As the national debate about the shooting of Trayvon Martin ebbs, it strikes me that we in the U.S. are increasingly divided between those who see Trayvon as “somebody’s child,” and those who see him as “not my child.” This is what Obama picked up on in his “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” And what Newt Gingrich, keeper of the right-wing Id, understood when he contorted that to say that Obama only cared about were Black children. It matters that the shooting of this unarmed African American child took place in a gated community–the location of defensive white retreat, the longed-for home of Black flight. It’s happened hundreds and thousands of times before, a police officer or a white man who claimed he was threatened (or woman, probably, but somehow I can only remember men), and we are made to understand that he justifiably felt threatened enough to kill the boy because he was holding a wallet or boisterous or drunk. But for some reason, this time it wasn’t ok (maybe, cynically, because Zimmerman was a white Cuban), and the voices of those who mourned were not drowned out. Trayvon Martin got a name, a little brother, parents in the popular media, and all sort of young men said, “I am Trayvon,” and parents who didn’t know him mourned.
Although all sorts of unarmed Black young men have been shot by police or civilians, like Ramarely Graham in the Bronx last month, killed in his bathroom in an incident that remains murky–police say he was fleeing them, surveillance video shows him walking calmly–it’s been a long time since the killing of Black mothers’ sons has attracted this kind of attention. In fact, the only think I can think to compare it to is the death of Emmett Till, a fourteen year old boy who flirted with a white woman and was murdered in 1955 by local white vigilantes in Mississippi. His mother, like Trayvon’s, demanded that the world know that killing a Black mother’s son was a brutal, violent injustice that would not be quietly forgotten, and held a very public open casket funeral. The event galvanized the emerging Civil Rights movement.
It is telling how many right-wing bloggers have insisted that the larger issue in the Trayvon Martin shooting is single motherhood, or, in the alternative, how important it has been to the Justice for Trayvon movement to put his two divorced parents on stage together. Both sides seem to be tacitly acknowledging that his death signifies differently if he has two parents who are grieving together; that mothers alone raise dangerous, violent boys, while two parent families raise innocent children whose shooting could only be unjustified and racist. President Obama did much the same thing with his “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon” speech, being daddy-in-chief and casting Martin as a child who deserved protection. The problem with this move, as I’m sure virtually everyone in the Justice for Trayvon mobilization is only too aware, is that it casts Martin as worthy of protection only by virtue of enclosing him within our ideologies of innocent childhood.
I remember when I first understood the visceral fear that parents of children of color often feel: sometime in the first year of raising my daughter, born of Mexican parents, who came to me when she was 11. It wasn’t any one thing, it wasn’t even a particularly egregious thing, but one day the slow accretion of thoughtless, unhelpful, or damaging things that teachers, social workers, and other parents had done to my child reached a tipping point. I flinched when a strange white person came up to my child, tensed for problems. I didn’t when a person of color in some similar role approached her. My anxiety wasn’t always well-placed, but it was often enough that it became a habit, a strange racial dis-identification that made brown and black folks the people I trusted more quickly and easily. About a year after she came to me, I said that to an audience, and I was stunned as one after another, white mothers of non-white and mixed race children came up to me and said that they felt the same way.
I learned two things from this. One, it is a powerful experience for white people to see racism through the lens of loving a non-white child. Two, it is depressingly common that children of color are treated so harshly by the world that it can cut through the denial of people who want to believe differently.