he Trayvon Martin incident in early 2012, the trial of his accused killer George Zimmerman in 2013, and the uproar following the “not guilty” verdict in July had a profound impact on both of us, but for different reasons (see two earlier pieces on Trayvon here and here). Susana is a Gen Xer from Los Angeles who experienced the 1992 L.A. Riots firsthand and after two decades of diversity, conflict resolution and social justice work, became disillusioned that the Zimmerman verdict was a sign little was changing in her lifetime. Melissa is a Millennial from Phoenix who has experienced an awakening to racial realities in the U.S. as she has observed her biracial friends and family be treated differently than her by society and law enforcement, witnessed her state erupt in nativist politics in recent years, and followed diverse voices on social media.
We are politically progressive, middle class White women with graduate degrees and international experience who are writers and interculturalists/diversity practitioners committed to social justice and inclusiveness. We believe that Whites remain stuck in our ability to talk or think about race, yet paradoxically, the promise of the USA being a healthy, peaceful, equitable, and prosperous nation ultimately hinges on our ability to have these conversations, hear, and heal. As Tom Atlee of The Co-intelligence Institute wisely put it, “What can’t be spoken erodes our spirits and empowers the darker, less free parts of our nature.”
The following four-part series contains our reactions, reflections, and our call to action.
Melissa: I remember very clearly the moment that I saw the verdict. My husband, Mike, who is both Korean and European American, was driving us home and I was on my smart phone. My twitter feed was on fire, burning with outrage and sorrow. Retweets from those I follow provided windows into reactions by those beyond my circle, and I felt myself consumed by the collective cry of despair. As I read updates aloud from my feed, my husband burst into a stream of consciousness against all of the moments when he had been maligned and marginalized, mocked, even physically threatened. He was in good company, as Blacks, Latinos, and Asians voiced their grief for Trayvon online by personalizing it with their own stories of close-calls, discrimination, and other-ing. For Mike, it was a reminder that Americans like him are still “less-than” in the eyes of some Whites, and, chillingly, in the eyes of the law.
For me, the experience was less personal, but perhaps more damning. The feeling of being part of a terrible historical moment was offset by a feeling of being separate, distant, and peripheral. I hadn’t been so naïve to think that racial division was completely behind us, but this case laid bare the dual reality in today’s United States in a way that felt raw and urgent. I felt inadequate, aware that my formal education had somehow left me dumb, unprepared to engage when it was most needed. I also felt alienated from much of my White circle, as very few seemed to even be aware of what had happened. With a few exceptions, those who did post were like me – Whites with an intimate connection to the perspectives and experiences of communities of color.
Susana: That must have been really painful for Mike, and for you too! This verdict really triggered me, and I definitely felt rage and despair. The year before, in May 2012 just days after the 20th anniversary of the L.A. Riots – or uprising – I read about the incidents with Dr. Christian Head at UCLA, my alma mater. This African American surgeon was subjected to not only appalling public racially-oriented humiliation, but the concerns he raised were ignored, minimized, and silenced by his leadership. And this just blocks from where a bunch of us protesting students experienced a policeman pull a gun on us while we were protesting the verdict of the L.A. 4 (Rodney King) in 1992 as the city was in flames over racial injustice! The “riots” were also a big moment for me in terms of political and racial consciousness, because what I was seeing and hearing in the streets didn’t match what the newscasters were saying, and I became aware of how their word choices and labels were framing events in a way that wasn’t only not objective or completely accurate, but harmful.
Then the following year (last year, 2013) Zimmerman is acquitted. My logical brain gets why the verdict went down that way, but to me it spoke to the enduring injustice and institutionalized racial biases in the system. What was even more shocking and troubling to me, though, was the indifferent and even bigoted attitudes and responses of White people around this case. The quality of the conversation around race seems to have deteriorated in the last 20 years, and the racial polarization in the USA increased. It’s shocking and disturbing, and really made me question whether all the work I and others like me have done for our 25 years of adulthood have made any difference. It’s made me rethink how to continue, and how to focus my energy going forward.
Melissa: You know, I think you’ve hit on something else that was distressing for me, and that was this feeling that, as an interculturalist, I thought I should be better at this! It’s not that the incident was about me, or that my response was required, as much as I couldn’t help but see the gap between what I was training to do and what I felt competent doing. And, quite frankly, this was a scary reality to face, because I thought if someone like me who is truly committed to bridging social divisions is so stuck in the aftermath of the verdict, then we are really in bad shape! Because to be honest, I don’t know that many people who care – and if those of us who do care are tongue-tied and sitting on our hands, then progress is really going to remain elusive.
Susana: Great point Melissa – I think it’s exactly this scary reality, plus a healthy dose of shame and guilt, that keeps most caring White people stuck. They (we) can’t face the notion that we are part of the problem and racism and oppression are still going on. I think this is why so many of us just stop trying to have the conversation, become defensive, or even go on the offensive. I hear all the time in communities of color that the people they most bump up against and mistrust (to put it mildly) are middle-class, politically progressive Whites. I’ve even seen some of this in my work – where well-meaning White folks who have dedicated decades to “the work” sometimes do the most damage. It’s like they are so psychologically invested in their identities as “good White person” they can’t allow in any information that suggests they may not be coming across as good or that their impact may not be helpful.
Melissa: I can see that, and I think a lot of it has to do with the sad reality that most White Americans just don’t have a lot of familiarity with the full history of race relations in our history, and as a result we’re not prepared to deal with the messiness of it. As a Millennial, I’m struck by the contrast between the tidy and resolved society presented to us in our childhood social studies lessons and the rich but still contested landscape we see today. For example, we learned about the Civil Rights movement as if it was something that happened in the distant past, basically in the South only, and revolved around a very narrow set of reasonable “fairness” objectives like being able to ride at the front of the bus or drink out of shared fountains. We didn’t learn about lynching, sundown towns, The Black Panthers, or anything that would have exposed the true nature of the violence Black Americans experienced at the hands of White Americans, nor their range of responses to it. From a critical theory perspective, you could say that we studied race and history without considering the context of power; of course without looking at power, the ideas of struggle and injustice don’t make a whole lot of sense.
Susana: Wow, that’s really surprising to me. I didn’t learn about these things in school either in the 70’s and 80’s, but the way things were developing in the 90’s made it seem like students were going to be getting a much more balanced and full picture of history — and all its participants — in the near future. It seemed this was inevitable due to many of the movements around “multiculturalism” and also just the shifting demographics of the country, and in my home state of California especially. Was this in public school, in Arizona?
Melissa: Yes, it was. And actually my teachers did make a big effort to promote multicultural studies generally; for example we did small units on China and Italy. But when it came to exploring on-the-ground realities of intergroup relations between people who are physically living in our society together, a step beyond cultural appreciation of far-away places, something got lost. There wasn’t any kind of rootedness to help our mostly White classroom understand that what had happened in Selma was our own legacy, too.