Monday, April 2, 2012

Locked and Loaded

What are the four most polarizing words in America right now?

Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.

A public rushed to judgement the moment the 911 recording was released. But as details of the actual events leaked out, it appeared the outcry wasn't ever really about what happened between these two men in the first place. It was about the power of the symbols "white" versus "black". Loaded words. Words so loaded they're making some people do really rash things.

Leonard Pitts Jr., a columnist for the Miami Herald, explained that George Zimmerman is white, not Hispanic, because "white" is an identity that confers status and privilege, and "black" is a term that was imposed on others as a justification for slavery and exploitation.

In the April 9th issue of Time Magazine, Joe Klein mentions that most African-Americans are shot by other African Americans. But that little factoid hasn't gotten much attention.

One week earlier, Time Magazine ran a commentary on Trayvon Martin's death by TourĂ© entitled, "How to Stay Alive While Being Black." The article ran a photo of a much-younger smiling Trayvon with a caption stating he had gone out to buy Skittles when the shooting occurred. This is the same photo that much of the country saw in all initial stories about the shooting.

But the boy who died was four years older than the cutey-pie in the photo. He was about six-foot tall and approximately 140 pounds. Eyewitness accounts talk about him wearing a hooded sweatshirt or hoodie, clothing that some people claim hoodlums wear to hide their face.

And here's the seven-year-old photo that ran everywhere of George Zimmerman, taken when he was booked on an assault-on-an-officer charge that was eventually dropped.

In a police video made public after the shooting, George Zimmerman is a much slimmer man today. He's also only five-foot nine-inches tall.

Matt Sedensky of the Associated Press quotes Betsi Grabe, a professor at Indiana University-Bloomington. She's an authority on how news images affect public opinion. "At the center of most stories we tell in our society, cross-culturally and across the centuries, is the struggle between good versus evil." She believes the media initially rushed to judgement and the photos that ran with the stories were a reflection of which character was perceived as victim and which one the aggressor.

Recent photos have been released of both men, showing a smiling Zimmerman in a jacket and tie and Martin with gold teeth and wearing a white sleeveless undershirt commonly referred to as a wifebeater. Not surprisingly, when those photos run, the slant of the stories portray Zimmerman as the victim.

Communities across the nation are rallying on behalf of Trayvon Martin. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, Reverend Al Sharpton, NAACP, and many others are demonstrating for the right of young black men to walk the streets without getting shot. Which is becoming increasingly more difficult in states like Florida with "Stand Your Ground" laws, which basically protect people who shoot others in self-defense anywhere they are allowed to be.

People across the country like Cleveland, Ohio, City Councilman Zack Reeds and Florida State Representative Alan Williams, donned hoodies to show their solidarity with Trayvon. They believe a person shouldn't be profiled just because of the clothes he's wearing. Famous people, like President Obama, have weighed in, saying that if he had a son he'd probably look like Trayvon. Filmmaker Spike Lee Tweeted what he thought was Zimmerman's address so that people could find him directly and do what to him, I shudder to think, but it wasn't his address. It was the address of an older couple that had no relation to the shooter. They had to flee their home for their own safety. Then Roseanne Barr did exactly the same thing. To the same elderly couple.

This crazy media circus isn't about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. It never was. It's about our role and the role of people like us in the world. It's about Us vs. Them. It's about symbols, perceptions, and posturing. It's politics. It's great drama.

And so, to you, the wordsmith, as you labor to create your characters, situations, and worlds. Your work is so much more than just words. It will be viewed by people who infuse it with their life experiences. Your characters' dialogue, physical descriptions, and actions could have the power to provoke primal responses in your reader. And if it's real-life, it probably should. Heady stuff.

"I Volunteer!" Katniss reacts when her baby sister's name is called to compete in the Hunger Games.

Kim Van Sickler


  1. very well written piece Gina.

    1. I just wanted to check and see if you were paying attention.

  2. This is such a shame. I live in Cambridge, MA, which is diverse. Just about every teen wears hoodies. They all have a right to live without fear of being feared, of being shot.

    1. One of my favorite places is Boston. Yep. Pretty diverse.

  3. Powerful stuff, Kim. (I got your name right.) ;-)

  4. Right now, I think I feel sorry for the old couple the most. That was awful that Rosanne and Spike did that, regardless of who's house it belong to. You just don't do that.

    1. It is terrible they got caught up in the emotional backlash. I wonder too how long it's going to take for their lives to get back to normal, or if they ever will.

  5. Kim, your article represents an example of that which you critique...loaded words. In Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race, philosopher Charles Mills explains how European expansionism in it's various forms---expropriation, slavery, colonialism, settlement---brings race into existence as a global social reality, with the single most important conceptual division being that between "whites" and "nonwhites". (Mills, 1999) Mills says that one's being and consciousness is shaped through the assigned category of race despite scientific evidence that there are no biologically determined characteristics of race, save phenotype. However, there is a pervasive social construction, a set of positions in a global structure, for which race will be an assigned category that influences the socialization one receives, the life world in which one moves, the experiences one has, and the view one develops. This white racism so structured the world as to have negative ramifications for every sphere of black life---juridical standing, moral status, personal racial identity, epistemic reliability, existential plight, political inclusion, social metaphysics, sexual relations, aesthetic worth. The dominant moral code within liberalism and democracy is based on a racialized anthropology. Thus, we must bring to consciousness the assumptions and mechanisms of this ethic, and ultimately to subvert it so that "the white eye can thereby learn to see itself seeing whitely." (Mills, 1999)

    All of this I offer so that you can see your white eye seeing whitely. Your standpoint here is from a white privileged position. The main principles in standpoint theory are as follows: (1) Material life structures and set limits on the understandings of social relations. (2) If life is structured in opposing ways one can expect similar oppositions in the visions of different groups. (3) The vision of the ruling group structured the material relations in which all parties are forced to participate and therefore cannot be dismissed as simply false. (4) The understanding available to the oppressed group must be struggled for and represent an achievement that requires both systematic analysis and the education that grows from political struggle to change social relations.

    One major problem of white supremacy is that of cognition: whites do not see themselves as racist. Our moral education forms a cognitive structure to see whiteness as the norm, and when it is pointed out a general societal discomfort (even hostility) toward the subject errupts. White supremacy was and still is an integral aspect of U.S. history and politics as your article demonstrates. Such assertions are sure to make you uncomfortable, because as your article demonstrates most whites do not “feel”racist. White supremacy, however, is independent from feelings of racism. Whereas in the past, white privilege was asserted through blatantly racist acts and political policies, eventually liberal ideas about the “equality of humans” were spread and officially proclaimed. Rather than weeding out notions of racial superiority, the result was that the mechanisms of white privilege became more complex and more firmly entrenched. Whites today are heirs of this same system and, despite a lack of “racist feelings”, whites perpetuate this system simply through their desire for privilege, their desire for what they feel is their “due” such as trivializing and devaluing the murder of a young black male within the historic and political system that promotes the hatred, dehumanizing, incarceration and killing of young black men in statistically genocidal proportions.

  6. This essay is reeking of unexamined racist assumptions and perspectives. To put this into your blog that is supposedly about writing is an example of how insidious racism is in our society. In our society today, racism doesn't walk around in a white hood, it rears its head in supposedly "post-racist" commentary, and Ms. Van Sickler's essay is a sad example. To even point out the "factoid" (surely not the term that any black mother who has lost a son to gun violence would choose) that most men who are black are killed by other men who are black shows a stunning tone deafness and ignorance of the subject on which she writes. YES, racism has driven poor black men to the point where they are killing each other off in horrifying numbers, and we never hear about it (unless, of course there are five or more in one day in a big city, which happens with some frequency.) So, Ms. Van Sickler, you bring this up to show how, what?....Reverse racist the media is or something? All you do is show us how ignorant you are, and the very dangerous way that racism looks in our "post-racist" society. A factoid we should all learn to recognize and call it what it is.

  7. Good aricle Kim, proud of you!

  8. Gee, it almost looks like a professor wrote the "annonymous" entries above. Professor's are as boring as I remember them from when I went to college. Keep up the good fight Kim!