It seems that we all can be lost on what a “call to action” really entails. As a society, we are pulled in various directions, the amount of information which we choose to consume or ignore is limitless, and often the decisions we make can cause a stir on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. While reading Gyasi Ross’s column featured on Race-Talk and reposted on IndianCountryTodayMediaNetwork.com regarding Trayvon Martin, I could not help but think of the rapid reactions and waves of emotion that flow over all of us in times of despair, frustration and rage. Unfortunately, calling for action in Gyasi’s case left me quite confused as to the motives or direction of his message. He wrote:
“It wasn’t your son that was murdered simply because he happened to be wearing black skin when he was walking from the store. Maybe you don’t even have a son; furthermore, statistically, chances are that if you do have a son, your son probably doesn’t have black skin. Therefore, it is simply impossible for your son to be in this situation.”
We all use anecdotes as forms of expression to grapple with functions of our lives and shared experiences. When discussing the details of the case surrounding Trayvon Martin and his death, many people of color—particularly men—have shared stories of their experiences with profiling. For many of these folks, myself included, we hear the defense of this coward George Zimmerman and we shake our heads, wondering how hoodie-wearing, Arizona Ice Tea-toting teenagers are a perceived threat to society. As a 6-3, 200-plus-pound Native American man, I get the obligatory “Hey Chief!” or general comments about my size and demeanor. Few times in my life will I be thought of a threat to many, but there are some who choose to think I am. I am reminded of a particular bus ride to a girlfriend’s house in 2005 in Spokane, Washington. As I made my way toward the back of the bus, I took a seat facing a row of seats, occupied by two white males. Listening to music, I drift into some reading not having a care in the world. The two men accompanying me on this bus ride make it rather apparent they have an issue with me, once kicking my feet, pointing at tattoos they both have, one of Adolf Hitler and other telling images. I stand, move toward the front of the bus, pulling the stop cord along the way. My companions choose to follow at the last moment. I had just stepped out of the bus as one of these men grabbed my backpack’s hook loop, yanking me backwards for a moment. I twisted away and started to run, with the two of them chasing me. Fortunately, I was able to lose them, making my way through yards and a park.
As I struggle to figure out statements like, “It has to do with life. And death,” it quickly hits me that Gyasi is right. Racism even at its micro level rears its head in very ugly ways, and our anecdotes and stories can only tell us as much. Some of us walked away with our lives, others have not. But we must not neglect the forgotten element of most of these stories, the institutional control of these situations that we, as folks of color, do not have assurance to use with confidence and/or manipulate at times to save our lives, to keep us safe. If we are to believe you, Gyasi, then our recourse should be, “Call the US Department of Justice. Call your senator. Seriously. ALL of them—prosecuting attorneys, senators, mayors are all public officials and WILL respond when they know that there is a movement in place to get them out of office unless they respond.” These suggestions serve to ignore those who are seeking justice, insulting their intelligence and turning a blind eye to institutional racism. Calls for the arrest of George Zimmerman have yielded some results, but the framework of Florida’s gun laws and the neglect of Police departments have ultimately spared this man what is deserved. Justifying the death of a black man has been done before, the lack of institutional influence has been written on the wall, its something many people of color battle every day.
Now, am I simply getting this wrong? When you say that he couldn’t possibly be my child, are you actually speaking to those white folks, the allies in this situation? One could be irked by the rash of white faces donning hoodies and holding Skittles and could interpret this as off-base and out of touch. I get it. On the other hand, are you just dealing with issues of your own? There are cross sections of the anti-racist movement that seek the “post-racial” world, a place where only compassion for all will overcome. I see your comments as such. “This goes beyond skin color or politics. This is about the joys of life, and the notion that all of us should have unfettered access to those joys as long as we are not harming anyone else.” Statements like this are dangerous and misleading. If we are to simply ignore the commonality and brutality of racialized violence, then we have lost. We have given in to the notion of post-racial America, acknowledgement of guilt of being black, brown, etc. in this country. Should we carry on this story of just a mother losing a son? Lets not attempt to re-frame this story and deny what it was, profiling and racialized violence. This needs to be everyone’s lesson, humanizing this story does not lead us further along in your post-racial, idealist world. The fact is, a young black male (carrying on in a legacy of similar stories) was murdered because of his skin color, a dehumanizing act, as racism always is. White washing the actions of the George Zimmerman’s of the world protects the backbone of institutional racism, diverting our attention from these actions maintains the comforts of privilege.
Jake LaMere is an enrolled member of the Rocky Boy Chippewa-Cree Tribe, descendant of the Colville and Umatilla Tribes. He received his BA in Native American Studies focusing in Language Revitalization at The Evergreen State College. He currently resides in Albuquerque with his wife Emma.