When I read the Zimmerman verdict on twitter, I started screaming curse words at my phone. But my initial rage is nothing to the growing sense of anger, helplessness, and a need to act that has accumulated over the past few days. The entire situation has absolutely opened my eyes to aspects of race in America that I may have simply not been conscious of before. The fact that I could go 23 years of my life without ever fearing that any of my loved ones would be executed in the street for their race is what it means to be privileged. I’ve tried to listen, and learn, about racism and about our flawed “justice” system.
Then I read Jessica Valenti’s article at The Nation, entitled “Fear and Consequences: George Zimmerman and the Protection of White Womanhood.” I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. As soon as I grasped her argument, of course, it made perfect sense. I thought of all the history I knew, things out of “Gone With the Wind” or “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and I realized, this kind of horrible vigilantism is meant to protect people like me.
Weirdly, this point of view was distilled in a manically succinct way by a nationalist brony who once chose to argue with Laurie Penny on twitter. He tweeted: “Perhaps when all these feminist white chicks are murdered by third worlders with machetes, they’ll regret disenfranchising white men.” See, ladies! White men are here to protect you against scary “third worlders”/black people! If it weren’t for us, you’d all be dead/raped!
At least, that’s what the female, largely white jury was supposed to think when presented with George Zimmerman’s defense. He profiled and killed Trayvon Martin for our own good. To protect white ladies. That’s not me spinning wild implications out of thin air, that’s an actual argument they used. They called a witness, a white woman whose home was broken into by young black men (neither of whom, incidentally, was Trayvon Martin), and whom Zimmerman had comforted afterward & sworn to protect. See, he’s a hero! He was just doing what’s best for white ladies!
I began to understand more fully what it meant to be complicit in a system of injustice. I didn’t perpetrate the injustice directly. I consider myself to be in solidarity with Trayvon and his family, and I utterly repudiate the values and actions of George Zimmerman. But nevertheless, by my silence and my implicit cooperation with the idea that women (mostly white women) in general need protection on a large scale, I am part of the system of values and ideas about how the world works which resulted in Trayvon Martin’s tragic death.
I’m standing up right now and telling every man: I don’t need your racist paternalistic vigilante “protection.”
I didn’t ask for anyone to protect me from what they perceive as threats (“perceived” most often through a racist lens) but that’s not enough. We as women have got to start actively working against the perception that all men-in-the-abstract must protect all women-in-the-abstract. Human beings in general need to learn new categories of thinking. I’m not sure how this will be accomplished, especially as it flies directly in the face of centuries of ingrained habit. There’s got to be a general active vigilance within each of our minds and lives against profiling based on race or class indicators, or treating people like suspects in a crime just because they look and behave in ways that we’re not used to. Here’s the thing: a lot of white people have been taught that “seeing race” is wrong, but we have to see race if we are to actively confront our own subconscious racist attitudes and actions.
To be honest, this concept of how I, as a white woman, fit into our racist system is a new one to me and I am still working on figuring out how I can stop being so complicit. It’s complicated because of course when something is actually happening, when someone (anyone, not just a white woman) is actually in need of protection because they are actually vulnerable or actually being hurt, we do need people (not just men) to be willing to step in and help. But we’ve got to get rid of this “preemptive” sort of physical violence, and we’ve got to get rid of the racialized, gender-oriented concept of “protection” we’re currently operating with.
Even in saying this, I run up against more white privilege, because it’s so safe for me to say “don’t protect me!” Society was set up to protect me. There’s all kinds of dynamics in place which will continue to protect me even if the men around me don’t actively have that attitude. I am not sure I even see a way out of this maze of privilege and it’s depressing. It’s depressing to know that there are so many other women who will never experience the sense of safety I experience all the time. And it’s depressing to think of deliberately trying to put myself in a place that is just as vulnerable. But this is what laying aside privilege means, I think: committing to cut down the very structures that prop up your own life, because you realize how destructive they are to so many other people. Tell me, please, if I’m doing it wrong because this is new to me, and it’s complicated, and I’m so damn sick of benefiting from a system of injustice.
If I want protection, I know how to ask for it. There’s one man I know that I am truly afraid of, based not on his race or class (he’s white, by the way), but based on his history of violence against me. When I need protection from him, I will ask my friends to help me out. Until I explicitly ask for help or you see me being in fact attacked by someone, I need you to never, ever perpetrate violence on my behalf. For any reason.
In fact, I’m more nervous about people who are racist vigilante gun-nuts reinforcing centuries-old sexism than I would ever be about anyone based solely on race. When I picture a criminal, I almost always picture a white person, just because the majority of the people I interact with are white. That may be a different type of insidious racism (that is, insofar as it’s a comment on the number of people of color who populate my imagination and my daily life), but to be honest the whole black-men-are-criminals stereotype is something I have never held and which is viscerally shocking to me.
I am a white woman, and I want justice for Trayvon. This is my small pledge to stand against the racism of our nation. I beg everyone, especially every white woman, who feels the way I do to join me in saying: Do not make us complicit in violence against the innocent. Do not use us an excuse to kill.
Update: I’m not interested in arguing the facts of the case here. My critique of culture and white privilege still stands, regardless of what evidence you find convincing. If you want to go on a rant about how you think Zimmerman was a hero or about your conspiracy theories that the media covered up all the facts of the case, write your own blog. I won’t be publishing your comments here.