Dear reader, are you still thinking about the Zimmerman verdict?
Yeah, me too.
Over the last five days I’ve been thinking a lot about Trayvon Martin’s murder, and about George Zimmerman’s acquittal, and especially about the reactions to both that I’ve observed since the jury returned with a verdict Saturday night. I’ve been thinking (and somewhat obsessively reading) about these things not just because of my contractual obligation as a sociologist, but because as a person I’m saddened, troubled, and angered by what all of this says about U.S. society. Yet I’m not just a person; I’m also a white person, and as such I don’t know where to begin processing the fact that, regardless of my personal particularities, I am by this fact alone complicit in the systems of oppression that made Martin’s murder and Zimmerman’s acquittal possible.
Here’s the thing about white people, the Zimmerman verdict, and its aftermath: This moment isn’t about us. I mean, it is about us, in that—as Aura Bogado wrote for The Nation—“white supremacy acquit George Zimmerman.” But while I know I’m far from the only white person who feels anger, shame, and grief, I also know that this moment isn’t and shouldn’t be about white people’s pain or guilt. The future is long, and there will be plenty of time for most of us to sort out our feelings; more than anything, Right Now is a moment for white people to shut up, to listen, and to reflect on how we can better allies in the future.
Given this, I’m really conflicted about the “We Are Not Trayvon Martin” meme.
If you aren’t familiar with the meme, here’s some quick background. The original meme is “I am Trayvon Martin”; it started after Martin’s death, and made a resurgence as the Zimmerman trial came to a close. The I am Trayvon Martin tumblr features pictures from protests and portraits of people of color wearing hoodies; the We Are Trayvon Martin tumblr features similar images plus videos, article, and personal stories; photographer Eunique Gibson Jones made portraits of adults and children (almost all people of color) wearing hoodies for an “I Am Trayvon Martin” photo awareness campaign; the Miami Heat and a large group of Howard University medical students posed for photos wearing hoodies as well. As Feministing put it, the idea behind the meme is “lifting Martin’s story out of the particular—holding it up as a symbol of something bigger, tying it to the racial history of our society.” But then white people got in on it and, like certain other sets of words, “I Am Trayvon Martin” is a different thing when it starts slipping out from between white lips—which is something some white people didn’t exactly understand, intentions toward solidarity notwithstanding. As Eric Liu put it, “Martin died not because he was wearing a hoodie but because he was wearing a hoodie while black. Blackness was the fatal variable.” To wrap one’s white self up in a hoodie and declare, “I am Trayvon Martin,” is fundamentally to miss the point.
Before I go further, let’s just pause and get this out of the way: yes, I am white. I’m not just white, I’m very white—both biologically low on melanin and sociologically steeped in most of the additional economic and cultural privilege that “white” stereotypically entails. I’m white like my brother jokes about being one gene away from albinism, white like some faint olive undertones make me “dark” for my family but still way too “light” to be an olive that cosmetics manufacturers think exists (I know, my life is so hard). I’m culturally white, too, just like all the other white folks who try to escape white normalcy through tattoos and/or Crayola-colored hair and/or extra metal installed in their white flesh; I’m white like I have a closet half-full of hoodies and, despite what Richard Cohen says (in a 15 July opinion piece in the Washington Post that I refuse to link here), the worst that wardrobe choice can do is implicate me as probably being in a band. And I’m white like I’m deeply uncomfortable Being White, because unlike being a woman, “being white” isn’t anything I’ve ever identified around—which, of course, is my bloody white privilege. I laughed through the book Stuff White People Like because more often than not, I think it’s spot on. HI YES I AM PAINFULLY WHITE, and now I’m going to talk about white people’s reactions to Trayvon Martin’s murder and George Zimmerman’s acquittal, and I honestly can’t tell you even as I write this whether the fact that I’m writing this makes me a part of the problem I’m about to describe.
In case you were abducted by aliens (or vigilantes) last week, and only just this moment returned to Internet access, last Saturday night George Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin—“acquitted” as in found not guilty of anything, legally speaking. Some white people—the sorts of white people I follow on Twitter, or who ride retweets into my feed, for instance—expressed shock and outrage; other white people—the ones I’m especially embarrassed and ashamed about being lumped in with when people call me “white[i]”—reportedly lit fireworks in celebration[ii]. I knew enough not to be “shocked” by the verdict; I may be white, but the first class I TAed as a graduate student was a sociology/legal studies cross-register course called Race and Justice, and if there are two things of which I’m certain, they are that structuralized oppression is real and that “justice system” is a misnomer. Still, I was ready to be angry because Zimmerman got let off with manslaughter rather than second-degree murder, not because he got let off with getting his gun back and going home; I wasn’t ready for everyone who argued, “Well, Zimmerman was genuinely afraid, so it’s sad but ok that he shot an unarmed kid whom he stalked and made genuinely afraid for his life.” It’s not surprising that Zimmerman was afraid: welcome to Race and Representation in the United States (101). I just really didn’t expect that the same stereotypes and racialized fear-mongering that I’ve walked literally hundreds of undergraduate students through deconstructing would turn out to be a Get Out Of Jail Free card.
The verdict reduced me to swearing on Twitter…and then I kept my mouth shut, whereby “kept my mouth shut” I mean I spent most of the night retweeting a massive collection of reactions and, as they came out, articles. I did this because curating content and boosting signal is something I know how to do, and because I didn’t know what else to do, and because I’ve been socialized into thinking that when I have a feeling, or when something is Wrong, I should do something about it. Over the last two years, Twitter has become how I experience and process events of national importance—ten white fingers flying over a keyboard, two white thumbs tapping on a touchscreen—and yet, even with hands in motion, the Zimmerman verdict was (and is) a lot to sit with. White supremacy is ugly, and I feel impotent.
The meme was apparently sparked by one middle-aged white man’s Facebook post the day after the verdict, in which he stated that he was not Trayvon Martin, but that, “You don’t have to be Trayvon Martin to know this is wrong […] This type of injustice will continue until enough guys like me – guys who are not Trayvon Martin – have had enough of it and finally say ‘No more.’” From there “I Am Not Trayvon Martin” took off, and inspired (among other things) the We Are Not Trayvon Martin tumblr, which has been my primary exposure to the revised-for-white people edition of the original meme. The best way to get a sense of the tumblr is simply to read a few posts, but here’s the general formula: 1) explain your membership in one or more privileged groups; 2) talk about one or more aspects of how great your life is; 3) (optional) talk about a time you could have gotten in trouble for something, but didn’t; 4) (optional) say something about how either privilege and/or the Zimmerman verdict is terrible and makes you feel bad; 5) conclude by reminding the reader that you are not Trayvon Martin.
Compared to white people declaring, “I Am Trayvon Martin,” the “I Am Not Trayvon Martin” meme is something of an improvement, but the problem is that…I’m not convinced ‘better’ actually makes it good, or right. A majority of the articles I’ve been able to find about “Not Trayvon” have viewed the meme positively—though notably, all but one of those pieces were written by more white (or so-called “honorary white”) people. Tracy Clayton mentions that reaction to “Not Trayvon” has been mixed on Twitter, and Kyra Kyles mentions (in her interview with the “Not Trayvon” tumblr’s creator) that “some detractors who feel that this tumblr is a way for non-Blacks to somehow make the Trayvon travesty about them,” but these are the closest things I’ve been able to find (so far) to negative coverage.
But why am I not sold on the “Not Trayvon” meta-meme? I get that people—white people especially—feel bad and weird and guilty about the Zimmerman verdict in ways they don’t entirely know to understand or do anything about. And as a white woman, I get why white women in particular might feel those feelings even more strongly: after all, there’s been a lot of media attention given to the fact that the Zimmerman jury was all women, and that five out of six of those women are white. As a random sample, I scrolled back through 24 hours of We Are Not Trayvon Martin, and counted 102 non-duplicated posts; of them, 59 (or 58%) were written by authors who identified themselves as white women (for comparison, the next largest group was people who identified themselves as white men [10 posts], followed by 9 people who stated neither their race nor their gender[iii]). While both the meta-meme and the tumblr were started by white men, I don’t think the popularity of “Not Trayvon” with white women is a coincidence; even a good deal of writing about “Not Trayvon” by white women writers includes confessional-style detailings of the authors’ privilege. If (some) white people feel bad about Martin’s murder and Zimmerman’s acquittal, then (some) white women feel really bad; is it so bad to provide a forum for turning those bad feelings into positive action?
You have to scroll through a lot of the “Not Trayvon” tumblr to find it, but this is the post that finally helped me put my finger on why the site doesn’t sit right with me. It begins with this reaction from an anonymous commenter:
As an African American person, I’m gonna say what tumblr has been screaming: this is a huge example of appropriation. The “We Are Trayvon Martin” campaign is a way for POC to intelligently express their emotions and arguments relating to the recent travesty of justice. This tumblr is, as one blog put it, the Toms of the Internet. Please know that very Very VERY few people appreciate your efforts. Most people (Me included) Would very much like you to stop.
To which the blog’s creator responds,
Thanks for sharing.
This blog and idea is not meant to silence in anyway the voices of people of color in talking about, organizing, or mobilizing around the recent travesty of justice.
This blog was started to encourage people who benefit from racism, who have racial privilege, to understand their role in the system and institutions of white supremacy and take action against it.
It is imperfect, and messy, and raw, and difficult. But I believe we are opening a conversation and a direction that will support the fight against white supremacy in this country.
…and just, wow. Joseph’s response has so little to do with Anonymous’s comment that almost reads as though Joseph copied and pasted in a response originally written to someone else; there’s no indication of having considered or even listened to what Anonymous had to say. Supposedly Joseph and his site are dedicated to ending racism, but that canned brush-off is dripping with white “I’m right” privilege. Not to mention: Thanks for sharing?
I don’t doubt that Joseph started the “Not Trayvon” tumblr out of good intentions, and I don’t doubt that the people who have submitted posts to it have done so out of good intentions, too. But as I scrolled through post after post on We Are Not Trayvon Martin, it began to seem a lot less like anti-racist activism and a lot more like a white people’s guilt support group. While a very, very small number of posts stand out for offering some kind of social insight or advice on how white people can be better allies, the majority of posts can be summed up as follows: “Hey everyone! Guess what! I’m not Trayvon Martin, and I know that I’m not Trayvon Martin!” And…that’s it.
Such posts come off as one part catharsis (right now I am facing my complicity and I feel terrible about it) and one part identity performance (look, see, I’m the good kind of white person…validate my good-white-ness by reblogging this post or clicking that little heart), while overall, the tumblr itself comes off as something for white people. Perhaps its creators would say that’s the point: It’s a tumblr intended to get people in positions of racial privilege both to think about their privilege and to take action against it, and if you want to talk to “people in positions of racial privilege,” white people are your prime demographic. But when I say the tumblr seems like something “for white people,” I don’t mean “designed to speak to white people”; I mean “designed to benefit white people.” More than anything it seems more like a platform for white people to get the burden (‘burden’) of whiteness off their chests, a kind of online confessional where white folks whisper their privilege through a digital lattice to a Generalized Othered Other, seeking absolution.
I am all for people who have privilege recognizing their privilege, and I am all for people who have privilege working to dismantle privilege and counter discrimination. And by all means, yes, let’s have a whole bunch of really hard conversations about racism and sexism and all the other *-isms that plague our society. But here’s the thing about being a good conversationalist: you have to know how to listen at least as well as you speak, and you have to know when it is you should be speaking in the first place. Truly becoming an ally in the struggle against racism means starting with yourself, and it doesn’t just mean “become aware that you have racial privilege”; it means doing the hard work every single day to struggle against the racism that you yourself have already internalized. It means developing the sociopolitical self-awareness to know when it’s not your turn to take up speech-space. It means confronting racism when you encounter it—not just by signing large-scale petitions, but also by speaking up in one-on-one conversations—and it means learning to recognize racism in places where you’ve been taught to be blind to it; it means owning your anti-racism, and saying “that offends me” instead of “that’s offensive to <insert group here>.” Perhaps most importantly, being an ally means acknowledging that it takes a lot more than “conversation” to fight racism. It means acting on that knowledge, and it means resisting the urge to go running for a gold star when you take action. You don’t get a gold star. That’s not the point.
To be fair, We Are Not Trayvon Martin does have a “Take Action” page (under a sidebar link titled, “FIGHT RACISM NOW”), but aside from a list of books and some links to petitions, the suggestions it offers are so broad and vague as to be essentially meaningless. If the “Not Trayvon” tumblr creators are serious about enlisting newly-awakened white people in the fight against racism, I’d like to see them instead offer advice that’s more like “How to be an anti-racist ally,” “White Anti-Racism: Living the Legacy,” or some of the tools from The UNtraining (which unfortunately costs money). I’d like to see them engage with people like “Anonymous” rather than brush off both the critic and the critique. I’d like to see them spin the support group stuff off to the side, and make anti-racist education and collaboration their front-and-center focus.
Oh, and I’d really like them to change the name of their tumblr—because it is appropriation, and because right now simply isn’t about the white “we.”
Whitney Erin Boesel is, as always, on Twitter: she’s @phenatypical.
[i] See also: what happens if you search “I Am George Zimmerman” and look for people who are saying it with pride …but I’m not going to link to any of that, either.
[ii] At least some of the fireworks reported following the Zimmerman verdict have since been determined to have been in celebration of unrelated events (such as a Philadelphia Phillies game). Still, it says something about our country and our society that people in several cities across the U.S. were able to read mid-July fireworks as “about the Zimmerman trial” in the first place.
[iii] Full breakdown: of 102 non-duplicated posts, 59 authors identify themselves as white women; 10 as white men; 9 who specify neither race nor gender directly; 6 as Black women; 4 as white people (unspecified gender); 3 as Black men; 3 as Indian men; 2 as Latina; 2 as women (unspecified race); 1 as an Asian woman; 1 as an Indian woman; 1 as a biracial person (unspecified gender); 1 as an Asian person (unspecified gender). [Notably, 5 of the 10 white men also identified as being gay.]