If you’ve been following the news, as I have and do, you’ll know that yesterday, the verdict in the Trayvon Martin shooting case was due to come down. The case has been one of great media interest and public outcry. A 17-year-old black boy was followed and shot because George Zimmerman, a white man who fancied himself a “neighbourhood watch cop”, decided he looked suspicious. As famously reported, Martin was not armed and was found carrying a pack of Skittles and an iced tea. He looked suspicious because, as Zimmerman said, “he was wearing a hoodie”.
Yesterday, George Zimmerman was cleared of all charges. He was found not guilty, despite his own admission that he shot and killed Martin, despite police advice not to follow the boy, despite being told to leave things alone. He was cleared and is a free man.
I get asked a lot why verdicts like this, or other news stories, such as the Marissa Alexander case, upset me as a Canadian. I’m asked why I bring race into something like this – why a white man shooting a black boy is worse than whites shooting whites or blacks shooting blacks. I’m asked why I tweet and Facebook about this, why I write about cases that don’t affect Canadians.
I’m often told that Canadians don’t really experience racism in the same way as Americans do. I’ve been told several times over social media since the Zimmerman case verdict came down that justice was served and that with the laws in place, the jury had no other place to turn. And as a Canadian, why do I care about what happens in Florida? Why do I care about what happens in Texas, or in North Carolina, or in the Middle East? Why do their laws upset me? Why do I spend time feeling angry, hopeless, and sickened?
It may surprise some of my fellow Canadians to know that while we look down on the States for racial profiling and for targeting people of colour (POC), we do the same thing here. First Nations tribes often live in squalor while white people are oblivious. Our jails are stuffed with people who are black and of Native descent, overrepresented by ten times in some cases. Black people are seen as dangerous and in gangs. Aboriginals are seen as thieves and lazy welfare bums, wanting something for nothing. Canadians gloss over our bloody history in order to pretend that we’re better than the rest of the world, that racism isn’t an issue here.
It’s only not an issue if you’re not a person of colour. It’s only not an issue if you’ve never had to watch your children grow up and battle their own skin colour in order to live. It’s only not an issue if you’re not someone like Trayvon Martin, walking in a neighbourhood where he looked suspicious because he was black.
White privilege is something that most people I talk to don’t want to talk about. They don’t want to admit that white people have inborn advantages over people of colour in our society. After all, we live in a post-racial society. If a POC is upset, they’re just “playing the race card”. Everyone is equal under the eyes of the law.
I wish – and I really, really do wish – that that was the truth. Because then a boy like Trayvon would have been exonerated yesterday. A man like Zimmerman would be in jail for murder. Black and Aboriginal people wouldn’t be overrepresented in Canadian jails. They wouldn’t be arrested for walking down the street at the wrong time. They wouldn’t be automatically seen as suspicious, the first people to be called upon for inciting violence or crime. They wouldn’t be pulled over at the border, their children would be seen as children and not mini-thugs, and they wouldn’t be rightly afraid of what our justice system will do to them. They wouldn’t be punished more harshly for the same crime a white person committed.
Does this make you angry? Because if it doesn’t, it should. It should make you really angry. And if this, as a white person, makes you feel defensive, maybe it’s time for white people in our society to start unpacking the privilege knapsack. We’re not taught about white privilege when we learn about race relations in school. But it’s up to us to learn about it, because if you want to pretend there’s no racism alive and well in our country, you’re sticking your head in the sand. That’s never been okay, but in this day and age? Hiding behind “they’re pulling the race card” and “people of colour can be racist against white people too” is not okay.
As a white-passing Aboriginal woman, I will never have to wonder what it will be like for my children in today’s world. I’ve been reading Twitter and Facebook all night and all day – thousands of people are telling us how scared this verdict makes them. How their children look like Trayvon. How they’ve experienced racism from the day they were born. Institutional racism, where children in poor, minority-populated areas get substandard education and little opportunity. Racism on the street, where white people cross to the other side of the road when they see POC walking. Dismissal and uncaring attitudes. They’re telling us their stories and like always, we’re not listening.
We need to listen. I’ve written about this before. We need to listen and we need to change. We’ve had hundreds of years to fix what we broke – to reverse colonialism. We don’t and we haven’t, because to have white privilege is to have a comfortable cushion. It’s to live in a cloud where we can talk about “race cards” and “how Affirmative Action is wrong and racist” and to pretend that race isn’t an issue in Canada. We can do that because this stuff never touches us. We can do that because we will never experience racism. Not like POC in our society do. Not even close.
I can’t ignore the racism factor in the Zimmerman case because it’s the sole reason why Trayvon Martin was shot. I can’t ignore racism in the Quvenzhane Wallis case back in February because it’s the sole reason why someone used her as a joke and why she was made fun of on the red carpet. I can’t ignore racism because racism has allowed me, a white woman, to live safely, comfortably, with privilege and with advantages.
That’s why I care about what happened to Trayvon Martin. That’s why I care about the fact that Marissa Alexander, a black woman, was sentenced to jail for 20 years for invoking the same “Stand Your Ground” law that Zimmerman did. That’s why I don’t care that I’m Canadian and these people are American. It’s not about that. It’s about justice and humanity.
It’s time to change. We’ve let this go long enough. How many more human beings have to suffer injustice before we realize what our indifference and blindness are doing to them and our society?
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