Stop, Listen, and Learn… and Act

[note: this entry, written July 14-15, is the second of two postings on the George Zimmerman trial.]

Saturday night, my mom, stepfather, and I were watching the evening news off their DVR. Near the end of the broadcast, they mentioned there was no verdict yet in the trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. We switched off the recording and returned to live TV, smack in the middle of the breaking news announcing the verdict of not guilty. If it is possible to be stunned and sickened without being shocked, that was how I felt – indeed, I believe that was how we all felt. When they started to replay the polling of the jury, I stood up suddenly. “I can’t watch this,” I said. “I’m going to bed.”

Going to bed did not necessarily mean going to sleep, of course. When not staring at the ceiling, like many others, I turned to social media to learn what other people were thinking, feeling, and saying. Notes of shock, disbelief, sorrow, anger – and, most disturbingly, celebration (some of which were quoted through the “Yes, You’re Racist” account) – flowed past on my timeline. I kept wanting to react, to say something, to do something – but after an initial statement, I worked hard to hold myself back, reading, absorbing, taking the pulse of the nation.

I watched initial numb shock give way to a wider variety of reactions – grief, sadness, impatience, anger, calls for action, calls for peace. I watched as the grief and the sadness settled in – not just for Trayvon Martin and his family, not just for Black families around the country who have to deal on a daily basis with the awareness that simply having darker skin makes you suspicious in the eyes of far too many people as well as the resulting fear, but also for our country which is falling so far short of our stated ideals. I watched as the anger and impatience coalesced into two main themes, “Don’t you dare tell me what my experience is!” and “Don’t you dare tell me what I should or should not be saying!” Some people were ready to jump right in and act immediately, others said, “Hold off. Give me time. Not tonight.”

Earlier this summer, Reni Eddo-Lodge and Sister Outsider, both Black feminists, were on Twitter asking their White followers why they would want to participate in those communities. Both made the polite but firm request that only those genuinely interested in listening and learning, in being appropriate and not appropriating, and in following up with genuine action including honest introspection, follow them. Their thoughts echoed in my mind Saturday night, and through the next day as well.

While I was finishing up this blog, Ms. Eddo-Lodge was on Twitter, writing “Quite regularly I’m asked by white people ‘now that I’ve noticed this, what can I do to help?'” and in response to that question, “How you help is not my responsibility. Use your own sphere of influence, use your white priv to press for change where you can.” Earlier, Sabrina Stevens (“TeacherSabrina” on Twitter) posted an excellent entry entitled “Would there ever be a Trayvon’s law?” in which she wrote, “We should never accept it as normal or natural that some children should just have to live with a deflated sense of worth and a heightened sense of fear, just because of where or what color they were born.” That points to the kind of change for which we need to be pressing, from whatever perspective we may be coming.

I remember in Humanities 7 one day, one of the students burst into tears during a discussion of racism. She was thinking not of herself, but of her younger brother, how kind and sweet and gentle he is, and how that is not at all how people who don’t know him see him. If we ever feel our energy flagging in our work to bring dignity and respect to all people, we can simply think of her and the millions of people just like her.

And then carry on.

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