The story of Trayvon Martin has not only outraged many of us, it has also unraveled our hope that racial prejudice in America is ending. The fact that a 200 pound white Hispanic man exited his SUV, followed and eventually gunned down an unarmed teenage black male pedestrian without facing any legal repercussions whatsoever baffles us. Trayvon Martin, with his baby-face and scrawny 140 pound adolescent frame, was a victim of what seems to be a mucky cocktail of racism or prejudice, vigilantism and just plain tragedy. Many of us are disgusted that George Zimmerman, our fellow American, appears to view boys who look like Trayvon Martin as "suspicious" "assholes" who "always get away." However, fewer of us are taking this opportunity to examine our own prejudices.
George Zimmerman's supporters are working feverishly to say that race-based prejudice has nothing to do with the case. George Zimmerman's father has stated that George Zimmerman "is a Spanish-speaking minority with many black family members and friends." A black female neighbor has publicly stated that George Zimmerman was the only person, black or white, who welcomed her to the community. Two black children say that George Zimmerman is their mentor. Various friends, family members, and neighbors are stating these facts about Zimmerman, as if having some friends, family members, or child mentees, who are black, make a person fundamentally incapable of having a disdainful suspicion of teenage black boys when they are walking around mixed neighborhoods. This, in my view, reflects a deep misunderstanding of the intersection of the race-based, age-based and class-based prejudices that many of us harbor.
As an adult, I have always known that criminals and perverts come in all colors, races, religions and socio-economic backgrounds. But that knowledge did not prevent me from expecting to have an interesting cultural conversation about South Asian politics and the Sikh religion one night when I entered the gypsy cab of a skinny, 60-something, South Asian cab driver with a turban on his head. I was shocked when the cab driver started discussing pornographic video scenes in graphic detail, told me that his penis was ten inches long and then looked at me and said, "so what are we going to do right now" while driving 50 miles per hour on the Belt Parkway East. I could not believe what was happening. I tried to recall guidance that I had learned in Women Studies courses in college about what to do in case of a potential sexual assault. I yelled, "Nothing! We are not doing anything! Let me out of this car!" I proceeded to ramble out my entire life history which included the year of my birth, my education and my family background in hopes that something would connect with the conscience of the cab driver. It worked. He told me that one of his daughters was born in the same year that I was born and that we were both twenty-five years old. He apologized and said that he thought I was like the 17 year-old black girls that he pays $5 to "suck his dick." He was most likely referring to the significant number of African-American teenage girls who are victims of sex trafficking in New York City. He got off the highway and let me out of the cab.
I was prejudiced. I saw a skinny and old South Asian man with a turban and thought that he would be harmless and culturally interesting. He was prejudiced. He saw me, a young black woman at a train station at night, and immediately thought that I was a prostitute despite the fact that I had on a knee-length wool coat, stockings, professional black pumps, and a large briefcase. In reality, I was returning home at a late hour from my job as a telecom equity research associate at a boutique investment bank because I stayed at work to study for the GMAT and LSAT.
I am sure that many readers have similar stories of being prejudiced or encountering prejudice.
One of my brother-in-laws used to live in a fancy high-rise apartment building in Manhattan. One evening, a white-female neighbor was walking towards the apartment building. My brother-in-law was behind her walking home too and when their eyes met he smiled and waved because he recognized her from seeing her countless times in the elevator, halls and laundry room of their building. She immediately became nervous and started running towards the doorman. In between her huffs and puffs, she told the doorman "that man is following me" and pointed to my brother-in-law. The doorman responded, "No, he is not following you. He lives here too."
The white-female neighbor was embarrassed. My brother-in-law, a foreign-born black man, attributes her behavior to the anonymity of city-life. He believes that she did not recognize him because people don't really get to know their neighbors in Manhattan. As an American-bred black woman, I suspect that her behavior reflected race, gender and age-based prejudice against young black men. She probably has black male friends and colleagues. She may even have black mentees. But none of those facts would necessarily prevent her from being scared and "suspicious" when she sees a young black man walking behind her at night. It is remotely possible that certain older African-American adults, who are privy to the same biased media that stereotypes young black males as thugs and gangsters, have found young black males "suspicious" for no objective reason.
The pervasive nature of race and age-based prejudice and stereotyping do not in any way excuse George Zimmerman's behavior. When such prejudice evolves from a thought in one's mind to the fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager, athlete, student, son, brother and child of God, then we clearly must demand that all facts are brought to light so that justice can be served. We must keep up our activism because precious lives are at stake. But I personally can't cloak myself in absolute moral superiority because I am not yet able to observe all others in a completely neutral fashion without ascribing some negative or positive values to them based on the combination of their race, ethnicity, age, religion, clothing and or other characteristics. To the extent that George Zimmerman has come to represent prejudice then "George Zimmerman" dwells within me. Does "George Zimmerman" dwell within you?