Following the Trayvon Martin verdict, I've been carrying around a lump of sadness that's only exacerbated by cruel and insensitive comments online. It makes it very difficult to maintain faith in humanity. But then, I discovered this website: http://wearenottrayvonmartin.com/ and it was like salve on a wound. People of all sorts and types were reaching out, offering their condolences, sharing their stories of why they could so-closely identify with Trayvon or why they could not identify with him at all, but acutely felt the pain of his story, regardless. So many people are clamoring to be part of this community, to grieve together, that the moderators of the site can barely keep up with submissions. And I was compelled to submit my own - I don't know if it will ever make it to that community of stories, but here it is.
I am a woman whose childhood was spent in a small, rural, predominantly white, West Virginia town. There was not very much ethnic diversity in our town – but in the home where I grew up, everyone was welcome and I was often surrounded by people of all sort and type. I was very much insulated from the cruel realities of bigotry and hatred in the world. I didn’t even know racism existed until the ripe-old-age of twelve.
I remember it very vividly, my introduction to this ugliness. While my mom was at choir practice, I was hanging out in the Dairy Queen across the street from our church with one of my childhood besties. I remember feeling very grown-up and pretty; because my friend, a year older than me and already wearing makeup, had let me try her eyeliner and lip gloss. So when a neighborhood boy came in and joined us at our booth, I felt especially giddy. We ate ice cream and giggled wildly with all the ease that young, innocents have. But things changed so quickly. As I headed to the restroom to clean up the ice cream that had made its way onto my shirt during a particularly animated moment of laughter, I was stopped by a stern looking couple and informed that I should not be there with THEM. They pointedly directed their icy gazes back at my still-laughing friends. My stomach dropped and I walked on without responding. I didn’t understand what this couple was saying, but I did know that their words had fully sucked all the fun and laughter out of me. I made an excuse to my friends and left to wait out the remainder of choir practice by myself on a pew in the church.
On the ride home, I told my mom what happened and I asked her what it meant. She explained to me, with sadness in her eyes, that some people are afraid of people who are different from them, even if those differences are only skin-deep. You see, I am very pale-skinned, and my friends, as you may have guessed, were brown-skinned.
I can remember the confusion I felt; how could anyone have negative associations with my friends’ beautiful brown skin? How is it possible that someone would think me a better person than them, simply because of my paleness?
I can remember the anger I felt at the sheer stupidity of it all; my anger specifically at that couple for making assumptions about my friends and my anger generally that this thing, this racism, was a reality of life.
And I can remember the deep sadness I felt; for my friends whose entire character was being judged simply based on their skin color, but also for the people who held these fears. They must miss out on so much by limiting their worlds to only people who are just like them; what a narrow, depressing, boring world that must be.
I vowed then, at age twelve, that I would never live that way. I would try to live my life as open to different people and different experiences as I possibly could.
And I have.
But it’s the privilege of my race and gender that affords me that opportunity to be open. I can visit new cities and neighborhoods without warranting anyone’s attention. I can introduce myself to someone out of the clear blue without invoking fear. And if necessary, I can defend myself without question.
It’s the privilege of my race and gender that protected me from knowing about racism until age 12.
I am not Trayvon Martin.