There is something about the similarities of structural racism in the UK and the US that results in me awake at 4 O’clock on a Sunday morning crying about the loss of Trayvon Martin. Perhaps foolishly, I kept just half an eye on the progress of the trial of George Zimmerman, whilst going about my daily life. I thought the outcome of the trial would be obvious. George Zimmerman murdered an unarmed teenager. Zimmerman’s defence, branding Trayvon as ‘looking suspicious’, was textbook racism, racism as old as the days of slavery in which men with black and brown skin were marked as a threatening, dangerous, wild, and volatile. That stereotype still pervades today, it’s an ugly rigid style of patriarchal masculinity, it makes people believe that that black men aren’t capable of gentleness, kindness, of love and overall, of innocence.
Innocence. That’s a characteristic not often equated with black skin. And as the verdict of the Zimmerman trial made its way to the UK in the early hours of Sunday morning I learnt that it was Zimmerman who had been found not guilty. His defence had asserted that Trayvon, by virtue of his dark skin and hoodie, was suspicious. His defence mounted around a claim that Trayvon had tried to attack him and that he had shot the teenager in self defence. And I knew that this verdict would mark Trayvon’s skin again, in death, as guilty.
The trial of Zimmerman was, in practice, the trial of Trayvon. Not even death vindicated him from suspicion. He was guilty of having black skin, and in this day and age, to too many, black skin is a threat. Like female flesh and slut shaming, the black body is political whether we want it to be or not. It’s the unwilling home of a thousand projections and insecurities of an aggressively unjust status quo.
The denigration of dark skin infects us as soon as we’re touched by society. I remember being very young and asking my mum when I would turn white, because even at 5 I understood that being black was a thing that was quite wrong and abnormal, something to avoid if you could. From decades old social experiments to aggressively Islamophobic rhetoric, normalised by seemingly sympathetic TV and radio producers in the UK, this rhetoric is socially constructed, continued and perpetuated by people who benefit from it and have a stake in its existence. People who can’t quite comprehend a world in which whiteness suddenly becomes visible, a world in which meritocracy is exposed as a lie, a worked in which white people no longer have the upper hand.
I cried for Trayvon because the task of dismantling this social construct seems completely insurmountable. I cried because it felt a lot like we are condemned and consigned to a terrible history and at times like this it feels like it’s atmosphere is thicker than ever and we might never escape it, and I wondered about my future family and thought perhaps the kinder option might be to not subject any more little black boys and girls to a society that considers them subhuman.
But it’s ok to feel down at a time like this. Sometimes you run out of anger and you just feel sad, and we all need space to mourn. So I’ll cry for Trayvon today, and fight tomorrow. Alice Walker said activism is the price she pays for living in this world. So if you’re dedicated to critical anti racism, then you and I owe it to Trayvon and the hundreds like him to continue speaking about race and racism, to continue going against the grain, to keep live in a state of transgression, to chip away at this ugly violent status quo whilst we’re here.