Tuesday, March 27, 2012

I Am George Zimmerman (Sometimes)

Article first published as I Am George Zimmerman (Sometimes) on Blogcritics.com

Agony and outrage have swept the nation in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin. African-American mothers and fathers have been pondering the possibility that he could have been their son. The "hoodie" has emerged as a symbol of solidarity, a rebuke to the notion that an article of clothing should be a life and death matter. The role of implicit racial bias is taking center stage in the national debate. Investigations have been launched at all levels of government and the President himself has called for "soul-searching" among Americans.

What this will all mean remains to be seen. The shooter, George Zimmerman, may or may not face justice. "Stand Your Ground" legislation may or may not survive increased public scrutiny. I wonder how much soul-searching will really take place and what will be discovered if it is.

When I search my soul, I have to acknowledge that I have held similar ideas about Black males to those that likely influenced Zimmerman's thinking about Trayvon. While this is a source of a shame so deep I can hardly type the words, it is no less true. In America, you do not have to be White to have your psyche haunted by the image of black-male-as-bogeyman. The Reverend Jesse Jackson controversially acknowledged this in a candid comment published by US News in 1996:

"There is nothing more painful to me … than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved."

I know this pain well. From a very young age my internalized racial inferority was reflected in my suspicion towards other black males. What I did not understand as a child was that many of them were feeling just like I did. We did not have a language for our alienation and anger. What we did have on too many occassions were harsh words, rituals of humiliation, and misguided masculine posturing. We witnessed adults behaving the same way. Some of us would eventually resort to the fists, sticks, knives, and guns that Geoffrey Canada wrote about. Combined with a lifelong media blitz of negative imagery that could have been lifted right out of an antebellum ad campaign, this dynamic of self/other hatred was hardly conducive to feelings of trust.

It was through the Baha'i Faith that I rediscovered the capacity to love myself, and slowly but surely, other black males. It began under the healing influence of the comparison by its Founder, Baha'u'llah, of black people to the pupil of the eye which is "dark in color but a fountain light and the revealer of ... the world." It accelerated through participation in the Baha'i Black Men's Gathering, an international fellowship of brothers assisting each other to apply the teachings of Baha'u'llah to the betterment of themselves and humanity as a whole.

Today, my fear has largely given way to faith, aggression to affection, and judgment to compassion. However, old habits of thought die hard and progress requires persistent and prayerful effort even now. I would be lying if I claimed I did not sometimes have that moment of "wondering" when I encounter a young black male with his hoodie up on a dark Boston street.

My earthly journey has taught me that to successfully battle racial biases in the world, I have to first battle them in myself. I have to be truthful about the fact that, paradoxically, I am Trayvon Martin and yet sometimes I am George Zimmerman as well. At least in my mind. As Abdu'l-Baha (1844-1921), Head of the Baha'i Faith from 1892 to 1921, reminds me:

"Truthfulness is the foundation of all the virtues of the world of humanity. Without truthfulness, progress and success in all of the worlds of God are impossible for a soul. When this holy attribute is established in man, all the divine qualities will also become realized."

Image from "The Million Hoodie March," courtesy of Wikimedia, author David Skankbone


  1. Anonymous6:51 PM

    thank you for your honesty and truthfulness!

    1. Mary K.4:18 PM

      What a thoughtful piece, Phillipe! Thank you, not only for these insights, but for having become emblematic in my mind of nobility and purity of heart. I have had a long lifetime of training -- by the grandmother who was jumpy around boistrous youth, by the newest cop drama, and the evening news, all of which have used the hoodie as shorthand for "dangerous." Whenever my well-trained jumpy self flinches at the sight of a group of youth, I remind myself that those youth could be younger versions of my friends Phillipe, or Michael, or Tod, or Jack, or Sam, or Cap, or Luis, all of whom have imprinted in my heart the definition of a good man. Then I breathe, and my effort is rewarded with a nod, or a "how ya' doing?" Thank you for being part of that holy alchemy.

  2. I honor you Phillipe. When I first saw the title of your post in a Facebook link, I didn't realize it was you who had written it. I was thinking about my response as an older white woman, about the discrepancy between what I was taught about black men and what I've experienced. I feel much safer surrounded by young black men, with or without hoodies, than I do walking past a group of white teenage boys. I walk the streets in the black neighborhood where my son lives - previously on Chicago's Southside and now on the West Side - and I feel comfortable. The only way I can explain this is that throughout my life I've been harassed by white teenagers, while black men of all ages have treated me with respect and even protectiveness. Maybe it's because I've never been physically threatened that I can hold onto this trusting expectation. Maybe it's because the only violence I've ever experienced was when two white cops came up on us, as we stood on a Chicago street corner at night, and roughed up our friend - a young black man dressed in business attire. This is my experience as a soul who is temporarily associated with a pale-skinned, female-gendered, 63-year-old body. It is clearly different than your experience.

    Yet here's where I have to tell the truth. I am George Zimmerman too. As I've been posting links to articles about Trayvon Martin's innocence, as I took a photo of myself in a hoodie and posted it on the millionhoodies site, as I passionately urge the 99.98% white residents of this coastal Oregon town to think about the implications of racial stereotypes, all the while I've been thinking this: if we are truly one human organism, then George is as much a part of me as Trayvon is. I am deeply connected to him - to his fear (even if unfounded), to his shame (even if hidden)and to his unconscious sense of superiority (even if denied). What injures George injures me. He is as much a victim as Trayvon, because he is an inherently noble being who has been brainwashed to believe a lie. He is a soul temporarily associated with a mind that has been manipulated, oppressed and wounded by racist conditioning. What has been done to the brains of white people in this country is a sin and a crime of horrific proportions because it leads us into separation from our fellow humans. A year ago I read a blog post by a mother whose black son was called the N-word by a white boy; my question was: who's going to save that white boy? Who will intervene on his behalf? What will protect him from the onslaught of societal or parental messages that will eventually rob him of his freedom to choose his reactions to black people based on his nobility rather than his brainwashing? It's easy to ask this out loud about a white child, but more difficult with a full grown white man. Yet I've been thinking it. Who will express compassion for George Zimmerman? I've been thinking it, but I was not courageous enough to write it. I was afraid my black friends would call me a traitor.

    So I honor you Phillipe. Your courage has galvanized me today.

  3. Anonymous2:26 AM

    I love this post. and I love the reactionary posts. I am a white female who tends to be scared of young white men in groups more than black men in groups. I must, however, admit that any man by himself approaching my car scares me. I must also admit that I am angry with non-white people for saying things like something is "too white" for them. I live in a very divided community who likes to think they are ahead of the times. I think, in our city, we officially tend toward integration (and I hate to use that term because I think it should a non-issue at this point in time)but I see segregation that does not come from the top of the economic totem pole, but from the middle lower parts of the totem pole. This makes me angry because, in my opinion, unity is the only possibility for success in the human race; Understanding is not hard when you are exposed to it. Understanding is even easier when there is a strong support in place at a young age to show that we are all different but the same. We are all capable of adopting brothers and sisters of all races and religions and other differences.

  4. Alan Smith9:40 AM


    Thanks for this thoughtful and honest piece. I've been there! And, at times go there still.

    I really appreciated your piece in Ebony. Hopefully, it will reach more hearts, souls and minds.

    Have a wonderful New Year

  5. Anonymous9:59 AM

    After hearing black men speak about white people's fear of them ten or fifteen years ago, I felt a combination of fear and surprise. As a while female, I was taught to be on my guard from strange men in general while simultaneously being told most men were decent. My parents did not differentiate between white or black men just men in general. I thought to myself 'wow, that has to be stressful to be a black man and see scared white women pass them in the stores, streets, etc. So, I decided to try an experiment to send out positive emotions when passing a black man in the street, in a store, open a door for him, say 'it's a beautiful day', etc. I know that a smile from a stranger or someone opening a door lifts my mood and sometimes helps change my outlook for the rest of the day. My experiment, also, made me feel better because living in a positive space is much healthier then living in fear. This leads me to another point which is that the real power brokers in our country maintain their power through fear. Most of my family listens to Fox News and conservative television and radio talk shows which breed fear and hatred in order to attract voters to their side. They focus on the 'other' and the 'other' is anyone who thinks differently then them. My family sees danger all around them and my elderly family members are frightened to leave their homes. I would love to know if Mr. Zimmerman listens and watches these same television and talk radio shows and if it escalated his sense of danger. If you only eat bad food, the probability of developing physical health problems increase and if you only listen and watch people spew hate, disdain, and fear, it will seep into your consciousness. I do believe that one must carefully tend your soul and face your own prejudices or else the negative forces in our society will influence one's thoughts and deeds. It is a challenge for all of us.

  6. Jim Desson12:56 PM

    The high quality of your post, Phillipe, has evoked further insightful posts. I love to learn; thank you for furthering the education of my heart and mind.

  7. It helps to remember that we're all human and that our unspoken struggles are pretty often shared ones.

    For some reason, this reminds me of something from about a year and a half ago, where usual racial roles were reversed:

    I was walking home after dark, through a large public park, carrying a bag of groceries in each hand. I'm a white guy, about 40, otherwise nothing out of the ordinary. There was a pedestrian bridge I had to cross, which was also a popular informal hangout spot because it was under trees, near a street light, and also near a parking lot, so it was a convenient place to hang out where you could see (because of the light) and also be in nature without walking too far from your car.

    Four or five people were hanging out around the entrance to the bridge. I could only see their silhouettes, so I couldn't tell much about them except that they were probably young adults or teens. Maybe half and half men and women. They were talking quietly, seemed relaxed, and one or two were smoking.

    They didn't notice me, so about 15 meters away I started making louder footsteps so I wouldn't surprise them. The one closest to me, smoking, jumped and nearly freaked out. He turned out to be a black kid about 18 years old. He said my grocery bags looked like ghosts floating through the night, and they really scared him. He laughed at being so impressionable and frightened. I said it was okay, laughed with the group, said good evening to them, and walked on home, but he was still shaky afterwards. The whole thing took all of about 15 seconds.

    I was doing my best to not be scared about such a stereotypically racially "dangerous" situation -- they turned out to all be black, probably high school friends hanging out -- but I never expected to scare them!

    tl;dr: Middle-aged white guy, walking through a park at night, accidentally scares a black teenager who thinks his grocery bags are ghosts.

  8. Thank you very much for this wonderful post, Phillipe! I can relate to your very human internal work, and the feelings of profound discomfort any time I see the vestiges of my own racism or any other prejudice. Baha'i Faith has been a balm and a nourishing spring for my soul too. Keep up the amazing work you do, my dear brother.

  9. Phillipe, Well written and deeply felt. As some of the other white middle aged women, I was taught to be afraid of men. It was my father's way of trying to protect me from potential danger. This has, to a much lesser degree, remained with me throughout my life. I do not fear men in social settings or social relationships. It is the stranger I sometimes fear. I often, with a wrenching heart, have I tried to muster up a facade of comfort and confidence as I passed a black man on the street or in a dimly lit setting, consciously I would not cross the street or clutch my purse because of the pain I know many black men feel when they see white women doing this. I wanted the man to know my heart wished to be friendly and the unfortunate reality was that I feared men, not black men.
    The men who have been the most respectful and kind to me have been black men. My experience with white men has been one of abuse and disrespect. Of course, there have been countless white men who have been wonderful, gentle souls.
    I must always be on guard of any negative feelings that are generalized and focus on seeing every situation as an independent one. I must be conscious of safety and fight the urge to be broad sweeping with my fear. I must always be kind to the stranger!
    Phillipe, I am very pleased to know you!

  10. Great article, Phillipe. I'm not going to follow and shoot some black kid but I do get uneasy if passing a few on the street.

    Peace ~ Bear

  11. Anonymous6:34 PM

    I no longer have you email address but would love for you to weigh in on the event that prompted this letter.