The remarks of anonymous Zimmerman trial juror B37 to Anderson Cooper were nothing short of appalling. She offered more sympathy for a violent man who had heedlessly ended another’s life than for a dead child. She used coded racism by calling Trayvon Martin and his friend Rachel Jeantel “they” and referring to their educational status. She said she would be happy to give Zimmerman his gun back. Over and over, she denied the role of race, refused to see the bigger picture that has been painted so eloquently here and here and here.
Women of color writing about this case have asked white women to claim these Zimmerman jurors as our own. That’s fair: B37’s words certainly ought to kill any concept of gender essentialism that might linger, any idea that women have some sort of natural inborn compassion. In this case, clearly white supremacy trumped so-called “feminine” or “maternal” empathy.
White women have to do a better job of educating our sisters. We cannot shy away from the cliched “tough conversations.” If we think this case was a reflection of American racism — which it was — we need to say it and we need to shame those who deny it. Almost every word that came out of this woman’s mouth is, to put it kindly, problematic. We must distance ourselves from her in our actions, but recognize that she and her fellow jurors have emerged from our midst. We have let them emerge.
“This juror’s comments cannot be divorced from our culture’s long-standing criminalizing of young black men, and white women’s related fears…Yes, white women - all of us - are taught to fear men of color. We need to own that truth, own that shameful fear,” Jessica Valenti writes in The Nation. Over at Ms. Magazine, Janell Hobson remembers Adrienne Rich’s “Disloyal to Civilization”: “she argued that white women could not form important connections with other women across the planet — the kinds of connections that would advance women’s collective power and overturn patriarchy — if they remained forever loyal to a white supremacist system.”
And that’s the system we still operate under. How many young men of color have been murdered over perceived “threats” to white women in this country? Think lynchings over imagined rapes, think Scarlett O’Hara calling Rhett to save her from freed slaves. It’s a dynamic of conjured-up physical menace that is met with power and control in the form of actual violence by white men against men of color. And that history has a role in what happens today, what happened in this trial, why the verdict was what it was. After all, this juror declared, George Zimmerman was protecting his female neighbors. So he must have had had “a good heart.” This statement can’t be allowed to stand. Zimmerman stopped a young heart from beating. What about that heart?
Once when I was a naive young George teacher at a school in a neglected section of the Bronx, one of my favorite students, a young man of color, was reading Virginia Woolf’s descriptions of literary sexism as he prepped for a test. Excitedly, he cried out “that’s racist!” at her words. Despite the century, ocean, and background that separated them, he identified with Woolf because he saw her pain laid out on the page. And this was in an environment where empathy was not encouraged to flourish. At my school, the teachers, even the most devoted, often referred to the student body as a dehumanizing “they” — just as juror B37 did of Trayvon and his good friend Rachel. This was the large-scale pathologizing of young people of color, even in a place that was meant to lift them up.
And yet my student saw Virginia Woolf’s pain. I happen to I believe most young people, regardless of background, have more raw goodness than us older folks do — sure, they are also impulsive and have poor judgment and are often prone to following the crowd. But so many kids do have this incredible potential for pure outrage and kindness that slays me, and which animated my anguish over the long Trayvon Martin case and its aftermath. Now it brings me close to tears when I think of his loss. I think of the teenagers I used to call my kids. I think of the innocence they still had when they were Trayvon’s age, even when they acted older and tougher.
I really hope that white America can get to the same point that my 16-year-old student reached organically. When we reach that point, we will identify more with Trayvon than with George because he’s the one who lost his life, his future, senselessly and unfairly. When we reach that point, we will we see people like juror B37 speak in a manner that’s racist and we will respond with outrage and truth-telling instead of turning away. We may not be able to fully inhabit the pain others face — as entries have demonstrated so well on the We Are Not Trayvon Martin Tumblr — but because it’s pain and it’s human we’ll react anyway. This tragic case demonstrates that we still have a long way to go until we reach that point. It’s on our shoulders to feel ashamed of B37, on us to try to change the present reality.
Further reading: The Do’s and Don’ts of Being a Good Ally.
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