When one of my editors suggested I write about Trayvon Martin, I wasn’t sure I could do that. After all, I wasn’t in Sanford, Fla., so I don’t know what happened there.
However, I do know what happens in my heart. It’s easy to condemn George Zimmerman, Trayvon’s shooter, but how am I different than Zimmerman if I don’t examine my own role in racism?
As a white man, I don’t experience oppression – I experience privilege. Just as Zimmerman was given the benefit of the doubt, society also gives me the same benefit, but with no requirement to earn that privilege.
For instance, in my patrolled subdivision, being a white man means that I can walk our creek trail while wearing my Baylor hoodie without much fear of my intentions being questioned.
Should I return from my walk and discover that I’m locked out, I can climb through an unlocked window. I have no anxiety that a SWAT team will handcuff me in my own foyer as they did Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates last year.
If I feel the need for some iced tea, I can ask either my tattooed son or his younger sister with body piercings to drive to the 7-11. My only worry is a possible car accident. I don’t think it’s ever crossed my mind that someone with a gun would stalk one of them.
If one of the kids isn’t available for the trip, I might drive myself to the grocery store where I can grab my tea from the refrigerated case, consume it, and only then make payment at checkout. No one will dare accuse this white chaplain of shoplifting.
If I speed on my way home and find flashing lights in my rearview mirror, it’ll likely be an officer from my own culture and color- someone who understands me. The officer is unlikely to frisk a graying pinkish man or even give a publically embarrassing sobriety test.
In fact, police favoritism has followed me most of my life. While I was in college, some friends and I impersonated police officers. In a later incident I ran four stop signs in a rural community. Both incidents were felonies, but charges were dropped.
People of color have had their lives ruined for so much less.
While I enjoy the privileges stereotypes afford me, they come at the expense of others. The stereotypes of the black man in the hoodie – as a gangster, a perpetuator of violence – flood the media. These stereotypes play a huge role in creating everything from the huge disparity of prison inmates, to whether you choose to cross the street when seeing a minority approach. It’s all those stereotypes that could make anyone of us pull a trigger in undue fear.
Zimmerman is the product of the same racist society in which all of us belong. Trayvon’s death was not isolated. Unfortunately, neither was the heart of his killer.