Black men are not responsible for your fear, just as women are not responsible for your desire, says Emily Heist Moss.
Here’s the thing about privilege, it’s like oxygen: constant and life-giving and the fundamental enabler of everything else. It’s the net that catches you when you’re irresponsible. It’s the comforting blanket of knowing that the rules apply to you when you want them to, and don’t when you don’t want them to. It’s the trust you have in the law and its executors being on your side. Until someone or some experience exposes all of the thousands of glowing threads that hold you up, it’s easy to think that life is glorious because you have earned the right to glory in it.
When I came back from a trip to India, I relayed to a friend how strange it was to suddenly not trust people in uniforms. My host family had drilled into me that I was to avoid police officers at all costs; they would probably just make the situation worse. “It was just so strange,” I said to my friend, “Because here in the U.S., I would always go straight to cops or security guards if I needed help.”
“How nice for you,” he said quietly, “I don’t feel that way.” Oh. Right. Of course. He is black. He doesn’t assume that the cops are there to serve and protect him. People do not go out of their way to help him. They cross the street. They do not make eye contact. They do not assume the best intentions. He and I, we are not playing by the same rules.
I heard about the George Zimmerman verdict at a W. Kamau Bell stand-up comedy show. “Zimmerman, not guilty…. can you believe that? It’s just so, so depressing,” he said, pacing anxiously across the stage. The crowd murmured their assent. He told the story of the Arab-appearing man who was originally identified as the Boston Marathon bomber. Why? Because he was running away from the explosion. “What is he supposed to do?” Bell asked, “That’s the question no one is asking…if you’re an Arab-looking dude and a bomb goes off, what are you supposed to do?” Is there an appropriate pace? An expert shuffle? Some sort of bat signal to emit that says, I am just like all of these other sane people who run from danger? What is the right way to be Arab near violence? What is the right way to be a black teenager walking through a subdivision after dark?
What is the right way for a black boy to behave in this country? How do you stand, sit, walk, talk, and dress to ensure that no one mistakes you for the wrong kind of black boy? If you are beaten or shot or threatened because someone found your mannerisms alarming, how do you convince a jury that you weren’t asking for it? That your attacker wasn’t justified in “misunderstanding” the threat you allegedly posed?
That phrase, “asking for it,” we’ve seen that before; we know that sentiment all too well. Women who are harassed or assaulted are asking for it if they’re drinking. They’re asking for it if they’re showing cleavage, if they’re flirting, if they’re otherwise sexually active. But the range of sexual harassment and assault spreads too far and wide to limit it to a narrow wedge of “those girls.” Women are “asking for it” just by being female. The very fact of our gender is the only excuse that harassers need to feel entitled to demand our attention or worse.
The very fact of Trayvon Martin’s race was what etched the target on his back. It wasn’t the hoodie, it wasn’t the Skittles, it wasn’t what pot he may have smoked at the park last week. These qualities intrinsic to himself: the color of his skin, his youth, his inclusion in a group deemed inherently threatening—young black men—were George Zimmerman’s excuses. A jury has decided that his overreaction to his own paranoia was a warranted, understandable, forgivable response.
Of all the things I have read this week, I have found this by Ta-Nehisi Coates to be both the most true and the most unsettling:
“It is painful to say this: Trayvon Martin is not a miscarriage of American justice, but American justice itself. This is not our system malfunctioning. It is our system working as intended. To expect our juries, our schools, our police to single-handedly correct for this, is to look at the final play in the final minute of the final quarter and wonder why we couldn’t come back from 24 down.”
In this country, you are allowed to be afraid of black boys. You are allowed to act on that fear in wildly disproportionate ways. The jury followed the letter of the Florida law, but the law is wrong. It allows racism and fear to take precedence over due process. George Zimmerman: innocent until proven guilty. Trayvon Martin: guilty until proven innocent.
We are each responsible for our actions, yes, but also our reactions. There are men who walk by attractive women in yoga pants and don’t say a thing. There are men who escort a drunk girl home and don’t try to score. There are thousands of people raised in the same media stew of race-baiting and fear-mongering who don’t start fights with teenagers walking home from the convenience store. Thousands of people who claim to experience the same fear that George Zimmerman claims to have felt, and don’t get out of the car. They listen to the 911 operator. They keep their gun holstered.
Women are not responsible for your desire. Black men are not responsible for your fear. You are entitled to feel what you feel, but how you express it has consequences. Or, with your cloak of privilege, perhaps you’ll be back in your watch car, gun at your side, in no time at all.
Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.