How Does it Feel to be a Problem? A Reflection on Trayvon Martin

My heart has been heavy since I heard about Trayvon Martin. I’ve read all the coverage and signed all the petitions. I’ve talked about it with family and friends and sat my own teenaged son down for yet another “talk.” I have read the commentary of a lot of very smart people on this case that make the historical and social intellectual connections better than I could have. Like Mark Anthony Neal, here. R. L’Heureux Lewis here. And the Crunk Feminist Collective here.

What is compelling me to write is much more personal than academic. I have a 15-year-old son. He’s 5’11” and football linebacker size (left guard, actually). He is sweet and kind and mild mannered. He is polite to adults and more courteous than your average teenager. What breaks my heart is that it’s not enough. There isn’t enough kind or polite or courteous in the world to outweigh the skin he’s in. This marker that he carries with him every day, that in his adolescent daze he is only partially aware of, sometimes… is everything. It was all there was when George Zimmerman decided that Trayvon was suspicious. It was everything when Amadou Diallo was gunned down in New York City, there was nothing more when Andre Burgess was shot in the city carrying a candy bar, it was THE thing when Jordan Miles was beat down in Pittsburgh. It is what led WEB Dubois to ask, “How does it feel to be a problem?”

The fact that my son walks through the world looking suspicious just because of who he is, because of his body, just destroys me sometimes. It makes me want to hold him close, to limit his movements, to tell him, no…you can’t go out.

“Mom, why? Don’t you trust me?” “It’s not you baby… It’s not you.” How many mothers and fathers have had this talk with their sons? Did Trayvon’s mother have that talk with him? “Son, when you’re out in the world, people don’t just see you as you are.” “Boy, when you’re in a store, make sure you don’t look like you could be stealing anything.” “My son, if the police stop you, make sure you cooperate.” “Baby, when you’re in public…not too loud, not too fast, not too slow, don’t look at them in the eye, step off the curb, shuffle your feet, cooperate, lay down, smile—but not too hard or too long, put your hands behind your back, pull your pants up, take your hood down BECAUSE THEY ARE KILLING BLACK BABIES OUT HERE.”

Most of the parents of black children I know have had that conversation with their children. “You’re black honey…and that means certain things to certain people.” We do it to protect them, to give them a lens so that when they’re treated out of line they don’t think they’re crazy, or that something is wrong with them. We do it so they can survive this world that encodes crime and drugs and lust and danger on their bodies. And yet, there’s Trayvon, there’s Jordan, and hundreds of others beaten and killed because they wear the ‘suspect’ suit as their birthright. It’s not new—of course. It’s old. It’s Emmett Till old. It’s slavery old. Both the racism and this talk, this lesson, is as old as black dirt.

And despite the fact that I’m a sociologist and generally avoid individual level tomes on race, what I’m really thinking about right now is “How does it feel to be a problem?” How does this knowledge affect our sons? The ones we have left. What we know is that our children go to schools that look more and more like prisons. That have punitive cultures where sagging pants, facial hair and braids earn behavior demerits. Where they are asked to walk along lines painted on the floor. Where they are more likely to be disciplined, suspended and labeled special needs than their white classmates. (This study has the data and more references.)

I’m thinking about all of the potential mindspace that is stifled or lost because of the need to not draw suspicion or negative attention from school or legal authorities. I wonder what it must feel like to walk through the world without so many damned unearned restrictions. I’m also thinking about how tragic it must be to not be able to see Trayvon Martin’s humanity. How limiting it is for someone like George Zimmerman to walk through the world in fear of black children. How truly sub-human it is to not be able to see humanity. And how the entrenched anti-black sentiment we live with every day is to blame.

I guess today I’m thinking of these two sides of the coin, what would the world look like if black boys had all of their available ideas and dreams and hopes and could walk through the world in a way that reflected them? And what if the rest of us could open up to our full humanity by being able to see these sons in their full humanity?

But mostly, my heart is heavy and I’m having trouble sleeping, and I have a headache because my son is Trayvon Martin. Because I have participated in limiting my child because I know that George Zimmerman exists, and that some of them have badges and the authority of the state behind them when they kill black boys. Because, “It’s not you baby…It’s not you.”

So please sign the petitions, go to the protests, call the Sanford County chief of police—I’m sending him Skittles at Chief, Bill Lee. Sanford Police 815 West 13th Street, Sanford, Fl 32771. I also invite you to join me in thinking creatively about parenting as activism and activism as parenting in a way that combines the lessons we teach our children with the larger struggle against media misrepresentation, racism in the criminal justice system, unequal policing, racial inequality in education and the rest.