Monday, March 26, 2012

My Culture Taught Me to Fear Black Men: I Choose to Reject That

This 2007 photo depicts my white family wearing hoodies before they had been made the scapegoat of murder.

So many people, black and white, have already written about the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida a month ago that I hesitate to say anything more.  The national attention his parents have succeeded in drawing I hope will ensure a more serious investigation of what happened than had been done previously.

Either Racist or Not Racist?
But, to me, there is something missing from the discussion.  We talk of whether or not George Zimmerman, the individual, is a "racist,"  as though it were some secret infection like like being a vampire or a werewolf.  Or as though he were secretly had some personal affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan; as though there was a monster he kept hidden inside that took over and killed Trayvon.  

There are great number of details emerging about this case and a lot of dispute, we can hope the investigation will clarify.  But what seems clear is that Zimmerman felt threatened by the mere presence of a young black man in a hoodie, and that many many other people feel the same way.  What is also clear is that many people in the African American community deal with the devastating consequences of this perception every day.  If you're not convinced of this, I suggest you humbly ask any of your black friends or co-workers if they have ever been harrassed, threatened or mistreated by law enforcement or other figures in authority with no apparent cause other than their being black.  And out that experience, it is impossible to ignore the way that perception is key to understanding what happened and keeping things like it from happening again.

Socially Constructed Perceptions; Individual Choices
Much of our culture, language and judicial system is based around thinking about individuals as solely responsible for their actions and for good reason.  But, this doesn't leave us with many ways to talk about the way that things like the perception of young black men are created by all of us, at the social and cultural level.   All our experiences, perceptions and language together with the people we come into contact with shape that perception.  
It's not enough to ask, "was George Zimmerman a racist?"  We have to ask, 
  • "Where did he learn to feel threatened by black people?" And perhaps more importantly, 
  • "in what situations do I feel threatened? What are the main factors that cause it?  Is race one of them?"
While these attitudes and perceptions are created and come to us at the social and cultural level such that no one person can be held responsible for them, we do still have the choice as individuals to accept or reject them.  
Questioning Our Perceptions
The next time we feel threatened and want to cross to the other side of the street, or lock our car doors at an intersection, we can ask ourselves 
  • Is the color or race of the people involved the main reason I feel this way?  
  • Is what I'm feeling real danger or just a phantom from my culture?  
  • Is this the person I want to be?  
  • Is this how I want my kids to be?
Until we learn to talk about the subtle yet powerful ways these culturally created and unconsciously shared attitudes toward race shape us and our perceptions, beyond simply labeling people or statements "racist," I'm afraid we will miss one important lesson from Trayvon Martin's death.

The most terrifying aspect of this story to me is not the notion that Zimmerman is some kind of secret-racist monster, but that Trayvon's death is one end consequence of a perception of black men in our culture that many many non-black people, including myself, have felt, and that many black people have suffered under since desegregation and before.
Let me say that again, more strongly: the  perception of fear and danger that motivated Zimmerman to pursue and kill Trayvon Martin is the same perception and fear that I have felt and it just as dangerous.  Even though I'm not carrying a weapon or playing at being a police officer, I am participating in creating and passing that culture on to my children and to my community.

My culture, collectively, taught me to fear the black stranger walking towards me on the street.  But I, as an individual, I get to choose to reject that fear as a culture that leads to death and instead choose see him as a person who might just be out for a bag of skittles and a drink.


  1. Although I agree with your assessment of the underlying racial fears and stereotypes within our nation, it is not the issue that is being pushed in the media and the likes of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. THEY ARE accusing Zimmerman and the police force of racist killing/cover-up. And by doing so, they are actually igniting more racial hatred. What is needed is for leaders to say what YOU are saying, and calling on people for self-reflection and repentance.

    As for Zimmerman himself, though, I still think you're jumping to conclusions when you say he clearly was following Martin because he felt threatened by black people. As the ABCNews clip showed, Zimmerman's close friend is a black man, so I just don't think race had much to do with this. It was more that he saw what he felt was a "young punk"...and not a "young BLACK punk." Racial stereotypes still are (and probably will always be) within our culture to a degree...and we should always be challenging ourselves to be sensitive to this issue, but in terms of the facts of this specific case, it is simply not clear that race or racial prejudice had anything to do with it.

    On a personal note, not having grown up in the South, I just don't get the whole "fear of black men simply because they're black" thing. If someone scares me a bit, it more to do with if they're dressing like a gang member or Eminem, swearing incessantly, smoking/drinking, and trying to give off that "tough guy" vibe, and not with skin color. Simply put, I just don't get makes no sense to judge based on skin color.

  2. Joel, I think the point is that it doesn't make sense. I hope my argument shows that I'm arguing for more nuanced language and understanding the complexity of something like perception of threat or danger so we can move beyond the simple duality of "was he a racist or wasn't he?"

    It's no easy challenge to raise unconscious fears, motives and culture up to the conscious level, though I think it's less than honest for most of us to believe that just because you don't consciously harbor racist attitudes that these culturally created constructs of race and fear don't impact the way we make individual judgements. "Dressing like a gang member" is a pretty complex social construct that is difficult to disentangle from race.

  3. An old woman will find a young white kid playing rock music in his car to be threatening; a life-long white Southerner plays off of certain stereotypes about black people he has grown up with; a black person who has suffered racism will hold certain stereotypes about all white people. It's all bad, for sure. But we are to be judged on what we actively do, and how we actually treat people, regardless of any "feeling" we may have or "stereotype influence" we have grown up with.

    To say, "Even if you don't consciously hold racist attitudes, you're still probably racist on an unconscious level" is really problematic. My point about the "gang member" is that in the various places I've lived, the times I felt threatened--be it in Vancouver, San Francisco, Chicago, Little Rock, Italy, Greece, Israel, or Kazakhstan--had nothing to do with skin color or race. It's very easy to disentangle a threatening situation from race. The fact that a guy is black, Italian, Palestinian, or Kazakhstani is not what is threatening. It is the fact that there is a group of hard-drinking/smoking/foul-mouthed guys who are staring at me and making threatening gestures. As a kid, the neighbors across the street were pretty dangerous white guys, whereas my next door neighbors, who were black, were close friends.

    My point is that yes, there are racial problems/stereotypes still today that still need to be addressed, BUT we should not, in our attempts to address the problem, go too far the other way and put forth an equally destructive stereotype that says, "If you're white, you're culturally racist, even if you think you aren't."

    Incorrect racial perceptions will always exist. As long as there are different nationalities and cultures, that is inevitable. In the highly-charged issue of race relations, one NEEDS to keep things simple and clear. When talking about Zimmerman-Martin, you HAVE to ask basic questions like, "Did Zimmerman feel threatened because Martin was black?" If you broaden things out to nebulous concepts, then you can only speak in broad generalities and stereotypes, and that's the very thing we must get away from.

  4. Joel,
    I'm not accusing you or anyone else of being an unconscious racist. I also tried to highlight the impotance of individual choice. However, I insist that how we percieve and make judgements about people is inherently nebulous and is influenced by all kinds of cultural forces we are aware of and unaware of.

    What I'm arguing for is the regular practice of questioning those assumptions when they may involve concepts of race that come to us through our culture. I'm attempting to be honest about what I have received culturally, and what I have felt because I see in this sequence of events (and the many many similar stories shared from the African American community) how destructive the consequences of those perceptions can be. We'll see how the Zimmerman/Martin investigation holds up to fit or not fit that narrative.

    More broadly (and perhaps nebulously), I don't think we can understand this narrative and the outcry it's caused apart from our history of slavery and segregation as a nation and I think that involves listening carefully and charitably to witnesses from the community that has suffered under this cultural force of marginalization for so long. I know we want to isolate it from that history but I simply don't think that's possible. You and many of my white friends may disagree. I don't think we are in a position to make that call.

  5. I think essentially we agree, we're just emphasizing different aspects to the fuller argument. The challenge for everybody is to try to "check" those cultural prejudices at the door, and to see people as the individuals they are. So yes, ultimately I cannot understand the full point of view of the black community, precisely because of the racial history in America. But I, the black community, you, and any other people group for that matter, must not allow those cultural feelings and stereotypes that obvious affect us to a degree to actually affect us to the point of acting on them and casting stereotypes based on them.

    Sharpton and Jackson have obviously seen real racism up close, but they have allowed their background to color their perception of an incident like Zimmerman/Martin and they immediately go to "racism"! They are NOT doing the very thing you are saying we ALL should do.

    This whole problem can only begin to be solved when people listen to each other and speak to each other as individual human beings, and not stereotypical "people groups." As for the specific Zimmerman/Martin issue, it relates to the history of racism in America if, in fact, Zimmerman's motivations came from racist influence. If not, then the incident itself has nothing to with the history of racism in America. Now, the outcry that has come FROM it certainly is connected to America's racist past. And THAT, I believe, is your point in all of this. And to that, I agree. But the listening, sensitivity, and self-reflection we need must go all around. To be overly general, the challenge to "white America' is to try to understand the pain and discrimination that the "black community" has suffered over the years. The challenge to "black America" is to not allow racism done to THEM to turn into racism and stereotypes toward the "white community." Unfortunately, what we've seen with guys like Sharpton, Jackson, and even Jeremiah Wright, is that they have allowed the racism done to them to skew their own vision, to where they see EVERYTHING along racial lines. Simply put, past racism has given birth to present racism.

  6. I'm no fan of the media-dependent activists, including many of those mentioned above. But, speaking as a minority, the problem of culturally passed on tendencies is still real and more prevelent than we are often comfortable to admit. The studies of Kenneth and Mamie Clark ( demonstrate this very clearly. Though the Clarks' original research was done in the 1940s, a high school friend of mine did a contemporary version of the same study, polling both black and white children, with almost identical results to the original study.

  7. There is no doubt that there are culturally passed on tendencies. I completely agree with that. We always have to work on checking those tendencies. I think, though, the often times the media, and media-dependent activists, do more harm than good. Covering issues involving race is important, but sensationalizing an incident and inflaming public outrage before all the facts are in is irresponsible. I think that in this media-driven culture, feigning "outrage" is easier (and gets higher ratings) than actually working on the problem and trying to make society a better place.

  8. Whether or not prominent figures like Sharpton, Jackson, and Wright perpetuate stereotypes about white people and whether Zimmerman pulled the trigger of his gun because he personally holds stereotypes against black people isn't the import issue at stake. The true problem is that racism as a system of power and privilege still exists. White people benefit from a long history of privilege. As a result of having access to land ownership, voting, education, social capital, and a myriad of other resources not grated to black people over the centuries since the founding of the United States, white people today are the gatekeepers of resources. White people and white culture are still in control of the social services, laws, financial institutions, education systems, and other resources that people of any race need to build a life for themselves. The mechanism that perpetuates this system of power and privilege isn't whether the individual people in charge of institutions are black or white, but instead it's the culture that they work in. America is run according to white culture. This is why even white people who are the poorest of the poor--homeless white people--generally have better access to social services that black homeless people. On a larger scale, the privileges afforded to white people because of racism can be seen in the professional realm, the education achievement gap, the justice system and prisons, health disparities, and so much more. So yes, Zimmerman is racist. I am racist. All white people are racist because we benefit from living in a society in which a system of power and privilege is skewed in our favor, even if we are unemployed and struggling with poverty. I am not saying that all white people are bigoted and that all white believe negative stereotypes about black people. I am not saying that black people can't be bigoted. Many are. What I am saying, however, is that one of the first steps toward deconstructing this system of power is for white people to recognize their own privilege. Identifying individual instances of bigotry, stereotyping, or discrimination is important, but it's also important for white people to consider, to use Matt's word, the more nebulous construct of racism. For example, the times when white people feel comfortable in a professional setting, when they have access to particular resources, when they are acting as a gatekeeper for resources, or when they are perpetuating a way of doing things that is suited for white culture. It is in these instances that I challenge myself and other white people to be aware that we live in a nation in which the rules were written and the culture was created by white people. I believe that if more people think of racism as a system of power and recognize the ways in which they benefit, we can rewrite the script for inequality that was written many centuries ago.

  9. Joel, I think I understand and agree with your concern about sensationalism and its dangers. However, I don't agree that linking this incident to the pattern of racially based harrassment, violence and even killing at the hands of people in power and authority, is sensationalism. It's simply the social and cultural context in which this event happened and any attempt to understand it apart from that context will be incomplete.

    This is a point I think our two anonymous commenters are attempting to make. I agree that the situation of majority privilege is real and it blinds those in the majority from seeing the many ways in which minorities face challenges to conform themselves and their identities to patterns more comprehensible and palatable to the majority culture. There is a lot of work to do, that I hope will be accomplished organically as the old duality of white and not white gives way to the increasingly and wonderfully mixed racial identities of the future of America and we come to recognize that the dualistic categories never really made sense of the complexity of the American experiment. Yet the fact of Zimmerman's "White" and Peruvian heritage shows that the old dualities have a way of living on.

    Also, friends, I've disabled anonymous commenting. Please sign your name to your thoughts.


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