What White People Should Know About George Zimmerman & Themselves

I’ve been stopped by the police twice in my life.

The first time I was speeding on a residential road. I panicked, having never been pulled over before, and tried to swerve down a side-street (signaling like normal) because I thought maybe if I pretended I didn’t see him the cop would go after one of the other people around me, who were also speeding. My nerves made me act as sketchy as possible (pulling down the side street, GETTING OUT OF THE CAR when the cop was taking awhile to come talk to me… I made many mistakes) but at the end of the day my overt sketchiness didn’t even get me an extra ticket (for evading arrest, for threatening an officer by getting out of the car… nothing.) I wonder how much my pale white skin had to do with it?

The second time I was in the same town as before, and somehow I managed to lock myself out of my car (with my phone and EVERYTHING inside!) Before I could even think about how to handle the situation a police officer had pulled up to see if I needed help, since I looked “confused.” He had AAA on the scene within a half-hour to get me into my car and on my way. He even let me borrow his phone while I was waiting, to try and track down the friend I was meeting. I wonder, if I hadn’t been so white or so young-looking or so blatantly female… would he have still seen me as confused? If I was black, instead, would he have still seen me as a citizen-in-distress or would he have assumed that I was trying to break into the car? I suspect the latter.

Biases exist everywhere. As a young, white woman from a generally well-off community I have been taught, through experience and other people’s words, that the police were people I should trust for my whole life. Moreover, I have been taught that people, generally, will look at me and assume I am trustworthy without any effort on my part. Not everyone is so lucky.

I have posted this older video from What Would You Do before, but I think it bears repeating. In this video the police are called by a man looking to report that he has seen three black boys laying down in a car (sleeping, in fact) – and he thinks they are going to rob someone. How the hell did he jump to that conclusion? Do you think he would have assumed a young white girl like me, lying down in a car, was trying to rob someone? Probably not. This all happened in the same town that I got my speeding ticket. The same town that I locked myself out of my car. The same town that I, as a young white girl, have never been given a single reason to feel unsafe in. Some people aren’t as lucky.

Relevant portion of the clip starts at 4:40

When I heard about what happened to Trayvon Martin I was devastated, but not in the least bit surprised because George Zimmerman’s attitude is one that I know. Its one that is illustrated very clearly in this clip above, that took place right in my own neighborhood. It is an attitude that has been expressed to me by certain well-meaning liberal-leaning family members & friends who tell me that those “gut assumptions” (read: racism) we make about people can sometimes be prudent- because statistics show that it makes sense for someone to be more nervous around a person of color since “they commit more crimes.” This attitude is complete BS, of course, because judging individuals based on sweeping generalizations is reductionist and wrong. (Yes, even those based on statistics.)(We’re not going to get into how messed up talking about statistics are in this particular case, since we’d be here all day.) Statistics don’t mean much on a micro-level, where individual experience trumps the bigger picture, and since the mico-level is where we are interacting people on a daily basis it makes sense not to bring big-picture things like crime statistics into our interactions.

The sick sad thing is that George Zimmerman thought that he was doing good, protecting his neighborhood from some danger. It is so easy to vilify Zimmerman and hold him up as an example of extreme racism. An example of something us good liberal people would NEVER even fathom doing or thinking. So easy to extend that anger towards the police force, who are dragging their feet in investigating and trying their damndest to cut Zimmerman a break. Racist monsters, all of them. Racist, but not like us. That’s bullshit.

True, most white people would never go so far as to shoot someone because of the color of their skin – but that doesn’t mean we are immune to racism. Just like gender stereotypes, stereotypes about race are basically, in the air we breathe. You can’t live in America without taking in some of it. If you’ve ever crossed to their other side of the street at night, to avoid walking near a person of color just in case. Ever clutched your purse a bit tighter when a person of color walked by. Ever heard a newscaster talking about a crime and pictured the criminal as a person of color before the newscast even let you know. Ever been unaware of the numbers of black women who are murdered or kidnapped in this country each year, without receiving the mass news coverage that white women do… I think you get my point.

White people all fall into the racist trap at some time or another, not because we’re monsters but because that’s how our society is set up. We’re expected to be in this trap all our lives, and not even realize we’re in it. This “trap” is our safe little bubble of ignorance, the bubble that lets us live our day to day lives, reaping the privileges that come with being white and never feeling bad about it.

The first step to combatting racism, as a white ally, is admitting that you have racist attitudes. I’m not saying that you’re a monster, I’m just saying that it is inevitable. We are all taught from a young age to make assumptions about people automatically based on identifiable features – like skin color or gender presentation. If you want to fight racism (or sexism, or any-ism) the first thing you need to do is start tacking those assumptions in your own mind.

This post, from Eshu’s Playground on tumblr, explains it well:

Every now and then, I’m asked (usually by someone White) if I think all White people are racist. The answer to that question is, “Yes, and … ” because, frankly, it’s a matter of degree. Oh, it’s not the degrees most White people would imagine for themselves, but it is a matter of degree. Each of those degrees tells me how much I can trust you.

For me, those degrees are:

  • 0 – Non-human: assigns neither meaning nor value to usual markers of race; stare in wonderment
  • 1 – John Brown: willing to take up arms against White people who attempt to harm a person of color; treat them as Black
  • 2 – White Panthers: committing resources and support to people of color; reciprocate
  • 3 – Jane Elliott: taking the fight against racism to White folks; support
  • 4 – MC Search: can talk about race and racism without showing their ass; engage but challenge when necessary
  • 5 – “Colorblind”: typical well-meaning White person; be friendly but don’t talk about race
  • 6 – Archie Bunker: believes stereotypes but doesn’t hate us for them; be polite but keep my distance
  • 7 – Rudyard Kipling: believes they are superior; avoid
  • 8 – NYPD: would not think twice about harming a person of color; stay alert
  • 9 – KKK: would go out of their way to harm a person of color; run away
  • 10 – Southern slave owners: would inflict any and all manner of degradation and dehumanization upon a person of color; emigrate

If you (or I or anyone who considers themselves a non-racist white person) are not part of the solution we are part of the problem. If you (or I) hear racist comment being made and don’t say anything… the speaker assumes we’re cool with what they’ve just said, and their racist attitudes are confirmed one more time. If you (or I) remain ignorant to the daily experiences faced by people of color in this country – which happens often, especially with people who subscribe to a “colorblind” ideology – then we deny the very real existence of racism and belittle the experiences of people of color. Truly fighting racism, as a white person, means putting in the time to do the research, talk to people, and understand their lived experience. It means taking that understanding and then turning it into action. It means doing all of this despite the fact that it doesn’t benefit you (if you’re doing it right, it actually does the opposite of benefiting you since you’re fighting to tear apart a social system that gives white people extra privileges at the expense of people of color.)

If you are white in the United States, it is very easy to be racist, and very hard to stop.Which means  if you are white in the United States it is very easy to be a jerk, and very hard to stop. Sad, but true. Not being racist requires the self-awareness to realize how much you don’t know, and then to do the research and do the work without expecting praise because, really, you’re just doing what any decent person should and would do. White people in America are programmed to be blind to racism, since we are essentially NEVER made to think about the color of our skin and how it impacts our life… that is the privilege that comes with being white. That privilege is what we must fight to destroy, for Trayvon and for all of the millions of people who suffer unduly at the hands of our ignorance.

ETA: Before people get mad… I know George Zimmerman is Hispanic, however this does not mean he doesn’t have privilege. For one, Hispanic is an ethnicity not a race; I’m not sure of George Zimmerman’s race but it is totally possible to be Hispanic (ethnicity) and white (race). Also, just going simply by appearances, Zimmerman can “pass” as white and definitely experienced more race-based privilege than Trayvon Martin who was killed, essentially, for being a black male, and wearing a hoodie.

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