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.

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Racism, Hollywood, and The Hunger Games

This post contains a small amount of spoilers regarding The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.

I knew from the end of the first chapter of The Hunger Games, that I was going to write about the series because these books are, in a word, amazing. They’re so well done that I devoured the trilogy in just three short days… I honestly could not fall asleep if I was in the middle of one of these books. That said, I had already heard about and been angry about the racist casting decisions for the movie version of this book before I picked it up… now that I have finished the series that anger has been ignited into full-out rage.

A summary of the situation, via Racialicious:

Hollywood doesn’t like to take risks. But a huge, devoted fan base has fallen in love with these books and with Katniss, described as olive-skinned and dark haired. Yet the director still couldn’t extend the casting call to include anyone other than Caucasian? Before the Harry Potter movies, no one knew who Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, or Emma Watson were. Why wasn’t an unknown actress of biracial, Latina or Mediterranean heritage given a shot? They could cast Tyler Perry in drag (*shudder*) in this role and it would still make buckets of money.

Katniss’ racial identity is left somewhat vague, we don’t know what she is, but we know what she’s not. She’s not blonde haired and blue eyed like her mother and sister and Peeta. She’s dark, like Gale (can’t wait to see who gets that part). And even though we know that the cinema magic that can turn handsome 40-ish Brad Pitt into 80-year old Benjamin Button can surely turn J.Law into the grey-eyed, black haired Katniss, that’s not good enough.

In my mind, this particular casting decision stands out among the sea of other movies that also contain shitty, white-washed casting decisions. Not only are these particular movie producers keeping yet another talented non-white actress from landing a role in an industry where most roles are not written with them in mind, but by making this casting decision they are stripping out a great deal of the trilogy’s message. Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games tie some fairly complex social justice concepts up into an engaging and appealing young adult package. By choosing to cast this movie in the way that they have the producers and directors are sending a strong message, a message that says they could care less about the meaning of these books. The producers could care less about the parallels that readers could draw between the society in the Hunger Games and the real world; a parallel that can serve as a jumping-off point for discussing how people who fall into marginalized groups in our society (like people of color, for instance) are often exploited for the entertainment and comfort of the people who hold the power (usually rich white dudes.)

In the books Katniss is olive-skinned and dark haired like most people from the Seam, the run-down area of their district where she lives. Her mother and sister are exceptions in this district, they are light-skinned and blonde haired because Katniss’ her mother belonged to the merchant class before she married Katniss’ father. This is important because over the course of this trilogy the struggles between the different classes within district (the people within the Seam, the merchants, the peacekeepers/mayor) are fleshed out and contrasted with the struggle that exists between the people in all of these groups and the people who live lives of complete luxury in the capital.

For me, this was a powerful illustration of the way that the small group who holds the most power (in our kyriarchial society that would be the rich, white, cisgender, heterosexual, christian dudes, in the books it was the people of the capitol) can manipulate the situation to cause the groups of people being oppressed to see one another as the enemy, effectivley distracting them from attacking the real oppressor and freeing everyone. The crux of this whole series centers around Katniss working through this deception to realize who the real enemy is so that she can destroy that enemy.

Even without these implications, though, this casting decision still sucks. Why? Just think about it this way: how often have we seen a person of color cast to play a character explicitly described as white in the source material? I can’t think of a single example. That says something to me.

Hollywood tries to shift the blame here. Just like Bloomsbury did with Justine Larbaliester’s book, they claim that movies starring people of color just don’t sell as well. Basically, they make it seem like the audience’s fault that this discrimination takes place. This is bullshit. The studios, the producers, these directors… these people have money and they have creative control. If they wanted to they could produce a movie starring a woman of color, make it epic, advertise it in the way it deserves… and make bank. Fact of the matter is they choose not to because… why would they? Having a culture where most of the people depicted in our media are white helps to maintain white as the norm, and preserve these people’s power.

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Successfully Confronting Privilege – Is It Even Possible?

I feel intellectually paralyzed today,  unable to write. Part of it is the ongoing coverage of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani [the link has information and a petition you can sign!] an Iranian woman facing death because she was accused of having an affair. Part of it is the new Time Magazine cover everyone on the blogs that I read is talking about. I want to write about what’s going on, obviously, because these are human rights issues that demand attention… but I honestly don’t know where to begin. As someone who has never lived in a society like that in Iran or Afghanistan, how can I even begin to speak about it? I’m not qualified. All I can do is read and hope that things get better; and by better I mean better based on what the women in these countries want, not necessarily based on Western standards and ideas of liberation.

Closer to home, part of my paralysis is the weight of the discussion that I participated in yesterday (mostly as a listener) at a Diversity Panel  at my college. As person after person brought up the challenges that they have faced as people of color or members of the queer community I felt my mind being blown over and over again. At first I was compelled to speak out, to make it known that although many white students at the school are clearly ignorant or just downright hateful, we were not all like that, I’m not like that… that instinct lingered for a few moments as I forced myself to remember, as I have many times,  this isn’t about me. The discomfort I was feeling was a tiny thing compared to the discomfort that many of my peers, sitting in this circle with me, face on a daily basis. My discomfort was voluntary, a result of confronting my privilege; their discomfort was not a choice, but rater a function of the same privilege that has allowed me to be ignorant for so long.

Basically: it was time to shut up and listen and learn just a small bit of what the classrooms we share look and feel like for some of my fellow classmates. I don’t know exactly what to do with this new knowledge just yet, but for now it’s enough to hold it and let it continue to create that discomfort in me so that I am constantly reminded that SOMETHING has to be done, so that I can’t just back down and hide yet again.

Finally, on a personal level, part of the paralysis stems from the silencing nature of fear; the fear of saying something wrong, something unintentionally offensive, something that makes me look stupid. Still, letting that fear silence me means letting my ignorance win and never growing, so I’ll write and talk and try to learn something.

I have confronted privilege before, but not very well. Sometimes I creep up on it, and talk a good game for awhile… but always I feel as if I am left standing there, unable to move, because what comes next after calling it out? Too often I feel as if I try to gloss over this issue and ignore it because I hate the way in which my privilege effects my activism, I hide from it rather than calling it to the center of my mind because being forced to stare it down leaves me confused and useless.

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