PLEDGE NOW
Race

Demonstrators enter Times Square during a march, Sunday, July 14, 2013, in New York, against the acquittal of neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida. (John Minchillo/AP)

Only white people think the opposite of racism is “race-blind.”

That was one of the first thoughts that came into my head as I heard about the process of the George Zimmerman’s trial. (Just to be clear, I’m not saying all white people believe this, but rather that non-white people decidedly do not.)

I have to admit, I did not follow the trial closely, and I have sympathy for the position that there may be legal reasons that Zimmerman was not found legally culpable in the death of Trayvon Martin.

What threw me, however was this statement by the anonymous juror known as B37: “I think all of us [on the jury] thought race did not play a role. We never had that discussion.”

Denying facts — denying part of someone’s identity — is not a path that can have a positive outcome in our society.

Since the election of Barack Obama, there have been many self-congratulatory essays about a new “post-racial” era that America has entered. A quick Google search produces 750 thousand results. In my (admittedly limited) perusals of these statements, I’ve noticed that the majority of the commentators who use the phrase sincerely and unironically are white. I wonder if they think that living in a “post-racial” America means that, like the Zimmerman jurors, the conversation about race is over.

As a non-white person, I do not wish for a race-blind world. If you tell me that you “don’t think of me as Chinese” (it’s happened before, as an intended compliment), you would be denying both my heritage and ancestry, and my current experience of the world. That’s not transcending race, that’s ignoring it, and that attitude is, frankly, insulting.

In her book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria,” Beverly Daniel Tatum describes a simple exercise in which her college students are asked to complete the sentence “I am…” with as many words as they can in one minute.

She writes, “Students of color usually mention their racial or ethnic group: for instance, I am Black, Puerto Rican, Korean American… But in general, White students rarely mention being white.” As the dominant social group, race wasn’t worth mentioning to the whites; being white was the norm, so they didn’t think about “having” a race.

For people of color, race is an important aspect of their identity — it just shouldn’t be the most important, or the only important aspect. In history textbooks, President Obama will be compared to his dozens of white predecessors in office, but he will also always be known as the first black president. I have no doubt that while he is proud of that distinction, he also would not want to be defined by it.

So, what does a judicial instruction to disregard race even mean? I take it the judge wanted to exclude racist intent from the jury deliberations, but what does it mean for the jurors to not have considered race? Did the white jurors imagine Trayvon Martin was white? What about the one Hispanic juror? What did she picture?

If you tell me that you “don’t think of me as Chinese” (it’s happened before, as an intended compliment), you would be denying both my heritage and ancestry, and my current experience of the world.

Here’s a thought experiment: In the study described by Tatum in her book, the female participants usually mentioned that they were women, whereas males did not usually mention that they were men. Again, this is interpreted as evidence that our society is male-dominant and members of the dominant group didn’t feel like they needed to indicate their sex, whereas the non-dominant participants did.

So imagine the judge instructed the jurors not to consider sex or gender in the Zimmerman trial. (And imagine the jurors were able to do that.) What would that mean? Would a female teenager have been followed by George Zimmerman? Would Trayvon Martin have felt threatened if he was being pursued by a female neighborhood watch volunteer?

The whole exercise is absurd. By ignoring sex, we would create too many new possible interpretations. By the same token, by ignoring race, interpretations of the circumstances of Martin’s death expand exponentially. (Even accounting for race, there are clearly different interpretations of what happened.)

Denying facts — denying part of someone’s identity — is not a path that can have a positive outcome in our society.

Race shouldn’t be the first or only thing that comes to mind when you meet someone — but it is a real thing. Even for people who don’t believe they have a racial identity.

Tags: Race

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