This second installment in a four-part series contains our year-long reactions, reflections, and our call to action following the July 13, 2013 “not guilty” trial verdict for George Zimmerman, accused of killing Trayvon Martin in early 2012. [Read Part I].
Melissa: …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.
By contrast, the way we talked about the Civil Rights movement mirrored how we studied Prohibition: As if it were some bygone era in which “mistakes were made,” but from which the country had now collectively moved forward. It’s pretty striking to look back as an adult and realize that when I learned about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1st grade, in 1988, it actually wasn’t that far removed from the era at all. Yet we were studying it as if it were ancient history, with no connection to us or our families.
Susana: Wow, that really puts things in perspective for me, I graduated from high school in 1988! I don’t think my experience is necessarily “typical” of White Gen Xers but I think it’s an important window into the times. I believe my brother and I were part of the public school busing program in the L.A. area in the 1970s, aimed to more racially integrate the schools by busing kids to different neighborhoods and mixing up our demographics. We attended school in a working class neighborhood of color a few miles from home. It was a high crime area – stuff went down in the apartment complex next door, and occasionally an inebriated man wandered onto campus. My classmates were mostly African American, Southeast Asian refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam, Armenians, and Latinos of mostly Mexican origin. While my parents remember I usually became friends with the 1-2 other White girls in class, I also was good friends with a few Black girls, a Cambodian family, and a couple Latinas. In fact, my folks said when I was really little I’d come home from school talking about the “curly-haired kids” – apparently I paid more attention to African Americans’ hair texture than skin color!
Melissa: Your memories are so vivid that I can tell it had a lasting impact on you to be surrounded by so many different races, ethnicities, and economic classes within your childhood world. How did you process it? Was there a kind of awareness that you were part of a movement toward integration, and any kind of sense you had about the future? Because at the time, you would have been the kids – and therefore the future that everyone was trying to build, right?
Susana: Even though my father grew up working class in New Orleans in the early 50s, I don’t recall race ever being discussed or commented on at home when I was young. However, we also attended an affluent Lutheran church where just about everyone was White, blond and blue-eyed. My brother and I were friends with the one Korean family, the one African American family, and the one White kid with a fro who also went to school in the “ghetto” near us. The other White kids didn’t treat my brother and I very well. Maybe it was because of class differences, or because we were smart, but even at an early age I interpreted this as racial prejudice because we looked different. Anyway, demographics in California have shifted dramatically since then, such that Latinos are the majority of school-aged children and Whites are the minority.
I think there was a feeling back then, and many signs, that race was going to be less and less of an issue with time and increased contact between groups. But not only does the research not show that contact automatically creates empathy and harmony, my experience and situations like what happened to Trayvon are evidence that the dream of “can’t we all just get along” isn’t as easy as we’d like it to be.
Melissa: From what you’re saying, it seems we’re both disillusioned, but the disillusionment comes from different places: For you, reality was not what you were told it was going to be, while mine was not what I was told it already was. You felt you were part of a future that would emerge, and I was taught that the future was already here!
In the case of my generation, I think well-meaning (White) adults hoped that if they projected a worldview onto us in which these issues were already resolved, they just magically would be. For instance, my parents were among those who tried very hard to make sure that their kids didn’t see race, thinking that if they made us color-blind, we’d avoid the darkness of earlier generations. One of the earliest historical figures my parents introduced me to was Harriet Tubman, and when we kids were all under the age of 7, they drove us all the way to Atlanta, GA, where we visited Martin Luther King, Jr.’s childhood home. My mom still tells the story of how proud she was when my Kindergarten-aged brother was unable to understand her delicate question of whether there were any kids in his class that were of color; he just kept saying “we’re all just kids, Mom!” Deliberate about raising tolerant children, my parents were elated: Perhaps racism really had ended with the Baby Boomers!
Unfortunately, while this “everything bad happened in the past” version of race relations was more palatable for parents and teachers than talking about present-day inequalities, it perpetuated a gap between the mainstream public and the growing percentage of our population that has heritages other than European American. Cut off from the facts of our own collective legacy, Whites have been able to exist in a dream world where we’re unaware of the extent of suffering in the past, blind to the injustices in the present, and inept when it comes to seeing the link between the two, or the role we’ve played in it.
They obviously had good intentions, and in some ways I am grateful for their efforts. Certainly, I can think of worse things than a little White girl in the suburbs declaring that Harriet Tubman was her hero! But ultimately, this approach also set us up for disillusionment. Because “everything’s fine now” doesn’t explain why some parents have to worry if their kids go out to the convenience store, and others don’t. Or why some kids are painted by the media as thugs if they wear baggy pants and hoodies – something that I wore all through high school and college, by the way. Generation Y is blowing the narrative and understanding of our own country — that the problem was in the past and Blacks are just holding on to the past — I think in part because we have a new stake in the direction our country is heading. So many of us are of color, mixed race, immigrants and children of immigrants, or (like me) in relationships with people who move between these categories that it is no longer possible to say everything is okay. For those of us Whites who now see with the scales removed from our eyes, we’re coming to a new realization everyone else has already known, and it’s like arriving late to a conversation we’ve been dominating.
Susana: Yes! Not to mention the whole conversation is still often so focused on just black and white, while for you and I in the west and southwest, the conversation has long been about many other shades of brown, yellow, and red. Even the fact that Zimmerman is a biracial Latino came up and faded away — people either tried to paint him as a White man, while others insisted he was Latino. Both of those conversations are so loaded in terms of White-on-Black crime, Black-on-White crime, and Black-on-Brown or Brown-on-Black crime. People seemed to frame and reframe Zimmerman’s race based on what served their narrative about the case. Including me! Even though my identity is partially as a transcultural Latina, I saw Zimmerman as White because of what I was hearing about his behavior, what he was saying, and the incident and the trial played out on the public stage –a stage dominated by White people. But in reality it’s much, much more complicated than that.
Melissa: It is complicated! And I think it’s good to just take a deep breath and admit that. It is bigger than any of us, it is nearly impossible to sort out, and it is really difficult to somehow understand race in the U.S. from every angle without succumbing to exhaustion, guilt, or a sense of futility. Because like you said, it sometimes feels like things aren’t getting better. But staying put isn’t an option either. So I’m going to be brave and forge ahead, and I hope our readers will join us!