Racism: Not As Simple As Black And White

Image courtesy of Steve de Polo

It’s been over a month since 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida, by 28-year-old Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman. After weeks of wall-to-wall media coverage, there are more questions about the events of that night and the resulting, nationwide fallout than there are answers. After studying the treatment this story has been given by American news outlets, I am left with several questions that loom larger than this one particular, heartbreaking story. The most obvious, nagging question that came to mind stemmed from the labels being placed on the incident and the individuals involved.

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What exactly determines whether an incident is racist?
An overwhelming number of major news outlets are crying racism in the Martin shooting. When a white person causes harm to a non-white individual, the act is often deemed a ‘racist act’. However, painting with such a broad brush is dangerous, inflammatory, and ridiculous; it assumes knowledge of the heart/mind of the alleged perpetrator. Without a preponderance of evidence indicating a history of racial remarks/actions, how does one prove that a particular incident has racial implications? I am asking this in regards to any incident involving people of different racial backgrounds, not just this one story.

Ask yourself: What mental image comes to mind when you hear the word racist? In many of the culture and linguistics courses I took for my English as a Second Language teaching endorsement, it was implied–sometimes stated outright–that only whites can be construed as racist in America, because they are the majority population. There was heated debate among students and professors as to whether minority populations can be racist, considering they don’t have ‘the power’ in our country. Simply because they are the majority population, does that mean every action white people take is tinged with racial undertones? Of course not. Furthermore, if a white person is attacked or otherwise maligned by a non-white person, can this not also be construed as ‘racist’? If not, why not? As a fourth grade teacher in inner-city St. Louis, one student called me “stupid white crackhead teacher” on a daily basis. Yet, the principal failed to back up any consequences I gave. It is hard for me to imagine that the same would be said if a white student called an African American teacher the ‘n’ word. Furthermore, I once had a parent request her child be removed from my classroom. The reason she gave was that, as a white person, I could not possibly ‘understand’ her son and thus would be unable to educate him. She asked that he be moved to a classroom with an African American teacher, and he was, the very next day. Again, imagine if the situation was reversed, and the parent of a white child had asked that he be removed from the classroom of an African American teacher? I hardly think the results would have been the same.

In February, a young white student outside Kansas City was set on fire by a group of black students, who referenced the victim’s race as reason for the attack. In another recent incident several black teens attacked a Hispanic teen, beating him so severely he needed dental surgery and treatment for multiple injuries. Caught on tape, the attackers hurled racial slurs at the victim. Considering none of the parties involved were white, does this change public perception of what qualifies as racist?

Image courtesy of Freedom to Marry

If indeed these were both racially motivated incidents, where were the rallies? Where was the nationwide outcry? Where was Rev. Al Sharpton? Is he only concerned about racial incidents if the victims are African American? President Obama did not take time out of a press conference to speak of how these attacks weighed on his heart. Then again, these victims did not look like the son President Obama might have had.

In the two cases mentioned above, the perpetrators clearly identified race as a motivating factor. In the Zimmerman/Martin incident, race has not yet been proven to be a factor. In fact, NBC has come under fire and has subsequently launched an internal investigation after it was found that the network manipulated a 911 call to make it appear as though Zimmerman was making a racial judgment at the time of the shooting, when in fact he was answering a direct question posed by the dispatcher.

This leads to another question about race that has been raised by these events: how do we determine an individual’s race? For those with parents of the same race, it is less complicated. However, as our country becomes more and more diverse, our citizenry naturally has a more complicated racial makeup. In the Zimmerman case, he was initially described by many news outlets as a white man; shortly thereafter he was labeled white-Hispanic because he was born to parents of two different races. I can’t help but wonder if his status as a white-Hispanic was given to perpetuate the narrative that this was a race-related, white-on-black incident. After all, using the same standards, our own President would be described as white-African American, which would undermine the whole “America’s first African American President” thing. In fact, in his three-plus years in the White House, I have never heard anyone in the media refer to President Obama as white or white-African American. Although the term “biracial” has been used by a few reporters, the President himself has identified as African American throughout his campaign and presidency. I may sound glib, but that is not my intent. My intent is to show that racial background is often massaged and manipulated by those telling the story to help create the picture they wish to paint.

Image courtesy of Roy Blumenthal

Clearly, the Martin-Zimmerman story has captivated the attention of America, and nearly everyone has strong opinions regarding the people involved. However, the events of the past month point to a larger issue in our country. The illusion that we are living in a post-racial America has been stripped away. I find it particularly ironic that the American media machine tells us to be colorblind while simultaneously looking for racist undertones in so many of the stories they cover. Incidents that are clearly racially motivated are often swept under the rug, while other times the media cries racism where there is none to be found, or at the very least none yet proven. Whether or not we find all of the answers, we must continue asking the tough questions rather than latching on to everything the media tells us and assuming that they know best.