Why Mothers of Sons of Color Can't Move on From the Zimmerman Verdict
For the past several days, since the verdict of Trayvon Martin's killer, George Zimmerman, I have been at a loss for words. And yet, I have been reading a lot of articles and opinion pieces, community reactions, and legal explanations of the law surrounding the trial.
I think that in the end, I feel resolute to accept that the results of the verdict were simply the result of the laws – with Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law being one riddled with faults and dangerous potential, especially since the Zimmerman verdict.
Conservative groups, politicians and those uncomfortable with the topic of race and with little understanding of what it is that upsets our community of color so much, are asking that we "stop talking about it," as it is done. They are asking that we honor the law and our legal system and move on.
And in our heads we want to. We all want to move on. Forget. Let it go.
But here's the problem: We've been holding on to the insecurities that have plagued our minds and emotions long before Zimmerman came along and profiled Trayvon Martin. Long before the lawyers and members of society criminalized Martin and demonized him to justify murder.
I have been holding on to this fear and insecurity for years. I would say I felt it most intensely a few years ago, when my son was 11 and was into "urban fashion." He would dress in his baggy pants, T-shirt and baseball cap or hoodie, and head out with his other friends of color to walk the streets of NYC. Every single time he did, I knew what was going to happen: Someone along the way would see this group of kids, dressed in a way that was considered "thuggish," and would feel afraid or annoyed. Someone, somewhere along the way, would look at my son, probably talking too loud, laughing too hard, and insult him, insult me, and pass judgment – maybe quietly or just in their mind. He would be noticed. He would be avoided. He would be carefully watched. I know this, because I watch television and watch the news, and I hear the comments and know the stereotype. My son, with his tall, thin, brown frame and select sense of fashion, looked like a hoodlum, a thug, a punk, a menace to society. He fit the stereotype and would be judged accordingly, not for acting like a teenage boy, but for acting like a boy of color.
This fear and insecurity often caused arguments in the mall when I would try to steer my son to the Polo section or Hilfiger area for men. "Look at this cute cardigan!" "Look at this really nice button-down shirt!" "You would look great in that outfit," I would say, as I pointed to preppy-looking mannequins.
"Mom! That's not my style!" he would exclaim, annoyed and angry.
I wanted to dress my child to look non-threatening to others. To look the part where others would feel comfortable with his presence and relieved at the sight of a decent, intelligent, well-raised, well-mannered young boy.
And that's the issue. I wanted to transform my child to fit the comfort level of others who would judge and characterize him simply by how he looked and dressed – just as many have done with Trayvon Martin and other teens of color in our society. Some people think that racism is just what is spoken or what is done, but we all know the truth.
It is a look in people's eyes when they see a black man dressed in a certain way walk into the room. It is facial expression that reads, "Do they know someone here?" or "How did they get in?" It's in the way they clutch their body when they see a group of brown kids walking toward them or on the train. It is in their continued effort to tell me they are color-blind and that "we are all the same." It is in their rage in reading this article and accusing me of making it all about race.
These insecurities? These fears? They are a constant to us mothers of children of color, especially boys. We know what others think about our sons long before they utter a word, and we know how low they have set the bar in their minds for them, which is why they are so easily impressed and so incredibly overjoyed when my son proves to be much more than they ever gave him credit for.
Today my son is almost 16, and my push to make him into someone others feel comfortable with has worked. He loves his polo shirt and long shorts and Sperrys. They think he is so handsome now. They say girls will fall all over him. They even think he and his white girlfriend make a cute couple.
It's what I've had to do to protect my son from the George Zimmermans of the world and from the laws that protect the George Zimmermans of the world. It's what I have had to do to minimize the chances that my son will be seen as a threat simply for acting as a teen. It's what I have had to do to sleep better at night. To give my son a chance.
So, the Trayvon Martin case may be over for many. Many might able to move on. But for me, the worry is never-ending. Because I am the mother of a brown child, and the death and criminalization of Trayvon Martin has reminded me that I can never relax, let go or lower my guard.