a race-based crime makes headlines and the racial battle rages. The problem is, these battles often leave us further polarized in our views of reality, no real healing or resolve is brought, and after the headline disappears from our TV and computer screens, the average person retreats back into silence about the matter.
What is most troubling to me, during both the media hype and the lull, is there are people who genuinely seem to believe that racism is not a problem. Most of those people I come in contact with are white people, too blinded by their own privilege to see any other alternatives. They are quick to tell you “racism is not a problem anymore”, and “cases like these have nothing to do with race”, but they are even quicker to tell you how, if anything, they are discriminated against. There are even those amongst that group of white people who try to invalidate the experiences of discrimination people of color face on a daily basis, experiences told by the only experts on the matter: the very people who experience them!
I guess it makes sense that people completely unaffected by discrimination could never really understand it. They have never felt what it’s like to be the outside of their privilege-enabled protection. They have never felt what it’s like to have paranoid, watchful eyes on them in almost every store they’ve ever gone in. They have never been stopped by the police for merely being “black and walking.” They have never felt the sting of a fake smile matched with a pair of eyes, that have predetermined they are superior, looking down on them. They have probably never been called a racial slur. They have not had to deal with the tragic ramifications that systemic racism plays on their day-to-day life. If they are reading this, they are probably rolling their eyes right now. They are untouched. Their privilege blinds them, and their denial protects them as they live on in blissful ignorance.
These people will also try to tell you that speaking about racism only perpetuates the problem. They say that we are only “making the problem worse by trying to make this about racism”. I won’t even beg to differ. I will just differ. Racism is the problem. Not speaking about racism perpetuates it. Not intentionally acting against racism is unpardonable. If we ignore racism, it will not “just go away”. We are not dealing with an imaginary Boogie Man fabricated by the mind of a frightened child. Racism is real, and it negatively impacts the lives of millions of people in America. In one of his lectures, Tim Wise said there is no other social ill we take this “talking about it only perpetuates the problem” stance with. Imagine if we told our kids, “If you just ignore AIDS it will go away,” or, “As long as you don’t talk about drug abuse, drug addiction amongst teens will stop.” Absurd!
No matter how you look at it, George Zimmerman racially profiled Trayvon Martin, seeing him as “suspicious” because he was black, and that is what began the tragic series of events that led to the murder of an innocent child. Period. Now, more than a month later, the killer remains armed and free, sending the message, whether intentional or not, that young black men’s lives in America are completely disposable. But somehow the truth gets muddied by people not wanting to call a spade a spade. And like the magician’s hand, waving around in the air, concealing the trick he’s doing in his other hand, we get distracted and caught up in arguments over Zimmerman’s race, Trayvon’s articles of clothing being the “real killer”, and the young black victim’s past.
People try to disprove a killer’s discriminatory motives by saying, “Zimmerman is only half white, and he’s half Hispanic,” as if other races are not capable of racism. Geraldo Rivera tries to say the hoodie is just as much responsible for Trayvon’s death as Zimmerman is, as if thousands of children don’t wear hoodies every day without getting murdered. Right Wing leaders try to draw attention to the fact that Trayvon had been suspended from school, suggesting he was a “troublemaker”, as though it is perfectly alright to gun down random troublemakers in the streets. Normal, everyday, loving white parents of white children say Trayvon “should not have ran, fought, or tried to get away from Zimmerman”, as if they would tell their child not to run, or do anything to get away from a strange grown man, stalking them on their way home from buying candy from a store on a dark, rainy night.
Zimmerman’s race doesn’t matter if his reason for noticing Trayvon was because of Trayvon’s race. What Trayvon was wearing doesn’t matter if white children wearing the same thing don’t get killed for the alleged “fashion faux pas”. Whatever might have happened in Trayvon’s life before that dreadful night doesn’t matter if all he was doing that night was walking home from the store, talking to a girlfriend on his cellphone, armed only with a bag of Skittles and an Arizona Tea. Trayvon was “suspicious” because he was black, and that is the root of the problem. His killer remains free and that only complicates the problem further. What will indeed perpetuate this problem is if we are not dedicated to the continuation of this racial dialogue met with appropriate action, even after sweet Trayvon has left the peripheral of our sight.
Racism is a problem in America, and we should be just as vigilant at fighting it as we are with any other social ill. And for those who boast that we live in a “Post-Racial America” and say that racism is not a problem…I cannot believe that anyone has honestly convinced themselves of this, unless they have truly deceived themselves into believing that hundreds of years of oppression, inequality and injustice dealt out by the hands of a racist system have magically “fixed themselves” and the direct manifestations birthed by that very system, in less than a quarter of the time it took to create this mess. I would go as far to say that if that connection is not being made, the person unable to make the connection is more unwilling to make it than unable. Why bring attention to the injustices and inequalities of a system that benefits you? It’s called denial.