Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Being Zimmerman, Mourning Trayvon
A friend of mine recently posted on my Facebook wall: "'Arrest Zimmerman!' What did you do to piss Al Sharpton off?" It'd be funny if it weren't sad. Being a Zimmerman these days is difficult, if only because being a Zimmerman is normally so innocuous. The last time the name Zimmerman made headlines, so far as I know, was World War I. Zimmermans aren't often newsworthy, so I rarely hear my name bandied about. These days, though, since George Zimmerman shot and killed a young black man named Trayvon Martin in Florida, the name Zimmerman is everywhere. I wince a little every time I hear it, even though I'm not related to the shooter and I'm nowhere near the Florida town where the shooting took place. We are known by our names; we are, in fact, in many ways the sum of our names--the genetic and cultural information that has gathered and compounded over generations of our ancestry. By shooting an innocent kid, George Zimmerman has changed the culture surrounding my name, from innocuous associations with Ford dealerships and cinematic art direction to murder and racism. I know, I know. Nobody's proven racism on Zimmerman's part. That's because it's impossible to prove empirically, even as it's impossible to deny the presence of racism in contemporary culture. Oh, we try to deny it--or at least if we must begrudgingly admit it as a cultural problem, we deny it as a personal problem. Ask around, though, and countless black men will tell you specific (often multiple) instances in which their ethnicity got them into trouble--not their conduct, their words or their reputation, but their race. These men get in trouble at gas stations, at libraries, driving from point A to point B, walking through their parents' neighborhood. Trayvon's name has become a symbol of a chronic and pervasive spiritual problem: hear "Trayvon," think systemic, structural racism. My name has also become a symbol: hear "Zimmerman," think racial violence. When President Obama reflected on the senseless death of this innocent kid, he noted that "if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon." He's right, and I'm glad he said it: the president is himself a symbol of cultural progress on racial issues, and his notoriety actively subverts the social separation of races that pervades American culture and impedes racial harmony. Trayvon has a name and, thanks to the news and the president, a familiar face; because we can imagine him in our lives we can mourn his death. But I have a name too, and now when I hear it, I'm reminded that we, and I, continue to have a race problem. That being the case, we, and I, have an obligation to actively subvert that race problem wherever we encounter it--even if we encounter it in the dark corners of our unconscious.