I guess you would have to be living under a rock–or at least without digital media–to not know about the tragedy that unfolded in Florida last week that left an innocent young man dead, a neighborhood and town in confusion, and people dismayed and hurting in all corners of this country. Trayvon Martin was on his way home from a convenience store with a bag of candy in his pocket, talking on his cell phone to another teen. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, he didn’t “blend in with the scenery,” and it cost him his life at the hands of George Zimmerman, part of a neighborhood watch patrol.
As tragic as this unnecessary death was, even more horrifying is the state of affairs Trayvon’s murder points to: we are still held captive by fear and ignorance. One person uses stereotyping to size up another, and the result is a devastating chain of preventable events ending in loss of life, ruined lives, and increased tensions and hostilities. Click here to read a poem written about the subject.
We humans are fearful, or at least suspicious, of folks who don’t look like us, talk like us, dress like us, or think like us. Don’t think so? Have you ever crossed the street, or picked up your speed, or taken a different route, or looked away to avoid eye contact with a person who fits your own mental profile of someone who might potentially cause you harm?
A friend of mine once shared a “biker story” with me. A prominent business and civic leader, he and a group of friends (all highly respected leaders in their professions) took regular weekend road trips on their Harleys. One time they were out and saw an elderly couple stranded on the side of the highway. They stopped to help. My friend remembered clearly the frightened look incouple’s eyes when a half dozen men in leathers came toward them. Fear and ignorance had helped the couple concoct an impression they never would have dreamed had they seen the same men in their suits and lab coats during the week.
For Trayvon, the trigger was both the clothes (a hoodie) and the color of his skin that triggered the fear and ignorance. I’m wearing a hand-me-up-hoodie that used to belong to my daughter as I write this blog post, but because I’m a middle-aged white woman no one would think a second thought about me in the same situation.
In The House on Mango Street, author Sandra Cisneros chronicles the life of a Latina teen, Esperanza Cordero. Her story is told through a series of prose poems, and Trayvon’s story brought one to mind entitled “Those Who Don’t.” It begins “Those who don’t know any better come into our neighborhood scared. They think we’re dangerous. They think we will attack them with shiny knives. They are stupid people who are lost and got here by mistake.”
Esperanza recounts how she and her friends feel safe in their own neighborhood, and she describes some of the people who live there. However, at the end, her tone changes when she contemplates the converse situation, saying “All brown all around, we are safe. But watch us drive into a neighborhood of another color and our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight. Yeah. That is how it goes and goes (28).”
Will we continue to let this be “how it goes and goes,” or will we choose to give thanks for our neighbor and look for the good, for the common ground, in one another? When will we be good Samaritans instead of fearful, turf-tending folk? How long, O Lord, before we stop stereotyping one another and hating that which we don’t know and understand?
What happened to Trayvon Martin is one more inexcusable death, and it will take time to process the pain, anger, grief, and disbelief. The hurt is real and must be honored. Yet even in the midst of our pain, we can reach out and take the time to look each other in the eye–whether we are old, young, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, straight, gay, Republican, Democrat, conservative or liberal, Christian, Jew, Muslim, or any other “human-defined” category–and see not a label or a stereotype but a beloved child of God. If we can do this one simple thing there is hope. And where there is hope, love may take root and grow.
May God be with and comfort all who are mourning this young man’s death, with those whose lives have been forever altered and whose decisions and choices have caused suffering, and indeed with all of us. Give us hope, Lord, so that we may love one another and You.
Today I give thanks for all people who seek to see others not as stereotypes but as fellow beings of worth, value, and potential. Thank you.
For further Consideration:
Click here to read a startling article about racism playing out in response to The Hunger Games, the blockbuster movie released last weekend that is based on the fantasy trilogy by Suzanne Collins.