'We Are Not Trayvon Martin': White Privilege, Social Media

Posted: 7/16/2013 2:36:24 EDT
            

Credit: Michael Fleshman

The protests over the Zimmerman verdict have trumpeted the phrase "I am Trayvon Martin" in a show of solidarity with the dead teenager and to illustrate the shadow of suspicion cast on all minorities.

But in the last few days, a new meme has been generated by social media. "I am not Trayvon Martin" was the opening statement of a facebook post by Bob Seay, a high school teacher in Colorado.

I am not Trayvon Martin. I am a middle-aged, middle class, overweight white guy. I am also a teacher, and in 20 years of teaching, I have seen plenty of Trayvon Martins. More accurately, I have seen plenty of young men who fit the caricatured image that is being portrayed of this kid in the media, Left and Right. Fox News and MSNBC. I'm guessing that neither portrayal -- saint or thug -- is accurate. People are more complex than that.

None of the Trayvon Martins that I know deserve to die. They may arouse suspicion, but your paranoia is not their crime. If they do commit a crime, they deserve to have a trial. Trayvon Martin's jury consisted of one person. That is not how we are supposed to do things in America. Unfortunately, that is our reality.

The full Facebook post below:

"We are not Trayvon Martin" on Tumblr

A Tumblr called We Are Not Trayvon Martin has been picking up steam with contributions detailing incidents of white privilege.

These are supporters of Trayvon Martin who are anecdotally describing "two Americas" and the very different interactions white people have with authority figures and their community all due to skin color.

These are a few recent entries:

    I am not Trayvon Martin. I’m a 16 year old white girl. I’ve drank, stole and broken into buildings, and I’m only ever seen as a perfect student and a “good girl". If I were killed, nobody would bring up the times I’ve broken the law or the things I’ve worn and use them to justify my death. I know I would get the justice that Trayvon deserved.

 

    I am not Trayvon Martin. I do not move around in public spaces afraid for my protection from the law. I do not walk the city afraid that the cops are going to stop me for “furtive movements" or for “wearing clothes commonly used in a crime" (two of the most commonly invoked reasons for stopping individuals in NYC, thanks to Mayor Bloomberg’s “Stop & Frisk" program).

I smoked a joint this afternoon as I walked past my neighborhood police precinct. I am not Trayvon Martin.

   

I am not Trayvon Martin.

I’m probably fifty times more dangerous than he ever was. I’m a martial artist and could have killed or maimed Zimmerman several hundred different ways if he’d attacked me. But you know what else I am? White, petite, and extremely feminine-looking. I am never perceived as a threat. I would never have been in that situation. I don’t have the deck stacked against me from school to the courtroom to the street near my dad’s house.

 

My boys wander the city, get into mischief, have questionable and horrifying fashion choices, are sometimes disrespectful of authority YET I don’t worry that they will be killed for some of their normal dumb teen choices.  We are white, upper middle class and the world bows to them.

Once, one was caught drinking in the park. The cops were laughing with them as parents arrived, told us what “good kids" they were. Told us to go easy on them. Another color, another park and that scene would have been very different.

 

    I am not Trayvon Martin. I am a 22 year old upper class white female. I have red hair and a trust fund. I speed on the freeway, and have never been ticketed. When I walk on the street, men offer to drive me home. Police officers smile and wave. Everyday, people trust me with their children.

They do not know that 2 years ago, I daily transported heroin across state lines. I could be in prison, just like any other junkie. I am not Trayvon Martin, but was the person he was suspected of being.

Not new territory, but rarely discussed so openly

"White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" by Peggy McIntosh is an influential 1988 essay on the topic of unearned privilege.

As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.

I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to remain oblivious.

McIntosh points out the importance of silence and denial in maintaining racial privilege. Since the weekend social media has been breaking that silence.

To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these subject taboo. Most talk by whites about equal opportunity seems to me now to be about equal opportunity to try to get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist.

The Argument

Jason Riley's article in the Wall Street Journal expresses a common sentiment about who is at fault for negative perceptions:

Did the perception of black criminality play a role in Martin's death? We may never know for certain, but we do know that those negative perceptions of young black men are rooted in hard data on who commits crimes. We also know that young black men will not change how they are perceived until they change how they behave.

Peggy McIntosh addressed this arguement in her 1988 article:

I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. ...whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow "them" to be more like "us."

Jason Riley counters:

So let's have our discussions, even if the only one that really needs to occur is within the black community. Civil-rights leaders today choose to keep the focus on white racism instead of personal responsibility, but their predecessors knew better.

"Do you know that Negroes are 10 percent of the population of St. Louis and are responsible for 58% of its crimes? We've got to face that. And we've got to do something about our moral standards," Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told a congregation in 1961. "We know that there are many things wrong in the white world, but there are many things wrong in the black world, too. We can't keep on blaming the white man. There are things we must do for ourselves."

Peggy McIntosh again:

For me white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one's life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.

The List

McIntosh made a list of 50 day to day examples of privilege that can easily go unnoticed. The "We are not Trayvon Martin" Tumblr seems to unconciously make many of the same realizations. The following are just a few from the essay:

5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

7. When I am told about our national heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

18. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.

21. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

30. If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn't a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.

34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.

#WhitePrivilege

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