I’m with friends, heading back from a perfect day at the river, the kind of day that opens blue and holds steady through the afternoon, hot enough to nudge a person into the water several times, but mild enough to allow stretching out along the sandy bank for an hour, snacking on chips and guac, sipping sweet iced raspberry tea, catching up on gossip and more serious matters until the water calls for diving in once again, the coolness pure pleasure – oh, to swim! That temporary escape of gravity’s hold, the sun, the river, the breeze, the smooth rock providing a launching pad for diving – fire, water, air, earth, all the elements combining to spill joy out across the scene.
And then, the ride back, laughing as the iPod shuffles Katy Perry, Cake, the Be Good Tanyas, the Dixie Chicks and Flight of the Conchords into a soundtrack by turns silly and sentimental. It was into this moment, passing through the brief cell service window in Willow Creek, that my phone lit up with a New York Times alert about George Zimmerman Found Not Guilty in the Death of Trayvon Martin. The words dulled my happiness for a moment, but before I could tap for more, we’d traveled out of service again and so I set the information on the back burner of my mind.
At home, I opened Facebook and Twitter, assuming links to the most relevant writings would be filling up my news feed. They were, along with the outrage – opinions pouring forth into the gaps between funny videos, weekend hilarity, Tim Lincecum’s no-hitter. I sought out Ta-Nahesi Coates, of course.
I read the smart stuff, the pieces that elegantly analyzed why we are still where we are when we are. I read re-posted tweets from Trayvon’s dad, quotes from his mother and thought about my own 17-year-old son, a white boy in a white town in a white part of California, whiter than anywhere I ever lived before – we have our own sort of lawlessness, a result of being rural, remote and economically dependent on an illegal product, but of all the things I worry about my son getting into trouble over, being targeted for the color of his skin has never been one of them.
I confess, I was once one of those people who said ignorant things like, “I don’t pay attention to what color people are! We’re all people!” In my defense, I was trying to find a way to separate myself from the casual racists of my hometown. At least I was a step ahead of the people who started sentences with, “I’m not a racist, but….” One year a race riot broke out at my high school. Some white boys, the story went, had jumped a black girl in the cemetery adjacent to the school, had carved the word “nigger” on her stomach. How much of that was true never came out, but what did emerge was fury and a desire for retribution, all of it erupting into lunchtime chaos violent enough to make the newspaper and cause the school to shorten the lunch hour and increase security.
I escaped that town to Long Beach, where folks of all different backgrounds, sexual preferences and ethnicities lived on top of each other. I didn’t have to teach my daughter about how “We’re all people!” because we lived it, bound together by geography and class. I still didn’t have a clue about exactly how insidiously racism pervades the lives of those targeted by it – and then the L.A. riots happened.
My neighborhood bordered the line between the “good” and “bad” parts of town. We didn’t see much firsthand, but a store a block away suffered vandalism and rioters burned the Long Beach DMV down. I couldn’t go to work because I worked at a bar and a city-wide curfew forced closures of late night businesses. Tension suffocated the city. Those few days following were the only time in my life when I had a conscious gut reaction to brown skin. I’m a girl – I’ve had many instances of instinctive fear of men and, sure, inadvertently walking through a bad area has concerned me, but this was a different beast, this fear.
I was on the bus two days after the riots. Three unsmiling young black men climbed aboard. Blacks and whites had just been at war and even though I was a conscientious objector to that battle, nervousness shot through me. Were they going to do something? They didn’t, of course, and I recall that feeling with shame that my good intentions were so easily dismantled – and I wonder if that’s how racists feel all the time.
When we, reluctantly, moved back to the desert, a temporary stop on the path to a better life, a prison had just opened on the outskirts of town, bringing an influx of black families with it. I waitressed at a diner in a neighborhood that, as my customers complained, “had gotten pretty goddamned dark.” I was poor, had three kids to feed, needed the tips, so I didn’t always speak up – I never indulged racist jokes or slurs, but I didn’t climb up on the soapbox as often as I could have either, didn’t initiate conversations about why the unfairness of our legal system has created a situation in which a disproportionate amount of those serving time in prison are of African-American descent.
They were old, these guys, and in bad health from living on chicken fried steak, so mostly I just looked forward to the day when all the racists (and misogynists and homophobes, etc., etc.) would die off and tolerance would bloom across the land.
Finally, in a Native American studies class at College of the Redwoods, an epiphany – or at least the beginning of one: the ignorance of saying color doesn’t matter. Like saying gender doesn’t matter. Notes on the culture of assimilation. That if I really wanted to do right by all people, especially those who’d been traditionally oppressed, abused and/or maligned, then I needed to listen to their stories, understand how our experiences differed, where they matched up, ditch the white guilt for something deeper, more useful. I still don’t have it figured out. Race issues are complicated ones, especially since issues and aspects overlap – race, gender, class, context, history.
But what I do know is that racism, overt or subtle, is always wrong. People with guns creating situations that lead to killing someone is wrong. A 17-year-old boy was killed by a man whose actions sprang from a place of prejudice and fear combined with too power in the form of a gun and the misguided “Stand Your Ground” law. Because someone opted to deliberately ignore common sense, common decency – instead channeled racism, vigilantism, accusation, violence, all the bad things combining until blood spilled out across the scene.
In the New Yorker, Jaleni Cobb writes, “Trayvon Martin’s death is an American tragedy, but it will mainly be understood as an African-American one.”
So what do we do? As individuals, as Americans? How do I, as a 43-year-old white chick, do more to eradicate these entrenched ways of thinking? Besides clicking “Share” and “Retweet”? Write Five Things To Know Before You Neighborhood Watch A Black Kid in a Hoodie? Is it presumptuous to even write this? I’m thinking out loud because I don’t know what else to do – and my heart demands something to be done.
I have no elegant ending.