Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Teeter-tottering in a Sandbox of Racial Prejudice

Our community embodies what I consider a largely apathetic posture when it comes to public demonstrations in support of social causes. However, last week, between thundershowers, the Hundred Hoodie March was successfully conducted here. And I’m grateful for it.
The rally, organized by youth interns from the Urban League of Battle Creek, helped raise awareness of the now infamous incident last February in Florida in which an unarmed African American teenager, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed by white Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman.
By my count, 115 people across a swath of races, ages and backgrounds participated in the peace march. It culminated in uplifting speeches at the Sojourner Truth Monument where themes of truth, justice and the American way rang throughout. Initially, the event filled me with a deep sense of pride about residents speaking out collectively around an issue.
But as I listened in the cold, my mood cooled. I asked myself, how can you gun down an unarmed person and be seen as ‘standing your ground’ when you were following that person, and law enforcement suggested you not to? I also wondered had anyone else considered if, prior to the shooting, the person who was killed might have been the one ‘standing his ground’? He was, after all, being followed (harassed?) by a complete stranger. What role did race play in the immediate aftermath? What role is it playing now?
My inward spiral continued. At a time when the President of the United States is African American, when Colin Powell, a black man, once served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when Denzel Washington is one of the top box office draws in movies – why am I still often viewed with suspicion by some white people?
I present largely as a button-down, middle-aged, middle class, middle of the road kind of guy. Yet almost each day, if I let it, I could be made to feel like I have a scarlet letter branded to my forehead: ‘S’, for Suspect. It tends to be a fact of life for African-American males. For the most part, I can ignore the ‘suspect’ gaze folks throw me; it’s something I’ve learned to live with. Even so, sometimes when my guard is down and I least expect it, I’ll catch that look. And it bothers me.
Sometimes their face casts a flash of alarm. Other times the expression is a warning that seems to signal; ‘I’m watching you…’ Typically, it involves a close encounter: walking into a coffee shop, hiking in the woods, entering a business, leaving a store, boarding an elevator, crossing a street... in short, anyplace.
Despite it all, I remain hopeful, thanks to random acts of kindness from countless white strangers – like the elderly lady at Finley’s who held open the door for me(!), the guy who tossed me a grin for no other reason than because we shared the same sidewalk, or other simple but human gestures like the grocery clerk who asked me how my day is going, because she really cared.
Please consider this an invitation and not an indictment: it’s time to open up regarding concerns and perceptions about race. Granted, it’s not an easy subject to discuss. But it’s not impossible either. Let’s stop pretending the problem (on all sides) doesn’t exist just because it’s easier to retreat to places where you can avoid it. As the Trayvon Martin episode proves, the issue will only surface again and again.

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