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March 28, 2012


What makes you think your interaction was biased by race?

Why not by body size or by the fact that he was male?
Of course, it's highly speculative, but would you have felt equaly "threatened"
by a big black woman or a tiny black man? would you have felt safer if the big, hooded guy was white?

Even if your interaction was biased by race i would argue it's not a "slippery slope" from a behaviour like yours to the behaviour of george zimmermann, as you seem to imply by the title.

You are blaming yourself for having biased thoughts about hypothetical situations (phonetheft) until your reason kicked in and corrected them.
That is something completely different from using your reason to operate a firearm in order to faciliate a completely non-hypothetical death.

Biases are not that big a problem as acting upon them is.

Thanks for talking about what no one wants to talk about, Sarah.

And while I agree with Keppla that size and gender were likely also at play, I would argue that you think your reaction was based at least in part on race because you lead an examined life.

I would also argue that biases are a big problem because we act on them in many ways big and small without realizing it, and that sometimes reason is woefully inadequate and belated to correct the injustices wreaked by our biases.

Key phrase used here: "apparent racism."

Why is this apparently a "racist" act -- because the teen was black and the gunman was not? That's what the Martin family's supporters seem to assume (although the family itself, to its credit, has not claimed this, as far as I know).

Tons of people are marching and speaking out on this topic, on all sides of the issue. I'll admit something that none of them will: I don't know all the details about what happened that night; I wasn't there.

Some witnesses support the Martin family's claims; others support the Zimmerman claims. Does anyone know for a fact that Zimmerman was acting in a "racist" manner? He has a history of calling police about neighborhood issues (mostly involving potholes and garbage, it seems). There had been several burglaries in the neighborhood. He says the teen was acting "suspicious." He says Martin was looking around at houses and had a hand in his waistband. Does anyone know for a fact that Zimmerman would have acted differently if it had been a white teen in a hoodie?

I'm not arguing for or against either side; as I said, I don't know all the facts. I'm interested to see what the investigations show. I would simply urge people not to assume they know exactly what happened because they read this headline or that, or saw a grainy surveillance video.

Sarah, I love your post. I believe that profiling and stereotyping influence many actions. This case has just opened up a pandora's box of sorts. It reminds us that we have to be mindful of the judgements we make about people who are different from us. I hope that people will take a few minutes to evaluate their thoughts and behaviors and deal honestly with the person in the mirror. I don't think you have to be a person of color to see this as a case of racial profiling and to empathize with a part of the population in America who have been made to feel unequal. As a woman, I have no idea what it feels like to be hit in the testicles--but I cringe whenever I see it happen to a man. The accounts that I have heard and the experiences that I have witnessed make the experience real for me...even though I can never feel what men feel in this situation. Thank you for your honesty Sarah, for having an open-mind, and standing up for human rights. ...and Laura, Zimmerman called in complaints about Pit Bulls too...however, he didn't kill them. You are correct--there are many elements of the story that are still unclear. However, the FACTS are very clear: Trayvon went to the store to buy candy. Trayvon was in the neighborhood lawfully--visiting his father. Zimmerman pursued Trayvon when he was told not to. Trayvon was unarmed. Zimmerman was carrying a gun. Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon. I can't help but surmise that trayvon would still be alive if Zimmerman had not pursued him...or if Trayvon was a Pit Bull.

I had a moment similar to yours many years ago. Some of you may recall the Bernhard Goetz trial in NY -- his defense was that it was reasonable for him to assume that four black young men in the subway were likely to cause him trouble because crime statistics supported that assumption, so he could shoot them in self defense. This, of course, raised all of these same questions -- BACK IN 1984! That, nearly 30 years later, we are having the same discussions is scary to me.

But, in light of the discussions, I tried my own tests on myself -- in 1984. I worked in a midtown building, often later than 5pm. I used to ride the elevator down many, many stories, so had time to gauge my feelings. I would purposely ride with men: black, white, in suits, in hoodies and try to gauge my fearfulness.

My personal results: I was much more afraid of men than women; I was more afraid of men in hoodies than men in suits regardless of color; size does matter. And one man is scarier than two. I did not notice a difference in my reaction based on race -- all other things being equal. I decided that, for me, it was more of a class thing than a race thing. A suit and brief case made more of a difference for me than his color.

Since we know men in suits rape and assault as much as men in hoodies, unlike Goetz, I can't make the case that I have the right to fear men in hoodies more than men in suits. And some of it is situational: a suited man "belongs" in an office building more than a hoodied man -- except for all those messengers and delivery guys. There just is no easy answer.

We are frequently right to be afraid. As someone pointed out, it's what we do with that fear that defines us. But the more we talk about it; the more we pry away those rocks; the more we shed light, the better off i believe we will be. I am mostly dismayed that 28 years has not changed the conversation more than this.

Hi Sarah. I found this post through Marci Alboher and have to say, you struck a chord with me. I'm you, essentially--white woman, liberal, support much stricter gun control, feel I am color-blind when it comes to race, etc. But you raise such an important point. I don't think that I'm George Zimmerman but I will relate my George Zimmerman moment.

Several years ago I began sitting in on classes at The Monarch School, the largest school for homeless kids in the nation. Most of the kids there are black or Latino. When I first walked in, I had this knee-jerk response, this feeling the kids were somehow dangerous, as if Id' walked into Juvenile Hall. Of course, I was completely wrong.

It's been about six years since that time and I volunteer there now every week. And those students are the nicest, sweetest kids in the world, and they have lives harder than any child should ever have. It has been transformative for many reasons. But it started with my having learned something difficult about myself, and I have forced myself to change the way I think about other people and about race. Making generalizations about any group of people, whether because of their head covering, skin color, religious practices... is a dangerous thing to do.

I, too, appreciate this first in what hopefully will be many musings on race and its many permutations. I think that personal experience is often the arbiter of how we react to situations that we perceive as challenging or threatening or new.

When I was 26 years old and a 1st year grad student at the University of Chicago, I was walking home with a friend at 11:30 at night in Hyde Park, a block from my apartment (on a nice, tree-lined residential street), when we were held up at gun-point by a well-dressed, slender Black man wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. He was walking towards us and I recall thinking that he was nicely dressed and from his stature (height, weight) did not seem threatening. However, for whatever reason, after he passed us, I turned around and noticed that he, too, turned around. Before I could even make sense of this, he was upon us with a large pistol pointed directly at my face. He took both of our purses, told us to turn away from him and walk with our backs to him in the opposite direction. I recall thinking how I did not want to be shot in the back, so I walked away from him backwards.

The aftermath of being held up was far more traumatic than the actual incident. Suffice it to say, that being hauled down to the police station on the South Side of Chicago (not in Hyde Park) on a hot summer day, alone (my friend was from out of town), in my shorts & Tevas, and being asked to identify someone they had brought in based on my description of the guy who had held us up was seriously disconcerting. This experience was exacerbated by the fact that the line-iup was held in a room with 2-way glass, i.e. the 5 guys could all see me and each one of them set his face in a hard stare and did all they could to intimidate me. Which worked. I could not definitively identify any one of them. At that point, the police were disgusted with me and literally ignored me for an hour until one of them deigned to drive me back to campus.

Sorry for the long story, but I think this experience has gone a long way in determining my level of comfort around strange Black men who I may "encounter" on the street. That this happened 22 years ago in no way lessens its effect on me. I now have a knee-jerk reaction to turning around when a Black man passes me on the street at night when I am alone: I'm afraid to do it and I can't seem to not do it. Does the simple fact that I turn around to see if some guy is also turning around make me a racist? Do I turn around when White guys pass me? No, I do not.

I am comfortable admitting to my own racism, to my seemingly innate perception of a vague threat against my person, my body, as a woman. Generally speaking, I feel invisible in public as a large White woman who cares not a lick for fashion and tends to broadcast in a quiet but certain way that I am a lesbian. Generally speaking, I do not perceive that men "see" me on the street, Black, White, Indian, Hispanic, I feel invisible to men.

I have much more thinking and writing and sharing to do around how this experience in Chicago has shaped my views on race and on being a woman walking on the sidewalks at night. I appreciate the opportunity to start that conversation here.

Thanks so much for the thoughtful comments, folks, and for the personal stories. One thing that has come up here and in some comments on Facebook is that it's reasonable for a woman to be aware of and sometimes wary of men passing on the street, regardless of color. While I would agree with that in situations where there are few people around (or only a lot of men), I didn't make clear enough here that we were near a fairly busy intersection, and I didn't feel physically in danger. But it wouldn't have been hard for somebody to swipe my phone or, um, the leash I was carrying and run off. Point being: I wasn't in any danger of being raped or otherwise assaulted specifically as a woman. So, in this case, that brought the interaction down to one between two humans.

While we all have innate biases (check some of the sites I linked to) and some of us have personal experiences (like @Amy's), we don't like in a society that helps dial those things down or that's even neutral. Our media culture and indeed our politicians would lead us to think that a black guy poses a bigger threat and feels less danger than a white woman. But Trayvon's story--and the discussions following it--tell us something different. And while it may not be slippery slope me for me individually, @keppla, to go from biased thought to lethal action, we as a society have been on that very terrain for hundreds of years--and the hill isn't getting more gradual as of late.

@Eilene: Your story about the Monarch School is inspiring. One of the things I'm wondering is what communities I can participate in that might help me recalibrate my current sensibilities.

@Ksinct: Bernard Goetz, still! I grew up in NJ, and I was in high school when that happened. I remember my social studies teacher leading a discussion about why what he had done *was reasonable.* As you say, we're still having that discussion (as far as I know, Zimmerman wasn't arrested today). Good fucking grief.

One point I don't think has been brought up here: race is only one factor in how safe we feel. I know of black people who have crossed the street to avoid walking past a young black person or group who seemed like they might be some kind of threat.

I've done the same thing/felt the same way with people who are white who I think may be threatening, etc. Everyone does their own on-the-spot assessment of what risk they may be facing based on the the look and behavior of the person or persons they are facing, the neighborhood they're in, the time of day or night, whether the area is crowded or deserted, the clothing or possessions one may have, etc.

@Melanie: "I don't think you have to be a person of color to see this as a case of racial profiling..."
Why, became the victim is black and the gunman isn't? Zimmerman said on the 911 call that he thought that the person was looking around and acting suspiciously. When the 911 operator asked if the person was black, white, or hispanic, Zimmerman replies that he *thinks* the person was black.

Also, very few media accounts have bothered to mention that Zimmerman and his wife were mentoring two black children of a single mother, who was positive about their involvement. That strikes me as something odd for a racist to do.

I am *not* defending George Zimmerman; I am just saying that since very few people have much actual knowledge of what happened that night, maybe we should wait and see what the two investigations say. It that seems people all over the country who are hearing about this case are making definitive judgements about what happened and the actions, motivations, and beliefs of the people involved.

(Also, as someone who was trained as a journalist, I try not to jump to conclusions or assume that because a situation looks like it fits a common or expected scenario that it must be so.)

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