By CARRIE STETLER
White people don’t like the term “White privilege” because it sounds like the kind of rhetoric “angry Black people” use to make us feel guilty. But if we don’t have to worry that our sons could be murdered for walking through a gated community at night, we’re privileged. And it’s a privilege we enjoy because we’re White, or more specifically, because we aren’t Black.
If George Zimmerman can be acquitted for murdering Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teen, we know something is horribly, horribly wrong with America. But what are we supposed to do about it?
On most days, we don’t have to think about racial profiling. No police officer or neighborhood watchman will ever confront us with a gun solely because we’re White. Normally, we don’t talk much about it either, because when we do, our more conservative neighbors, relatives and co-workers will indicate that talking too much about it is a sign of White Guilt, and White Guilt is for hypocritical liberals who want to make everyone else feel bad about slavery and poor people and the unfairness of it all because they can’t admit they like living in nice neighborhoods with good school systems.
So we change the subject, and take their advice to lighten the fuck up and have a beer, because we want to avoid the same debate we had last month, when they brought up Reginald Denny, the truck driver beaten during the LA Riots, as an example of how Black people can be racist, too.
Then we’ll ask ourselves once more, during the outpouring of anger and national soul-searching that follows crimes like these, if our silence, fear and complacency have aided and abetted the latest George Zimmerman.
If we have Black friends, they’ve told us about being racially profiled in mostly white towns; how they were pulled over for a minor infraction, taken into custody and treated like criminals because they forgot to pay a traffic ticket. We know that if we were behind the wheel, the cops would let us off with a warning, and they might even be nice about it.
This is White privilege at work. This is the United States of Suburbia making it clear that Black people aren’t welcome and should go back to where they belong. While we sit at home, in non-racist comfortability, the fines of the racially profiled have enriched our municipalities and diverted attention from our own unpaid tickets.
On a microcosmic level, this is Jim Crow, and we aren’t much different than the Whites who looked the other way when Blacks were barred from lunch counters and the KKK ran them out of town.
There are YouTube videos that clearly illustrate how White people respond when Blacks and Whites commit the same crime. In one scenario, staged by a news show with a hidden camera, people barely look twice as a White man tries to steal a locked bicycle. But when a Black teen attempts the same thing, a crowd of Whites closes in, shouting and dialing 911. One woman tracks him with her cell phone camera, smugly exclaiming, “I gotcha, buddy!’’ It’s eerily reminiscent of a lynch mob.
How can we watch scenes like this and doubt that racial profiling is real? After the death of Trayvon Martin, how can we deny that America’s tradition of hunting down and persecuting Blacks is still alive? How can we not question ourselves and our role in it all, however unintended or indirect?
How can we prevent another Trayvon Martin from dying and another George Zimmerman from getting away with it?
A good start would be to stop insisting we’re “colorblind.’‘ We’re not. And anyway, there’s nothing wrong with noticing color. It’s only wrong when you stereotype and criminalize people who aren’t White.
We should also stop pretending that when Black people stereotype White people, the result is the same. They’re unlikely to shoot us because we look like criminals, with or without a hoodie, and if we attack them, and they shoot us in self-defense, they’ll be sent to prison, not us.
We can recognize that America’s history of slavery and segregation may help explain why so many of us live in nice, predominantly White neighborhoods with good school systems; and because this is also where many of us grew up, we should consider that we might not know very much about Black people — aside from what we’ve seen on TV or in movies or heard on Hot 97, all of which are filled with stereotypes.
If we really want to protect our nation against George Zimmermans, we can try to understand what it’s like to be Black in America by listening to actual Black Americans. And when they tell us, we shouldn’t dismiss them because they’re “angry” and “paranoid.” They have a right to be angry, and they’re not paranoid. Every day, they must live with our collective suspicion.
In real life, and on social media, we can keep talking about racial profiling, despite White people who want us to shut up, yet lure us into tedious arguments that will never change their point of view or ours. If we overhear anyone using terms like “Thugvon,” we can find a polite way of telling them to shut their hateful ignorant mouths.
We can monitor our personal perceptions of Black people on the off chance that stray racist stereotypes have trickled into our subconscious and stayed there.
If we feel nervous when we’re stopped at a red light and a Black man walks past, we can ask ourselves, do we know anything about this person or the kind of life he’s led? Why are we jumping to conclusions?
We can remind ourselves that, because of those conclusions, Trayvon Martin is dead.
Carrie Stetler is the managing editor of HYCIDE, a photojournalism magazine and arts journal (where this piece originally ran). She lives in Parsippany, NJ.
1. In Trayvon Martin’s Name: Words, Art and Music Inspired By the Death of the Son We All Call Our Own
2. What If Trayvon Had Come Back Home? We Must Teach Our Children How to Cope With Racism
3. The George Zimmerman Verdict Is Deeply Inhumane. This Is Why We Need To Keep Fighting.
4. In a Fog of Trayvon Rage and Sadness, Saying Goodbye to My Son