6 years ago the news broke about a boy who had been shot and killed when visiting family in a gated community in Florida. He had walked to the gas station to get snacks and had been followed when he got into the neighborhood by the Community Watch enforcer who was told to stand down by law enforcement and yet he pursued anyway. Trayvon was encouraged to run by a friend who he was talking to on a phone when he realized he was being followed. The running prompted George Zimmerman to chase him down, there was a fight, and then Zimmerman shot a 17-year old boy, 2 weeks younger than my own 17-year old boy.
The Sandy Hook shooting had just occurred a few months prior and all of those murdered kids were the ages of my youngest two kids, so the tragedy hit me very hard. I found that Travyon’s tragic death hit me the same way – as he was only 2 weeks younger than my oldest. As I look back I think about how truly silly that was, that his death had me thinking so much about my son. The truth of the matter is, my son would have never had anyone following him or chasing him or thinking him suspicious. His white skin would have saved him, and Trayvon’s death was the first thing to really open my eyes to that painful truth.
I think about Trayvon often. Because his death hit me so hard, it shook me awake to the things I had been benefitting from for decades – but had never acknowledged. His death was the tragedy that made me finally wake up to the ways our society hides racism in plain site. I remembering hearing someone say, “He wasn’t judged because of the color of his skin, he was wearing a hoodie! That’s what made him suspicious, because people hide behind hoodies to avoid being seen!”
And I had this weird moment, like when you first wake up in the morning and you’re trying to separate dream from reality. I was sorting my pre-Trayvon reality from my post-Trayvon reality. Part of me kinda understood what this person was saying, but the other part of me was slowly opening her eyes and I thought, But Eliah wears hoodies all the time. I’ve never thought he looked suspicious. And I started thinking about why that was. And then someone mentioned it was suspicious that he was walking out at night by himself and my foggy brain thought, It was 7 o’clock. If Eliah went walking out around that time around here, no one would think anything of it. As a matter of fact, Eliah was known to stick in his headphones and head out for walks to work off steam when he was stressing about homework, which was always in the evening.
Soon after those thoughts starting breaking their way through my sleeping fog, and I started truly giving them the attention they deserved, I kept coming back to one final truth: It Is Because We Are White.
The similarities between Trayvon and Eliah ended at age, but I still could not stop relating the two together and thinking about the things that made them different. What opportunities did Eliah get because he was white that Trayvon missed out on? What type of stupid teenage behavior did Eliah get away with that Trayvon was suspended for? What type of experiences would have made Trayvon jaded about school authority when Eliah never was?
The thing I found the MOST troubling was how Trayvon was on trial in the court and in society – for his own murder. The courts used the fact that he once had been busted with marijuana paraphernalia like it somehow excused his murder. The media discussed his disciplinary issues more than his stay at an aviation camp. The worst texts and tweets were brought out for examination, ignoring the ones about donuts and the stories from his friends that said ALL of that was show.
If a white high school cheerleader says something racist on Twitter, we’re supposed to discount her social media as “not representative of her as a person” – but Trayvon posts a picture of himself wearing gold grillz and suddenly everyone is allow to refer to him as a thug.
In the 6 years since Trayvon died I have spent a lot of time learning about systemic racism and white privilege. Every time I find myself making my way through that fog again, I think of Trayvon. Every time I am learning about yet another way our society has tried to keep down people of color, I say a quiet apology to Trayvon. I’m sorry I was willfully blind to the problem before. I’m sorry I was not immediately outraged by his death. I’m sorry I was ignoring the hidden structures of oppression that keep pushing up white people on the backs of the black and brown people in our communities.
He should not have died that day. And I should have been more outraged when he did.