When I heard the verdict in the George Zimmerman case, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I’m not mad at the jury who did what they had to do with the evidence presented to them, but I feel a profound sense of disappointment in our judicial system and in a world where, despite our attempts to be our better selves, race matters. What people look like, what they wear and how they walk matter. This is my poor attempt to at least try to start to make sense of it all.
I am a white woman, born in the south of the mid-1960s. My parents were both raised in Queens, NYC, and had moved to Charlotte, NC just a couple of years before I was born and just a couple of years after the sit in at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro.
My first contact with any person who didn’t look like me was with Belle, a tiny apple doll of a black woman who watched the kids at church while the adults were in the sanctuary. I have only one picture of her in my mind: delicate Belle seated in a huge wooden rocker with a gentle smile on her face. I have a memory of knitted pale yellow wool. Maybe a sweater?
Jesus loves the little children. Belle loved the little children.
When my family would go to the beach with my best friends family, we would see Annie, their grandfather’s maid, who traveled everywhere with him. She had her own room at the beach cottage right off the garage and at the foot of the steps leading to the main floor. Although Annie has been gone for probably 30 years that room—the room I stay in now when I go to the beach with my friend—will always be known as Annie’s room.
Belle and I were together at church. Annie and I would occasionally live at the beach together for a week or a weekend at a time. But we lived in different Americas.
America is known as a melting pot, where cultures mix and meld and take on each other’s flavors. I think the sad truth is that we’re not a melting pot at all. Perhaps a more apt culinary metaphor for what our society is comes from molecular gastronomy. Spherification.
My father was always a sucker for a door-to-door salesman, and we were the proud owners of many series of books, one of which was a complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica.
As a child, I was fascinated by the entry on the human body. There was an outline of the body on the page with multiple transparent overlays, each one representing a different system: I’d leaf down the muscular system overlay, followed by the skeletal overlay, the bones seeming to rest among the muscles. Digestive system. Circulatory system. Reproductive system. Each transparency in turn, until the body was complete. Only it wasn’t. Each system existed on its own page, so none of them truly interacted. No layer touched or interacted with any part of any other layer, a caste system. Glass ceiling upon glass ceiling. Glass floor upon glass floor.
Don’t judge a book by its cover. How many times have we all heard that? I do believe in that ideal, of looking into eyes rather than at skin and knowing people through their thoughts, feelings and actions rather than by external identifiers. Except that really is what we see first, isn’t it?
It’s not racist to say “He’s a white dude,” or “She’s an Asian girl,” or “He’s a light-skinned black guy.” Or is it? We don’t interact with every person we meet. We can’t know that he loves puppies and gumbo and wishes for world peace just by looking. Or that she likes to play Words with Friends and volunteers at the local homeless shelter. Or that he looks angry because his grandmother just died and he didn’t have the chance to say goodbye.
I recently began watching Sons of Anarchy, and I found a Q&A session with cast members from 2012, right after they wrapped up their fourth season. The actor who plays Juice tells the story of leaving the set for the day, Mohawk, tattoos and all, to go to a movie premier. He was viewed with suspicion by many of the folks there. And when he went to buy popcorn before the show, he said he could feel someone standing right behind him. He turned, expecting that it might be a fan who just wanted to say hi, and he came face to face with Tom Cruise and his body guards. Mr. Cruise was standing very close—certainly inside his personal space–and was staring at him and frowning, as if he was trying to understand who this crazy person was and why he was there and if perhaps he should have this Person escorted out.
Mr. Cruise has been acting for years. You would think he would understand that changing one’s outer appearance is SOP for actors, but he was drawn up short by Rossi’s “radical” temporary tattoos and hairstyle.
My shame is that maybe I’d have reacted in the same way. Maybe it’s better that I just admit that truth and then try to rise above.
My Ideal—capital I—is that I can look beyond the outer. But the reality is that the outer is what we see first, and it’s hard to get beyond that without engaging. So what do we do with this? What do I do with it? I don’t have the answers. All I know is that I am torn. And I am sick about the Trayvon Martin case, and all cases like it. Part of my sickness comes from knowing that I will never experience what it feels like to be a young black man in America.
I don’t think I can ever know or ever fully empathize, because we live in different Americas. We exist in separate spheres, all bobbing around in a big America-shaped pot. We can only see each other through the glass ceilings and glass floors of our caste’s transparency.
My parents never had to sit me down and explain to me that one day, all of a sudden, I would be feared just because of how I look. That I would notice ladies clutching their purses a bit more tightly, that people might actually cross to the other side of the street rather than risk brushing past me.
Different faces. Different experiences. Different Americas.
Since I don’t have any answers, I can only ask more questions. But I will finish this with a particularly poignant tweet from the Saturday of the verdict:
“How cool would it be to live in a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon Martin a ride home to get him out of the rain that night?” – @Ayoo_Noah
I realize that not everyone shares the same opinions about this case and also that opinions can evolve. I welcome your respectful comments and hope to start a thoughtful discussion. Thanks for taking the time to read.