This infrequently used blog has awakened for a timely guest post from Eddie Hatcher.
I’m a racist. There is no known cure, so best I can hope for is to minimize the symptoms. I’ve struggled my whole life to do just that, but I still can’t help but feel partially responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death. I carry this guilt because nothing I do is enough to combat the system I once gladly took part in.
I grew up in a small North Carolina town surrounded by farms and factories. What I learned about racism, I learned hanging out in hunt clubs, on farms, in country stores, and in gun shops. We often talked about race, but never about racism. Everyone knew that racism stopped existing after Integration. In our minds, we were not discriminating against anyone because of their skin color; we were simply describing the way people acted, their mannerisms, language, dress, etc. Nothing about that seemed racist. Sure, the N word was thrown around occasionally, but black people use that word to describe themselves, so we thought it was OK.
Looking back, I think the worst part may have been the “justified” fear. While the words of wisdom demanded that I not talk to strangers, a part of growing up was learning which strangers were safe and which were dangerous. Of all the strangers out there, none were more important to avoid than black men. If you see a black man, check for your exits. Make sure your friends and siblings are close, as they might not have noticed the black man yet. Whatever you do, don’t talk to them. The more of a “homie” they appear to be, the more dangerous they are.
It’s hard to pinpoint all the things that led to me questioning the mentality I grew up in, but I clearly remember a critical turning point in elementary school. It was Black History Month and our librarian, an intelligent, well-spoken woman, was talking to the class about Dr. Martin Luther King Junior. Like a good white kid, I was brazenly proclaiming my disdain for him. In a display of patience that was no less than heroic, she waited until the class had dispersed and she sat down to have a chat with me. Her first question was simple and direct: “why don’t you like Dr. King?” Since “racism” was not a possibility in my mind, I justified myself by claiming that it was his methods. She continued asking questions about why peaceful marches and civil disobedience bothered me so until the only answers left were, “I don’t know, just because.”
I will never forget the frustration I felt after that conversation 20-some years ago. It burned in me as I scrutinized her questions, searching for logical explanations for my disdain. All my teachers loved me and I got A’s in every subject, yet this librarian had completely stumped me. I thought about those questions for days, weeks. I am still thinking about them today.
I used to think that conversation was the beginning of the end of me being a racist, but now I know that is incorrect.
Of all the speculation of what happened the day that Trayvon Martin was shot dead, one detail of the killer’s story that I do not question is his claim that he was afraid. No doubt he has learned, like me, to be afraid of black men. Florida law says that Zimmerman had a right to stand his ground and defend himself if a “reasonable person” would fear for their life in that situation. No reasonable grown man with a gun would be afraid of a skinny minor, but a racist person like myself would.
But unlike Zimmerman, I take ownership of my fear, my racism. I’m not going to shoot someone because their skin color makes me afraid. I’m going to do the opposite. When I see the “black man in a dark alley” and that childhood fear pops out, I push it down to replace it with a smile and a nod. When people cultivate that fear, innocent children die.
Now that the verdict has been read, I can’t help but be filled with personal guilt. For years I have struggled to own racist upbringing and I have spoken out when people around me say things that demean cultures they know little about. I guess I hoped that my efforts had combined with those of millions of other Americans and that we were moving toward a better world. Maybe I didn’t do enough. Maybe I should have gone to more marches, should have gone to law school, should have been a school librarian. Seeing Trayvon Martin’s murderer go free leaves me feeling hopeless, as though no amount of effort as an adult can undo the damage I did as a child.
I’m like an alcoholic trying to change my life. I’ve walked through the door, but there are 11 more steps and I have no idea what any of them are.
I killed Trayvon Martin.