17 July 2013

I Am Trayvon Martin

An African American student who is a friend of a friend of mine wrote on his Facebook wall that he was shocked by the Trayvon Martin verdict (see my previous blog here). Someone responded:
"Don't take this to heart. You are a very smart, very talented, handsome guy, don't let yourself be dragged into this mentality. You are not going to be shot- you carry yourself well, speak well, walk and dress well. Martin was not killed because of the color of his skin, he was killed because he got into a very violent altercation with an armed man...Martin, RIP, had pictures of marihuana (sic) in his cellphone, texts about buying a gun illegally, and lots of racist profanity against white Americans. This was not about race. I'm telling you because you are new to this country and while its true that there is racism out there, this case wasn't it....You're a smart, educated, good looking guy. Believe me, you're not Martin."
There is something fundamentally sad, something fundamentally wrong about this. Something that struck me to the core with an anger that felt almost powerless against such passive discrimination. It is a discrimination so silent, so cloaked in politeness you almost get hoodwinked by its seeming logic and tell yourself that all is well. But then the questions hits you: are people who carry images of marijuana in their phones supposed to be shot? Should we be shot for the content of our Whatsapp messages? Once those questions start coming in, the floodgates open: am I supposed to be safe because of the way I dress? If I dress like a "thug", should I be shot on sight? Is what a wear, an indicator of who I am? Are the lives of those who buy their clothes from Fifth Avenue in New York, Sandton City in Johannesburg or Sam Levy Village in Harare more valuable than those whose clothes are from the corner thrift shop?

"You are not going to be shot - you carry yourself well, speak well, walk and dress well...." Whites can carry and talk whichever way they want to but if a black person carries himself well, then he is safe. What does this imply for those who don't? Let's not fool ourselves. This is about race. This is about discrimination, about the snap judgements of those who see the world as simply black and white, good and bad, they who subscribe to Cersei Lannister's motto: "Everyone who isn't us is an enemy". Certainly George Zimmerman revealed as much in his call to Emergency Services, "...they always get away", he complained. Who is 'they' we might ask?

I talk well. I like to think I dress well and I carry myself well. I learn at one of Europe's best schools, so supposedly I am safe right? Wrong. I have been a Trayvon Martin so many times it hurts. In Algeria where I would be the only one made to get off the bus and unpack my baggage to be inspected at police roadblocks. One officer went so far as to taste my toothpaste. The fact that I was the only black on the bus does not seem that much of a coincidence. In university where my professors would call me "l'africain" instead of ever trying to learn my proper name.

In Germany where I was the only black on a flight filled with Europeans and Arabs, where I was pulled out of the queue at boarding and put in a little room and interrogated, my hand luggage searched, my laptop scanned and my passport stamps and visa's examined in great detail.

In South Africa where I was helping my cousin shop for her wedding dress and the white owners of the shop completely ignored us for twenty minutes but went running to a white couple who had just come in to ask the price of a necklace. At the South African Post Office where the white manager told me I was "a problem" and that I should go back home instead of trying to open a bank account with my "fake" passport.

But closest to home, the day I was approached by one of our white neighbours who lived in the complex where my parents live. In all my innocence, dressed well, speaking well, carrying myself well, she approached me and asked me what I was looking for there. Who cares that I had unlocked the gate with my security code, that I had actually had a conversation with her a few months earlier when I happened to meet her in the garden; no, no one cares. To her I was suspicious just for being there. I didn't belong there.

I didn't belong there in much the same way Trayvon Martin did not belong there that fateful evening. I looked strange for being as normal as I could possibly be, in much the same way Trayvon Martin looked strange for walking home slowly from the shops talking on his phone to his friend. I was guilty of something in much the same way Trayvon Martin was guilty of carrying images of marijuanna on his phone. Something just had to be wrong. Something just had to not click. So she came up to me and asked me what I was doing there.

We are all Trayvon Martin's. We are all judged and told we do not belong every time we walk into a shop and security starts surreptitiously following us around. Every time one of us gets shot for being afraid of the big Hispanic man following him in the dark night. Which one of us would not stand their ground? Trayvon Martin did. And George Zimmerman decided he didn't belong not only in that neighbourhood. But on this earth. And the jury agreed.

RIP Trayvon Martin.

"What is really injured, bruised, if you will, is the psyche of our national population. We are all harmed. We are all belittled, and we give to the rest of the world more ammunition to sneer at us." - Maya Angelou speaking on the Trayvon Martin verdict.

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