I was surprised by the intensity of my emotions when I heard the news of the Zimmerman verdict earlier this evening. George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American youth. After a highly publicized trial, he was found not guilty. As I read the news alert, I immediately responded in anger. The next several minutes my emotions quickly shifted back and forth between anger and sadness while my thoughts were continually drawn to my sons. As I write this, I feel much less safe in the world, particularly in regard to my children.
Being a Father
I am the father of three biracial children. I am a white male, born of privilege. My wife is black; any privilege she has now was hard won. Our three sons will be labeled as black, African American, and biracial. I always knew that I had much to learn about raising biracial children, but I clearly remember a series of events that really brought this home to me.
Shortly after the birth of my first son, I went to hear Derald Wing Sue speak at a conference. Although I had been familiar with Sue’s work, it was on this day that I came to admire him much more deeply. His presentation not only reflected impressive scholarship, but it was honest, vulnerable, and powerful. He shared about his reaction to a shooting of an unarmed black man in New York City. Although I no longer remember specifically, I believe the story was the shooting of Amadou Diallo, the same incident that inspired Bruce Springsteen’s powerful song, “American Skin (41 Shots).” Sue shared about how he did not know what it was like for the mother of an African American son to have to teach him to keep his hands in sight if pulled over by the police. This is not because of anything negative about the police, and it is not intended to suggest the police are more racist than the general population. Rather, it is asserting that they are no different than everyone else. At that moment of Sue’s story, I realized some of the very painful lessons that I would have to teach my sons. As I sat there, I just wanted to weep.
A few weeks later, I was pulled over for speeding. I was acutely aware of my privilege at that moment. I have never had to think twice about reaching for my wallet or reaching to the glove compartment for my insurance. I never kept my hands on the wheel as the officer approached. I never felt I had to be nice for purpose of my safety, just general courtesy. I tried to envision what it would be like in several years when I would have to tell my son that he could not do the things I can—that if he was pulled over by the police, he should not reach for his wallet or insurance, and that he should be extra nice. Again, I just wanted to weep.
Tonight, as I read the verdict, I thought of my sons, so innocent and loving. I thought of my freedoms that they won’t have; I thought of their safety and the lessons they would some day need to learn. Once more, I just wanted to weep.
As a white male, I often hear talk of racial profiling. I hear what everyone hears, and I hear what my wife and sons will never hear because it is only said in groups that look very much like me. In a conversation about neighborhood safety, I hear talk of “people who don’t belong around here,” knowing that the implicit part of the message is often about the color of their skin. I hear how the color of skin is emphasized when a crime is perpetrated by a Black or Latino individual, but inconspicuously unmentioned when the person is White. Like microaggressions, it is easy to deny any racial profiling is occurring, and it easy to ridicule those who would dare suggest such a thing.
I get that it is difficult to be accused of racial profiling. At times, people are falsely accused of racial profiling and this is unfortunate. Yet, how much more difficult is it to be accused of a crime and placed in jail for the color of your skin? How much more difficult is it to fear for your life because of racial profiling? How much more difficult is it to grieve for one’s innocent son, and to do so while his murderer goes free?
The same week that Zimmerman was found not guilty in Florida, CNN reported that Marissa Alexander, a Black woman, was sentenced to 20-years in Florida for firing warning shots when her husband, against whom she had a obtained a restraining order, was coming after her. CNN also reported that Zimmerman’s lawyer, O’Mara, shortly after the verdict, made the audacious claim that Zimmerman would never had been charged with a crime if he was a Black man. And I have to think, would Zimmerman have been found not guilty had he killed an unarmed White teenager. We are not all equal in the United States; it doesn’t take much honesty to admit that.
We must not forget the potential implications of this verdict. This can be interpreted as saying that it is legal to shoot and kill an unarmed Black man, or even a teenager, for appearing suspicious or out of place if the shooter feels threatened by them, even if there is no evidence the victim was doing anything wrong. For many, just the presence of a Black man or teenager in many settings will bring the feeling of being threatened. Rarely, however, is there discussion of where that fear comes from. We need a more thorough examination and discussion of the phenomenology of this fear. It is often has little, if anything, to do with the individual who is feared.
We don’t all have the same freedoms. If, as existential psychologists, we don’t recognize this reality, we don’t really understand what freedom means politically or existentially. This is a painful recognition that is all too present in my life. I can’t help but believe that tonight, in the Zimmerman verdict, freedom was cheapened. As I sat down to write this piece and process my own emotions at the verdict, I just wanted to weep. Yet, I knew that, instead, I needed to scream.
— Louis Hoffman