In my heart, I am George Zimmerman.
Me, a woman who grew up in a community where white was the minority by far, a girl whose first best friend was sweet Michelle with her caramel colored skin, whose first grade crush was Leon with his strong, sinewy chocolate arms. Me, a woman who dated black men and befriended black women. Me, a woman who loves Ethiopia and feels more at peace in a room of Habeshas than in a room of my American peers. Me, a white, well-educated, proudly Yankee mother of a black child. Me, in my heart, I am George Zimmerman.
I found out a few weeks ago, at 10:30pm as I carried a pint of Heath ice cream across the Kroger parking lot. My kids and husband had gone out of town to visit his folks, and I had no responsibilities other than work and a strong craving for ice cream. I threw on a skirt, tshirt, and wedges to run to the grocery. The parking lot was empty, even by the one unlocked door to the store, and despite being “in town”, the stars were shining beautifully bright. I found my favorite ice cream, checked out, and walked out the automatic doors.
A few steps into my jaunt, I noticed a group of young men standing near their cars a few rows over in the parking lot. Their cars were decked out in the local high school mascots, and they wore college football jerseys with their shorts. They were smiling and laughing with each other..
I let out a little sigh and picked up my pace as I noticed they began to look at me. Suddenly my shirt felt too tight and my skirt felt too short. I glanced up and saw that several more pairs of eyes were on me. My stomach began to churn.
And that’s when I knew that in my heart, I am George Zimmerman.
You see, the only reason I felt intimidated by that group of young men was because they were all black. They clearly were from our affluent town and our little high school. None of them had said a word to me, nor made any intimidating gestures towards me. They didn’t even take a step in my direction. But still, I felt vaguely nervous, scared, hyperaware.
Because somewhere along the line, while I was able to make meaningful relationships with people of color, I had also internalized the societal message that black men represent danger, especially to white women. Never did it cross my mind that those young men were likely just hanging out, enjoying a sweet tea, Skittles, and a few laughs about football teams. No, I immediately assumed they were up to no good and looking to start trouble.
Racism isn’t about a personal interaction between two people, although individuals can certainly be racist (and many people are racist.) Racism is about the fact that as white people, we view the world in a certain way, and the way we view the world often involves negative stereotypes of people of color. Especially black people. We are all guilty of it. Whether we admit it or not.
The question, then, is what do we do about it? What do we do about the fact that our society teaches us, overtly and covertly, that people of color are less than… or even dangerous?
I wish I had the answers. I wish it was an easy fix. But I don’t, and it’s not. But here’s what I did.
I stopped walking. I told myself I was not going to be George Zimmerman. I looked up, smiled at those young men, and said hello. They nodded and waved and said hello back. And then I walked to my car and drove home.
The moment we can all recognize that George Zimmerman lives in our hearts is the moment we can begin to exorcise racism from our society.