Last month, I was invited to speak at Amherst Regional High School as the keynote speaker for their Black History Month Teach-In, here is the full talk.
Been wrestling with my conscience all day as to how productive sharing this picture would be. Apparently, some people thought it’d be funny to get in blackface and be Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman for Halloween.
I think it’s vital for people to understand how real institutional racism is when looking at the current disparities that exist in America. But now that I’m looking at this picture, however, I’m realizing that it doesn’t just end there. Yes, the reasons why racism still persist today is in a large part because of structural forces that were unambiguously designed to create inequality, but it is also the product of peoples’ ignorance and a willingness to not only be complicit to the problem, but to contribute to the problem through continually making a mockery of the suffering of marginalized groups of people. In this case, the murder of Trayvon Martin.
As long as people like this continue to remain willfully ignorant, no matter how hard we try, young men like Trayvon will continue to be killed, African American men will still be herded into prisons, police will still function as a terrorist threat to urban communities, along with the continuation of other racist institutions.
We keep expecting to have a serious and productive conversation on race, but we’re forgetting one thing: It’s people in this picture that make up most of this country. People who don’t take the suffering of others who are different seriously, because they don’t take others’ person-hood seriously to begin with. In fact, like this photo tells us, they sometimes might even find their pain amusing.
This post was written by Gabriel Baillargeon, a photographer based in the western Massachusetts area.
“White is an attitude, not a color.” – James Baldwin
Recently, in mid-July of this year, I had been one of the few white faces that had attended the Trayvon Martin Candlelight Vigil held at the courthouse in Springfield, Massachusetts. The rest of those who attended represented the many generations of African-Americans that have suffered at the white hands of this nation’s ongoing history of institutionalized racism. Trayvon’s case was not an exception to such a history as many whites would prefer, which is a common trend regarding many instances of blatant racism such as this.
It was at this candlelight vigil where many had spoken about their outrage over Zimmerman’s acquittal. Faces had expressed sentiments of anger or were sunken with sadness, but such expressions of grief were not either blind or hopeless. That night, State Rep. Benjamin Swan had said– and I’m paraphrasing– “I know you are all angry, and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s what you do with that anger that matters. We have to channel our anger in a positive way.”
I had sensed a strong connection among the people of this African-American community. These people knew what this nation’s problems were, all while being ironically scapegoated by this nation as a problem.
In the gathering, I sought to somehow connect myself to the black struggle. Of course this sounds paradoxical, since I, being white, am apart of that oppressive force that creates such a struggle. How can a white person or, more importantly, a white collective, attach themselves to be the arm or subordinate appendage, rather than being the mind or paternalistic supervisor, of the oppressed African-American collective (or even any oppressed collective for that matter)? Though I am still lacking the insight for such a solution, the answers that construct it doubtlessly must come from the voices that have been long neglected for much too long because of white indifference. Attending the vigil was only the start of understanding how to mobilize a consciousness that runs parallel to specifically black sentiments.
That day I saw black men, women and youth cry. Through them, I too, was able to cry and gain a grasp onto a struggle that I could never fully understand. It was an incredible human moment. Trayvon had been a single representative of the black community. The conservative media had made him out to be an animal, as this nation has done for countless blacks for many generations.
This tendency to dehumanize other human beings does a terrible thing to us. When we deny the humanity of human beings who are in most instances forced to be separated from those who have the luxury to create the golden standards, we likewise deny the humanity of ourselves.
The inability to feel the suffering of human beings puts us in the presence of desperate ultimatums which we will not be able to feel if we do not find the means to act. The inability to feel or talk about what others are feeling makes us indifferent, and we therefore reduce ourselves to becoming another complication in the issue at hand. Even worse, when we are indifferent to indifference, so that we are unaware of it, we are standing still and going most certainly nowhere.
Though I will never endure the struggle of black men, women and youth, I can certainly seek to understand why it exists and, above all else, LISTEN and LEARN from the voices that the struggle hushes, while providing for the privileged majority the same mentality to be at the service of true justice. To be indifferent is to be complicit, and to be complicit is to be apart of the problems that have infected our institutions, communities, homes and even the infinite depths of ourselves.
Last week, renowned anti-racist advocate, Tim Wise, came to UMass for a screening of his new documentary, “White Like Me,” followed by a question and answer period with the audience. I won’t go into details about the actual documentary, y’all can check that on your own time, but during the post-screening period, Wise was confronted about some online beef that occurred after a post on his blog in remembrance of the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham 16th Street Church bombing that killed 4 African-American girls on September 16th, 1963. His post not only acknowledges the tragedy, but also pays tribute to a man named Charles Morgan, Jr, a white southerner who lived in Birmingham at the time, but who opposed the bombings and was ultimately chased out of the South because of his willingness to speak out against racism.
Following the post, a stream of opposition came. In general, they criticized Wise’s emphasis on the need for white allies. After all, they said, if it wasn’t for white people making the lives so hard for Black-Americans to begin with, they wouldn’t need white partnership in the first place. Wise retaliated to the responses through his Facebook page, the status update wasn’t so friendly.
Wise admitted to the audience at UMass that he was wrong for how he reacted, saying that he is “only human,” and he can’t be perfect all the time. Once the applause ended after the apology, a man of color rose and told his own story of dealing with anger. He was a professor at Hampshire College, from the Bronx, and he explained how living in western Massachusetts is never easy for men of color. He told Wise of the discrimination he deals with on a regular basis. Despite being a college professor, it was the color of his skin that was seen first, and it would always put him in a disadvantage. Any man of color knows, he said, that we don’t get the luxury of “being only human,” because being of color, any outburst could be your last–you don’t need to read a James Baldwin novel to come to that realization.
Tim Wise, a renowned expert on white privilege, could recognize he was a product of white privilege, but he could never fully understand how it manifested itself in his own life. If I he could, then he would never have been so openly accepting of the fact that he can have angry outbursts over issues as sensitive as the Birmingham bombing, and so easily get applause over it.
It was a year ago on my college campus when I had first met Tim Wise. I had no idea how famous Tim was, I had never heard of him before. As I sat down to hear him speak to a packed auditorium, I was impressed and unimpressed all in one. I remember being amused by his delivery, you cannot deny he wouldn’t fair too badly as a stand up comedian. He has a way of fusing irony and raw facts through stating just the obvious reality. That is always refreshing to hear from someone who isn’t of color. But then that becomes the real issue: Tim Wise isn’t a person of color. What he was saying wasn’t anything new or profound, but it was the fact that he was white which was why people gave him so much praise. So to put it ironically: In the same way Tim Wise goes around raising awareness on white privilege, he also benefits from it–he is white privilege.
At the end of the lecture, a friend who helped organized the event asked if I would go with him to take Tim to the airport. I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to get some one one one with Tim Wise after hearing everything he just said. We covered a lot of ground in that 40-minute car ride. He told me about where he grew up, what he studied in college, why he does the work he does, he even told me how he met his wife. We talked about my own studies, intellectual curiosities, and some of the research I was currently working on. It was an inspirational car ride, one that influenced the direction of a lot of the research I did that semester, along with many of the things I write on this blog.
And then he did admit what I had been thinking all along: that his whiteness was the reason for his success. He knew why he was getting called to speak all over the country. He knew why he was able to get through to white people. He was aware of his whiteness, and how that created so many privileges that automatically put him ahead of blacks who were saying much of the very same things he was, and who were also working in the field of anti-racism. And for me, my criticism of Wise doesn’t come from the fact that he is a white guy discussing racism. It’s how he utilizes his whiteness. He continually makes mention of how he is a “white ally” for Black America, and then goes on to expect us to give him a gold star. As stated in the blog GroupThink:
It’s great that that guy stood up for what was right, but to try to piggy back on a very significant and painful part of AA history to sing the praises of a white guy who did the right things is… missing the point. It’s great he did that. It’s awesome, but he doesn’t get a cookie. Why is it so hard for people to understand that you don’t get applause for being a decent person?
I don’t have issues with Tim Wise wanting to stand up against racism, it’s quite commendable when anyone–white or black–stands up for racial justice. My issues are with the fact of how righteously he goes about parading his whiteness when speaking about these issues, and then expects us to view him as some kind of “white knight.”
I don’t care if he goes around speaking to large audiences, it’s the fact that he has become more than just a spokesperson on white privilege and that he feels he can also become a spokesperson for Black America, as well. I don’t have any inner-conflicts being upset when people ask Tim Wise to speak on national television over issues of race when there is a sea of well qualified black scholars who can say the same things Tim says, if not better.
My words to Tim Wise: Black-America could use a few white allies, but we don’t need white leaders attempting to claim some sort of moral medal for doing what every human being should be expected to do: the right thing.
“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot in things racial, we have always been, and we, I believe, continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards…Though race-related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about things racial. This is truly sad. Given all that we as a nation went through during the civil rights struggle, it is hard for me to accept that the result of those efforts was to create an America that is more prosperous, more positively race-conscious, and yet is voluntarily socially segregated.”
Four years ago, Eric Holder made these remarks only a month after his appointment as the first black Attorney General. I don’t agree with his delivery, because creating a real dialogue on race involves humility and not blame, but his words ring true and his assessment isn’t too far off. For as long as I can remember, a meaningful discussion on race has rarely ever happened, and when it does, it usually doesn’t wield fruitful results. I think most of this has to do with the fact that either many people are tired of talking about race, or they–both black and white–have forced themselves to believe that racism and its effects aren’t present today, in 2013.
But with the murder of Travyon Martin in 2012, a deeper dialogue on race began to take root when Barack Obama, the first black President, addressed race head-on by saying “If i had a son, he’d look like Travon.” With very little ambiguity, Obama attached himself to the issue of racism in America. And then again, in 2013, after the verdict of the Zimmerman trial, Obama reiterated that statement a year-and-a-half prior, saying “When Travyon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying this is that Travon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
Obama made it clear that not only is racism still as prevalent today as when he was a youth, but he continued to show how commonly it is manifested in the lives of African-Americans:
“I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away. There are very few African-American men in this country who have not had the experience of being followed when they are shopping at a department store. That includes me. There are probably very few African-American men who have not had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me – at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who have not had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had the chance to get off. That happens often.”
And it wasn’t just Obama who made the connection to race behind the Zimmerman trial. Through my Twitter and Facebook news-feeds, I saw people being able to realize that racism still existed and persisted in many people’s’ lives. I saw some of my prior posts on the trial being positively received by others. I saw people actively expressing their sorrow with the verdict, and posting other racial injustices that had occurred in the wake of the trial. What I was witnessing was the “cowardice” that Eric Holder mentioned begin to be wiped away as Americans–of all racial backgrounds–started to open their thoughts to some real truths this country had so long avoided acknowledging. I saw a collective consciousness growing.
All of this is great, but just talking about racism isn’t going to be enough to end it. In the blog, “A Change Is Gonna Come“, Phillipe Copeland discusses what’s needed for an effective race dialogue:
“Simply the fact that we are talking about race does not mean that we are talking about it in a meaningful way. This is why I believe many of us leave such conversations with an intuitive sense that something was missing. Just like social workers and other helping professionals, we are all vulnerable to the delusion that talk alone is evidence of work getting done.”
Just recently, someone shared their reaction to the Zimmerman verdict. “The Trayvon Martin case,” she said, “was the first time that the racism of the people around me was so vividly obvious to me. That and it highlighted just the nature of racism and hatred that people ignore or deny. It mobilized–and inspired–me to make the elimination of racism not just something I believe in, but something I want to actively be a part of.”
We’re not going to find answers today on how to end racism, but the mindset this woman holds needs to be the mindset we all have–that what we need to take from this case isn’t just an acceptance of racism being present, but also an attitude that becomes determined to eradicate it.
So, the Zimmerman case may be over, but where do we go from here? We had our week of angry posts and tweets, but now is the time to breathe calmly and think clearly on what we all can do–regardless of our race–in creating a future where boys like Trayvon won’t be senselessly murdered, and where men like Zimmerman would have to pay for the crimes they commit.
“Look, we talkin’ about a justice system that has five-hundred people whose cases were overturned by DNA evidence. I’ve seen a tape where five cops beat up a nigga, and that they said they had a reasonable doubt, and I got my reasonable doubts, too, aight?!?! How come they never found Biggie and Tupacs’ murderer but they arrest OJ the next day? Nicole Simpson can’t rap! I want Justice! This whole court is out-of-order!”
The quality of this video may be poor, but the content is rich and just as prevalent now as when it came out 10 years ago. I remember when I first saw this skit from “The Chappelle Show”. At the time, I agreed 100% with what this video is saying–that we expect justice from a system that doesn’t act in just ways. Now, after the Zimmerman verdict, this video takes on a whole new meaning to me.
We can get mad at the jury, and we can get mad at a whole fraction of this country that stands behind Zimmerman, but then we wouldn’t get anywhere or accomplish anything productive. What makes the case of Zimmerman so tragic was that the defense worked within the law. It wasn’t as clean-cut as Emmett Till–when it was clear the law had been ignored and rules had been openly broken. The law was on Zimmerman’s side. The defense didn’t break the rules, they just knew what the rules were. And in Florida, the rules state that Zimmerman had every right to follow and kill Trayvon Martin under the guise of “stand your ground.”
I’m starting to realize the reality was we were putting too much of our trust–and looking for morality–in a system that built its very foundation on injustice and immoral practices.
The truth: if the laws that govern us were truly just, maybe we wouldn’t need lawyers and high-profile Hollywood cases to manipulate them, because right and wrong would be clearly defined.
Earlier this week I posted my thoughts on the results of the Zimmerman Trial, I suggest if you haven’t already, check it out. Since then, I’ve received a range of responses–either via blog, Facebook, twitter, or even face to face–of people questioning how useful it is to even have a dialogue on the injustices that occurred. With all the other conflicts going on–The Arab Spring, the Newtown Shooting, and the Boston Bombings–it becomes clear that, according to some, the Zimmerman Trial, in its singular moment, may not hold as much urgency as a mass revolution against dictatorial rule, civil wars, or genocides. Yes, to an extent that is true, but that does not mean the events leading up to and after this trial do not hold as much significance or that they don’t produce any dangerous outcomes.
To those who do not see this case as one of significance: Perhaps you forgot it took one court case to reinforce the racialization of American slavery, to establish Jim Crow, and to turn the other cheek on mass incarceration. Each of these injustices took only one case, one case each to establish racial dominance.
In the words of black scholar, W.E.B Du Bois:
“To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.”
In the scholarly work, The Souls Of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois refers to being black to being a problem. One has to realize the history of the African-American was one where they we’re always acknowledged as an inconvenient truth. Even when it was the African American’s equality being discussed, the name others used to label said discourse was “The Negro Problem.” It wasn’t a problem keeping them as slaves, or separated under Jim Crow; the problem was debating whether or not to free them and give them a sense of person-hood. The Trayvon Martin case was just another reminder that blacks are still seen as “The Problem”, only this time, many have given up and the post-Zimmerman trial responses are proof of this betrayal.
If you feel that people should not bring up the injustices of the Zimmerman verdict, you must not know what it means to be a problem. It must be easy being privileged, to conveniently pick what you choose to advocate and to decide what issues you give more importance to than others. I wish I knew what that felt like–to not be a problem, that is. But actually, I also wish you knew what it felt like–to be the problem.
It’s easy for you to tell African-Americans to remain calm. It is not you whose worth is being constantly redefined through different definitions of worthlessness. It is not you who, from birth, had a greater chance of ending in a prison than a college–all because of a trait you had no control over.
If you only see this case, and not its role in the bigger picture of society, than you haven’t opened your eyes. But it’s not your fault, because it is not you who can be hunted down, who is granted no humanity in the court of law, or who can’t wear a hoodie without being attacked based off the decision of one case. Remember: Black America is allowed to be upset. This bleak reality may not be your future, but it is theirs. So remember your privilege and how that alters your perception of what issues matter and which ones don’t–to you. Remember that you’re watching from the sideline, while others are actively living it.
We don’t choose when to bring up race, it already exists. We can’t choose to avoid reality–because it’s already around us.
Sure, you may be progressive. You may care about the issues occurring around the globe, but with your position, your argument values people of color as being just as worthless as the other side does. You see their struggles as something to wipe under the rug, even though their happening in your backyard.
It’s important to know that when you remain complacent, you’re not remaining on the outside, you are one of the main contributors . Through not standing up to the problem, you become the problem.