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On Race & My Experience of it

I’ve been asked my opinion of the Travyon Martin case a few times the past week and have not really given a response other than, “I really have no opinion.”  Some folks have considered that a cop out, others appeared annoyed that I didn’t take their bait.  Of course I’ve got an opinion but not many want to actually know it because it requires an understanding of my experience of Black and White relationships, my intimate knowledge of law enforcement and courts,  it requires time, the capacity to listen, ask questions, and step into my shoes as well as those of others. Generally speaking, it doesn’t seem people want to actually do that. With me, their neighbor–willing to bet not the Black neighbor in particular, cops, friends, and family.

I spent my first 13 years growing up in Prince Georges County, MD, in a little middle-class spot called Forest Heights next door to SE Washington, DC.  My schoolmates and  friends were Black (so were the twins down the street who made my trek to the 4th and 5th grade horrid!).  I think I can speak for my cohorts of the neighborhood by saying as kids, for the most part, race wasn’t an issue.  We liked the same teachers, disliked the same bullies, disliked the same clothes (those fuckin’ purple Toughskins and hideously fugly patchwork-like corduroy pants that I hated, the twins did, too!  I got the beat down on more than one occasion when my mother made me wear them in public.  To school.  Ew.), were evenly divided on the Redskins/Cowboys side of things, and didn’t have the vocabulary yet to disparage another by his or her skin.

Except me.  Each summer was spent in Missisippi with my grandparents and extended family.  I actually went to part of the first grade there because my mother was ill and needed help with my brother and I.   My family used nigger, coon, Aunt Jemima, Sambo and other words as easily as they drew breath.  It was always an odd experience to go back to Maryland and DC with that floating around my head and wondering why my grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles (particularly the preachers who were worried about my being ‘saved’) could be so hate-filled and ignorant.  Of course, as a child, you really aren’t in a position to question those around you and I don’t know as I ever did.  It was especially confusing when I would watch my parents hang out with and talk to Kerwin and his family.  He was the son of Black friends and their interaction didn’t seem two-faced but I couldn’t understand why they would ignore how other family members talked about Black folks and be friendly with those that I’d assumed they thought were those horrid things.

When I got a little older, I was struck by how close everyone lived in Philadelphia, MS, and I wondered if anyone in my family had been a participant in the murders of Cheney, Goodman, and Schwerner.  I knew that they would have been supporters for those who did participate.  That was confirmed for me the last time I visited Mississippi.  While there, I went to go visit my favorite cousin when growing up.  He’s the one who taught me how to shoot, how to not burn oneself on the tailpipe of a dirt bike, and the perfect ways to torment my younger brother.  In my eyes, as a child, he was just awesome!  Funny and smart in the way cool cousins are supposed to be, right?  Fast forward to the late 90s. I was aware that he had joined the local police force and although I hadn’t made my way into law enforcement yet, I thought that, too, was brilliant.  So, I stopped by.  The timing was such that he was getting dressed for work.  He wandered out into the living room in uniform and apologized for the wait and hollering at each other up and down the hallway while he was dressing.  He added: “I just had to put on my monkey suit.”  Now, I knew ‘monkey suit’ as tuxedo so I had no context for what the hell he was talking about.  That was either on my face or I asked aloud what he meant.  He said, “It’s the suit that lets me beat up monkeys.”

I’m not sure how I left the house.  I remember sitting in the car and being stunned, angry, and tear-filled.  I’ve not been back since that experience.  For that and a few other related reasons, I won’t again.

Fast forward to my roles as courts manager, probation officer and, later, law enforcement consultant.  Borrowing from the theme of We Are Not Trayvon, as an adult I’ve been his girlfriend (for six years, I never introduced him to any family other than my brother), his probation officer, mentor, friend, co-worker, ally, neighbor, co-conspirator in debauchery, employee, mentee, biggest fan and ass-kicker when the situation called for it, bond revoker, cheerleader and lover.   I’m also that with most people I know.

However, I’m not one who can say “I don’t see race”.  I see race all the time. Race is part of our identities.  It’s how someone with brown or black skin will identify me and judge how they can approach me, what language they can use around me, and whether my crossing the street is because I’m trying to avoid construction, dog poo or them before they know me.

I get that.  I’ve watched teachers shun those who look different,  I’ve heard white folk tell Black kids they shouldn’t ‘talk Black like that’ (with Black folk telling them to not talk too white), I’m intimately familiar with DWB, watched cops detain and frighten those that are minding their own business, seen public defenders and district attorneys roll over and ignore their duty because someone is Black or any variety of brown shades.  I know how race effects my willingness to engage with those around me: I don’t associate with assholes.  To me, bigots (of any shade) and those who pretend to be so  (ditto)  to curry favor with family or otherwise fit in, are not part of my life.  I’d help them in an emergency but they are not friends, acquaintances or associates.  I don’t support programs who support the aforementioned. I intervene when I can, especially with younger people who are only now beginning to learn about the world and are navigating the global community in the way previous generations have not had the opportunity.

Here’s my opinion on the Martin-Zimmerman case:  The jurors followed their instructions, combined that with their own life experiences and intelligence, and the criminal justice system, in this case, did its job, what it was designed to do. In the court,  my opinion or yours doesn’t matter.  Facts do.  How they are presented is a variable that skilled attorneys use with aplomb or don’t.  We really have no idea what happened the night of Trayvon’s death.  In the moment, only the two of them did and only one lived to tell about it.  He may have lied.  He may not have.  He may have created an honest story for himself to help explain an act he never imagined he would carry out.  We don’t know.  And, frankly, our opinion of it doesn’t fucking matter.

What matters is how we behave, how we examine our behavior, how we engage with those who don’t look like us, don’t love like us, don’t speak like us, don’t live in a home like us, don’t have a job like us, don’t fuck or buy groceries or read or write or have teeth like us.  We get to choose how we engage with the rest of the world.  We get to choose how we teach children to engage with the world.

Choose wisely.  Be kind.  To everyone.

Kinda simple like that.

Try a quiet riot.  Try asking your neighbor over for a drink.  Look someone in the eye and say hello as you pass them on the sidewalk.  Say hello or hey back to someone who initiates that contact.  Mentor a kid or three.  Step away from the e-community and connect with another human.  Learn enough of another language to ask something like, “How do you say ‘x’, in _____?”  When you drop a dollar in the homeless dude’s cup, say hi.  Ask yourself how what you look like, how you speak, how you hold yourself, how you shake another’s hand or refuse to impacts you and those around you.  If you’re feeling really froggy, ask someone in that elevator to hold your huge bag of magical things while you tie your shoelaces or adjust the twisted pantyhose. See what happens around you.

And, here’s the really tricky bit, actually listen to & learn someone else’s life experience.  Just listen. Maybe ask a question.  Then, instead of responding with your own repetitive soundbite, try to incorporate their experience into your own opinion.  Does it morph it?  Does it reclarify it for you?  Does it make you angry?  Feel like you really don’t know what you thought you did?  Just shut up and listen to them.  Then to your own damn self.  And, your heart.  See what leads from there.

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