The aftershocks of injustice make us ache for change. In the heightened emotional atmosphere following George Zimmerman’s brief cycle through the legal system, we’re communally outraged but unfortunately, not surprised.
The night the verdict was announced, I was on my way to dinner with friends and afterwards, we planned to see the Kevin Hart movie. The news broke on the radio and by the time I got to the restaurant, nobody was in the mood to laugh at him or anyone else. Three Black women—two of us mothers, one of us with young sons—sat in a booth over otherwise delicious food trying to feel our way through the absolution handed down by one brown and five White women.
I couldn’t even be angry. I’d felt that feeling so many times before, as a journalist digging through stories that reeked of onesidedness, as a sister who did her time in corporate America, as a citizen of the world who’s both confronted and witnessed venomous discrimination. I was more exhausted than anything, to the point where my shoulders actually slumped over my meal. (And I don’t never, not ever slouch over shrimp.)
Zimmerman’s vindication—and the proving right of his supporters—was another insult added to injury and, to fan the flames of my simmering bitterness, my memory swelled with ugly experiences I’ve personally had with covert and overt racism.
The time I was told to wait outside of a friend of a friend’s house because his father didn’t allow Black people inside.
The time in high school when Scott Davis called me a “porch monkey” in the middle of a packed cafeteria.
The time I sat in a pizza joint with my best friend when, out of nowhere, another patron started hollering about lynching niggers, and the owners did nothing about it.
The time I started a new school, which is hard enough, only to discover very quickly what it meant to be the 6th Black kid in a student body of more than 1,600.
The time I learned that that experience included being automatically carted down to special education, even though I’d been in gifted and talented classes since 6th grade.
The time some rednecks rolled up on me in an almost comically stereotypical pick-up truck, threw a can of Dr. Pepper at my feet and called me a Black whore.
The time the sales clerk shadowed me around Bloomingdale’s like she was on the heels of major crime prevention and couldn’t even be bothered to pretend like she wasn’t singling me out.
The time my former boss, who went to Yale, compared my alma mater to a community college because I went to an HBCU.
All the times I’ve been cut off in line like I didn’t exist, petted like Miss Sophia’s kids in The Color Purple
, imposed upon like I was a cultural ambassador of Blackness. A thousand offenses flashed by.
If you’re Black and you’ve lived in America long enough, you have to learn how to choke down varying degrees of racial snubs—that is, if you want to keep a job, operate in society and stay out from under the billy club of some slap-happy cop (who will, as history has taught us, be magically exonerated for beating the living daylights out of your tail anyway).
It’s an American inheritance, this patriotism that proclaims itself virtuous, ethical and accepting but is too absorbed in all kinds of other good ol’ fashioned -isms to actually honor its own melting pot vision. Out of necessity, you develop a resilience that equips you to survive inevitable run-ins with other folks’ hang-ups, misconceptions, stereotypes, prejudices, hurts, insensitivities and lazy attempts to understand the breadth and depth of race. It’s easiest for the majority to be dismissive at best, hostile at worst whenever racism is called out because it disrupts the false comfort that finally, in 2013, we’re all equal and we’ve all overcome. Blah blah blah.
I’m thankful I know good White folks in real life, who acknowledge the benefits bestowed upon them by default. Because times like this, when what’s right and fair and seemingly logical is denied actualization, my first reaction is to distrust. Be wary. Put my guard up. White privilege has allowed some members of the majority—because, despite what statistics might say, the ones making, enforcing and upholding the laws are the only majority that matters—to lull themselves into the false belief that they’re not affected by indoctrinated racism.
Yet going to happy hour with a Black co-worker, eating a Black colleague’s deviled eggs at the company picnic and saving a seat for a child’s dinner guest, who happens to be Black, doth not disprove the harboring of racist beliefs or the reaping of the inherent benefits of being White. I’d venture to say most White folks aren’t conscious of their privilege or their biases about race. But it flares up in times like these, when those who don’t have to deal directly with race deny its power to influence the outcomes of everything from job interviews to court cases just because it hasn’t personally impacted them. So it takes a conscious effort to be genuinely empathetic and aware, and that’s an investment too many White folks aren’t willing to make. (Shout out to my three White friends who have.)
A justice system that wasn’t designed to protect Trayvon Martins in the first place failed to render a decision that shows off this sparkling, shimmering, new post-racial America we keep hearing so much about. We want so bad for this to be a teachable moment: tell your sons not to do this, warn your daughters not to do that. But there’s no way we can prepare for every potentially volatile, racially charged situation. I feel unprotected and disposable, double that for Black men. I’m trying to check my bitterness, though. If Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin can be diplomatic and dignified, I can at least try.
Janelle Harris is a writer, blogger and editor, and the owner of The Write or Die Chick , a boutique editorial services agency. She’s also a single mother, a proud Washington, DC girl and a longsuffering Kanye West fan. Chat her up on Facebook or Twitter.