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.


  1. parvenu

    “How does it feel to be a problem?” I have spent my entire life pondering this question. At times I simply gave up because just when I gained assurance that my newly chartered course would bypass those rocky straits a new storm appeared on the horizon. For a long time I was torn between two approaches to the problem of Black America, the academic and the practical. The main difference lies in the single clear fact that regardless of the perspective in an academic encounter no one gets killed. We African Americans always are willing to drift onto the academic path simply because it puts those who are uncomfortable traveling the muck and mire of American racism in to a more pleasant frame of mind.

    However there are millions of low information Americans whose only approach is along the practical path where raw subjective emotion replaces scholarly dialogue. And alas we African Americans have no choice but to suffer through sporadic encounters with them. It is in the unpleasantness of these practical encouters that the essence of the question raised by DuBois never receives an answer. So in the mind of the non-African American side of the encounter, it is an immediate problem that must be dealt with by whatever means necessary.

    Until we African Americans recognize that we are NOT THE PROBLEM, rather it is that low information racist on the other side of our encounter that is the real problem, we will continue to suffer through are slow trek along the practical path that is American society.

    Back in the 1960’s we spoke to ourselves, lovingly with the recognition that we were children of the Creator and that we were “wonderfully made”. From this brief awareness we incorporated our own positive mantra, “Black is Beautiful!” Unfortunately, this positive affirmation slowly disappeared from our lips as the “Afros” disappeared from our hair stylings. Through all of the slow painful progress that “Integration” has brought us, even to the election of an African American president, none of this has the sweet smell of real freedom that the days of “Black is Beautiful” brought us.

    It wasn’t the Afros but the togetherness that gave us that “loving feeling”, and we can have it again if we come together and establish our own communication network. Our youth constitute the largest user population of the Twitter social network, but yet what has come out of it? They need guidance and perhaps people of influence will step forward to help our youth in this regard. If this happens we will be one step closer to answering that question “How does it Feel to be a Problem?”

    • Until we African Americans recognize that we are NOT THE PROBLEM, rather it is that low information racist on the other side of our encounter that is the real problem, we will continue to suffer through are slow trek along the practical path that is American society.

      I absolutely agree. I’m tired of the idea that in response to racism, blacks must “improve” ourselves. What makes matters more difficult is that it’s as hard to get black folks to see that point sometimes as it is to get whites. Who, by the way, seem not to get the contradiction of Tom Horne’s banning ethnic studies on the basis of treating people as individuals on the one hand and holding the black community as a whole responsible not only for the approximately 10% of us who’re criminals, but also for the transgressions of whites, ie when cops and others kill unarmed black people.

      Did I mention that Tom Horne’s pride in his own Jewish heritage?

      But if our research is correct, excluding the corporation commission, I am the only Jewish person ever elected to statewide office in the history of Arizona.

      What does being Jewish have to do with being the elected state superintendent of schools?

      It is pretty well known that I have brought a renewed emphasis on academics and rigor to education in Arizona. There is a long cultural tradition in Judaism of valuing scholarship. Max Dimont, in his book “Jews, God and History,” tells a wonderful narrative of this long tradition. As long ago as the first century C.E., Jewish pregnant women would stand in the front yard of a scholar, hoping the fetus would absorb some scholarship through the air.

  2. cordoba blue

    I love all the children I tutor. I have some black students. And they are each special to me. They’re sweet and charming and funny and make me laugh, and I’d be furious at anybody who tried to hurt them. I never knew Trayvon Martin, but I’m sure I’d feel the same way about him if I got to know him.If this happened to one of my black students it would break my heart.
    Trayvon was just a child. And this convoluted man, who probably never had a conversation with an African American kid in his life, conjured up all these misconceptions to the point where he thought Trayvon should die. I was listening to National Public Radio today about this incident, and millions of Americans are very upset about this.
    If God could please create more situations where black and white people could interact, so these insane myths would be dispelled. This is a time for prayer and maybe, just maybe, it will raise awareness of how precious each person is regardless of their ethnic group. We adults are all responsible for protecting this country’s precious children.

  3. REC

    All of the physical evidence says that the “innocent” trayvon martin was on top of zimmerman hitting him when he was shot.

    How is that the actions of an innocent man? Martin played football and was in most likely excellent physical condition. Zimmerman is fat. Why didn’t “innocent” martin simply out run him, instead of beating zimmerman up?

    You are aware that zimmerman is not white correct? So how is that race card gonna work for you? Or are you admitting that non-WHITES are racist.

    • tangohotel

      You conveniently leave one crucial point of the story out. That Zimmerman, against police orders, STALKED Martin with a gun. Zimmerman was in his house and had no business chasing down Martin. In my opinion, Martin had every right to kick this guys ass if he was being stalked. Martin’s last call to his friend shows that he was weirded out by this guy following him. But go ahead and live in your fantasy world, maybe it’s more comfortable there.

  4. First off, I’ve read and watch a lot on the Martin tragedy, but nothing about his being on top of Zimmerman when he was shot. Also, Zimmerman is white. In the US, “Hispanic” is a term indicating a person’s nationality/place of origin regardless of race. So when marking race on applications or questionnaires, a person choose among, for example, -white Hispanic, -white non Hispanic. Yes? This a person can be Hispanic and white. That said, yes, even non-whites can have biases and prejudices against other non-whites. Like I’ve said before, we’re all exposes to the same cultural forces, however varying the degree.

    Whew! Now that I’ve gotten that out the way, I have to ask why does this have to be a “black” thing. Whether they believe Zimmerman’s racist or not, shouldn’t white Americans also want to get to the bottom of things. If race played a role, shouldn’t they want to fight prejudice? If it didn’t play a role, shouldn’t they be even more invested in finding the truth? After all, if they truly believe race didn’t play a role, that means that in “stand your ground” states, their children or they themselves are at risk of being killed by a neighborhood watcher? Isn’t that scary to them?

    So I don’t understand the racial split that I’m starting to see.

    On the other hand, if that thought isn’t scary, why not? Or rather, if that thought just never occurred to them, that they themselves or their children are at risk, then doesn’t that just illustrate that race is playing a role? That white skin affords them more personal security than what’s available to people of darker hues? If that’s the case, that brings me back to an earlier question: don’t whites have an interest in fighting racism? Even if it’s just to maintain the delusion that it no longer exists, don’t they have an interest in speaking up in this case?

    (These are not rhetorical questions. I need some clarification.)

  5. cordoba blue

    I’ve been following the Trayvon Martin news every day. I want to relate a story about what it feels like to be “profiled”. I am a middle-aged white woman, and I know how it felt when I was targeted when minding my own business. This is not meant to provide any kind of comparison to black profiling, but merely to illustrate that it is offensive and somewhat scary.
    My dog kept running out the door for about 6 weeks to spend time with another dog, in the next neighborhood 5 blocks away. I kept looking for him every time he ran out. I’d slowly drive through the next neighborhood, where his girlfriend resided, looking for him. Most of the time, there he was!And I’d bring him home.
    Anyway, one day, in the middle of the day, I’m doing this, and a woman raking her leaves approaches my car. She said,”What are you doing here? I’ve seen you here before driving slowly through this neighborhood. What do you want?” I thought, “What the hell is her problem?” Anyway, I told her the situation and that I was searching for my dog who had a crush on a dog in her neighborhood.
    Instead of being “understanding” she said,”Well! You can’t be too sure these days! I just had to ask. And if you don’t explain to people what you’re doing here, I can’t help you!” And I felt so offended! I then said (because now I was pi*&^ed at her)”Ma’am, first of all I’m in the middle of the street, a public thoroughfare, and not on your property. Which gives me the right to drive through this area any time I feel like it. Second, I never asked for your ‘help’ in the first place. So please inform me of which law I am breaking?”
    In Trayvon’s situation, it’s possible he said something of this nature to Zimmerman. We may never know. I mean, I responded in an irate tone to this self-righteous lady, maybe Trayvon did as well. That does not give Zimmerman the right to perceive the situation as “escalating”, and certainly not to pull out his gun.
    There is some issue on whether Trayvon said anything to Zimmerman. So what if he did? Maybe he was reacting to being profiled. It is offensive, after all. Like when the black Professor Gates said “Yo Mama” when the police insisted he open the door to his own home, because they thought he was breaking in.
    The second problem, which National Public Radio has addressed, is the difference between neighborhood watch and neighborhood vigilantes. My understanding is neighborhood watch is looking for suspicious activity and then reporting it to police. And that’s it! Your job is finished at this point!
    Now what constitutes suspicious activity will vary from person to person, right? Right. And it’s highly likely the fact that Trayvon was black influenced Zimmerman’s anxiety. It’s also very likely that the fact there had been neighborhood break-in’s recently in Zimmerman’s neighborhood influenced his anxiety. But this is no excuse to deem yourself judge and jury. Again, call the police if you think it necessary and then do nothing!
    Approaching Trayvon might well have emitted a verbal reaction from Trayvon. So what? It did not mean he was a threat or meant any harm. It could well have meant he was offended. It’s perfectly normal to feel offended with an off-hand remark such as, “I’m not doing anything. What’s the problem?” Again, this is normal. Maybe not diplomatic, but normal. I did it. But from the mouth of a black man, these are fighting words? This means you should arm yourself? No.
    And the fact that Zimmerman wasn’t at least taken into custody for questioning is unbelievable! Why not? The police just accepted his version of self defense, and let him go home to eating dinner in the safety of his house? That does not sound like proper police procedure to me, unless Zimmerman was some kind of undercover cop. In which case, again, we may never know.


  1. Notable Links: 3-23/12 « BROTHA WOLF
  2. Tensegrities » Blog Archive » Remembering Trayvon Martin
  3. Limiting Our Children to Protect Them {Racism Review} | Bicultural Mom™
  4. How Does it Feel to be a Problem? A Reflection on Trayvon Martin | whatsimportantinlife
  5. How Does it Feel to be a Problem? | whatsimportantinlife

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