So here’s the thing:
This is a serious post, and I know you’re not used to that. I tend to use my blog as a combination promotional tool and confessional, filtered through the scary basement of my brain where the monkeys work unceasingly at their typewriters, demanding bananas and the occasional fez. But I’m serious today, and that’s because I need to focus my magpie mind in order to speak intelligibly about the Trayvon Martin killing.
Initially, I was reluctant to tackle this topic. It seemed like others had more relevant and more eloquent things to say on an issue that, while heartrending and indicative of just how quickly things can go from bad to worse in this powder keg we call a country, ultimately seemed outside my demesne because I’m not black, or white, or a man. But then I thought, “No. This is binary thinking. This is the thinking that encourages false choices and hard edges in dealing with others. Hard edges that can cut, or kill. The kind of thinking that makes a person shoot someone because of their outfit or the color of their skin.”
As a Latina transwoman, I know that kind of thinking all too well. I try not to indulge in it whenever possible, because its effects have been turned on me more often than I care to remember. To move forward to a world where such reckless hate is abolished requires universal acknowledgement of our shared humanity. We need to look at our myriad similarities and build strong connections at those points instead of fortifying at hard borders where we differ. We need nets, not fences. Either we’re all human, or none of us are.
It should also be mentioned that such considerations have failed to stop, or even slow, the pundits and the jackanapes who prance and chatter across the idiot box from weighing in with their take on the situation; more on that in a moment.
This is a case that touches on many issues, race being the first and foremost. At first it was a simple matter of “a paranoid white man shot a black man for the crime of walking while black in a place the white guy didn’t want the black man to be.” If such a matter can be called “simple,” that is. But even horrifyingly straightforward events often have little kinks and twists in the warp and weft of their fabric, and even on that first night, I remember reading reports that Zimmerman’s father was rushing to his son’s aid by declaring to anyone who would listen that OF COURSE his son was not a racist; he was HISPANIC!
Now, there are many things I love about my people, but to my knowledge a magical freedom from bigotry and racism isn’t one of them. Torquemada and his boys weren’t running The Spanish Rainbow Alliance, after all. There are as many, or more, ethnic and sexual slurs in Spanish as English. No individual, let alone an entire ethnicity, is free from personal bias or hate. But I think I understand what the elder Zimmerman was trying to do with his frantic declaration. He wanted that easy bifurcation of thought to carry the day; he wanted people to indulge in the sort of sophistry that says, “White people and Black people have a history of racial conflict; therefore, ONLY these parties may engage in such conflict with one another. Ergo, my Hispanic son is incapable of racism.” That holds about as much rhetorical and logical water as a colander. But he had to do something, right? The cries for George’s blood started up as soon as the news hit the wire. Trayvon Martin’s mother loved her son; so too, it would appear, did Robert Zimmerman love his. Blood spilled almost always leads to blood debt, and Robert Zimmerman was not keen to settle up with George’s. We like to pretend that the veneer of a few thousand seasons of indoor living has made us civilized, but even if this case did not prove how glaringly false that pretension is, we are still, at the day’s end, people of blood first and the mind second.
Blood. It always comes down to blood. Of all the holy wets that have been used by mankind throughout the ages, blood is the strongest. Gods of all stripes have called for blood sacrifice, and humanity has answered. We’ve offered it up for better crops, victorious wars, healthy children, even renewed health in the wake of disaster and disease. We spill it like water in our conflicts, slashing at each other with a knife that has two blades but no handle.
Blood is life.
We use it to explain our origins, to define our families and our foes. It boils when we are enraged and it burns when we’re in love. A single drop can be used to identify a multitude of aspects under the microscope in the lab. We use it to justify and condemn our desires and depravities as often as we use it to heal and connect. In many ways, our blood is who we are.
But trying to define George Zimmerman by his blood – by saying, “Look at this man’s blood. He is not only white, but Latino. He has family members who are black. His blood would never betray its own” – is a dangerous and foolish endeavor. Blood may provide a quick snapshot of a person’s genetic makeup, yet it cannot – and SHOULD NOT – be conflated with moral, intellectual or political destiny or intent. If we are truly a people of intellect as well as instinct, we must believe a person’s blood is no more an indicator of that person’s mind than their outfit. This is why it incenses so me that the one Hispanic voice garnering the most attention in this case is that of Geraldo “Oh, my nose!” Rivera.
Yes, yes, the critics have been very vocal about Rivera’s comments, and the man himself set sail from Planet Credibility long ago, but even so. What is the message we are sending to our youth, to the rest of the world, when we say it’s okay for a White Hispanic (the two can occur together, obviously…your humble Hickspanic narrator is proof positive) to track down (against police advice) a “suspicious” (a word that appears to have been used as a synonym for “Black” in this context) individual, engage that individual in an altercation, and then KILL THAT INDIVIDUAL in the name of “self-defense,” and then exacerbate the issue by saying, “Well, he was asking for it. He was WEARING A HOODY!” What does it say when we even ENTERTAIN the idea that it is somehow okay to pursue and murder someone and then claim to be “standing our ground?” What does it say when, had the situation been reversed, and a black man had chased down a white “interloper,” this nation would be having a very different conversation? At what point do we stop asking, “Why do people commit racially-motivated crimes?” and start asking, “How do we eliminate the idea that any sort of racism is valid?”
We retreat behind walls of simplistic reductivism when the issue is too big to be solved in a half-hour sitcom bull session or a series of talking heads floating like flotsam and jetsam on the 24-hour news stream. The taking of another’s life, especially in the context of such thorny issues as race, and privilege, and class, threatens to shut down our higher brains if we are forced to confront it. It’s too real. We retreat to the basics. We hear the relentless thump-a-thump of panicked, fight-or-flight terror in our heads and we seek solace and simplicity in our blood.
My son can’t be racist – he’s Hispanic.
Look at this man. Look at his blood. He has black friends, black family members. How could he be racist?
He was asking for it. He was black, wearing a hoody. He was packing fruit-flavored candies in a gated community. What was I supposed to do, officer, respect his rights as a human being?
In the wake of Trayvon’s killing, the waters have been bloodied (there’s that word again) by the actions of third parties. The Black Panthers, fed up with what they perceive as the sluggish and inept pace of official investigatory efforts, have put a bounty on George Zimmerman’s head. The police chief and prosecutor have been replaced amid many Pontius Pilate-style sighs of put-upon frustration. The Zimmermans have fled to parts unknown, fearing recrimination; meanwhile, their lawyers, friends and neighbors issue apologia via press release and the news. Geraldo is, well, Geraldo.
I am reminded of the Native American parable that tells of the two gods that exist inside each of us at birth; call them gods, or natures, or the angel and the ape, if you so desire. The thrust of the tale is that the one we feed in our life, with our time, our energy, our blood, is the one that grows strong. When we, as a nation, are forced by harsh circumstance to confront this duality (yet another bifurcation – oh, how we humans love our either/ors), we have a chance to ask ourselves what part of our collective self is best served by the choices we make. Do we say, “no more,” and demand a real discussion of racism and its effects on EVERY SINGLE ASPECT of contemporary American life, in ALL directions? Do we allow bounties and blowhards across the spectrum to color (pun intended) our perceptions so that we push ourselves further away from true solutions and instead hang onto this illusion that, if we just ignore racial strife, it’ll go away? Do we demand justice, or do we settle for acrimonious compromise that holds only until the next disaster?
“Feed me!” cries the god. Ignore the fact that when you pierce that outer layer of yellow, or brown, or red, or white, or black (especially black, here in a nation where we seem to have declared open season on young black men), what pours out is the rich red life that pumps through you all. Ignore the fact that there may be many cultures, but only one race. Keep focusing on those differences. Use them to justify terrible acts against one another. Keep your edges sharp and your walls high. Don’t use tragedy as a motivator toward greater understanding, but as justification for greater malice and recrimination. Keep on pretending that the elephant in the room is just an awkwardly-large end table, that individual behavior occurs in a vacuum not informed by systemic and cultural infrastructure. Don’t think, or apologize, or seek to explain. Just feed me.
Because blood is life, the knife has no handle, and the god we feed is the one that grows strong.