General Snobbery
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No Apologies: On The Killing of Trayvon Martin And Being "Good"

In the tragic murder of Trayvon Martin, there's no safe place. There's no real excuse to cling to. None of the usual dismissals work or fit. It's just bad. Real bad. And sits there and stares at you with it's cruelty and unfairness and ugliness and says, "Take this."

Take this load. And pick it up.

Just take it. And accept it. And choke back the lumps in your throat. As it has happened before. And it will happen again. And again you will be told to "take this."

Take this burden and just accept it as your burden. It's just "how it is." You're all statistics. Take these statistics. And black people get shot everywhere everyday by everyone. Police. Non-police. Crazy people. Bigots. Their parents. Other kids. Just take it. It's part of your Life In America, Black People. Accept this tragedy and go through the motions of appealing to people's decency and demanding justice and having protests and press conferences and crying and asking why and demanding answers and then eventually getting that bad dead cold thing that just sits there and says, "Take this."

Here's your load. Pick it up.

Pass it along to the children, so they can carry a bit of it too. Let it weigh down on their worlds. Let it rob them of their childhood and innocence. Tell them to take it, so they grow up faster and accept the unfairness in life and just give up. Be cynical and fatalistic. Be cold when it happens to the next person. Or be cold themselves when they do it to another person. And as they rob that person of what was once robbed of themselves and that person asks them why or looks for recourse or retribution or answers, they can stare back unblinking in the shadow of our common oppressors and say, "Take this load and pick it up."

But I'm sorry. I'm not going to pick up this shit anymore. It's not mine.

A long, long time ago when I was young my parents told me I had to be the best to make it in this world. Averageness was something only the white and the male could afford and as a black woman, I was neither. You had to take pride in how you dress and how you spoke and how you behaved. You had to be "good," because good things happen to those who are good and bad things happen to those who are bad. And that's the lie your parents tell you because no one should tell the truth to you when you're that young. You really don't need to know. Otherwise you'd never bother.

Who wants to deal with someone already jaded at age six?

And so I was good. I was so very good. I didn't curse. I got good grades. I've never been in a fight in my life. The one time I got Saturday detention was because I was chronically late for a third period class in an over-crowded school where the only time you could go to your locker was during lunch to switch out books for the second half of the day and my locker was on one end of the crowded school, far from the other.

My teacher didn't believe me when I told her I couldn't leave lunch, go to my locker, then wade through the hallway crammed with kids to make it on my class on time.

She told me I was lying. She said she walked it once just to see what I was talking about and timed herself. But since she had to be in class waiting for me and other students, I highly doubted she did that at the height of the lunch rush.

It didn't matter that I loved my Spanish class and was an A student and never caused trouble and had no reputation for someone who would ever be tardy for anything as I was obsessed with being "good." She just didn't believe me. My mother had to get involved and my locker was eventually moved to a place easier for me to navigate to.

I was never late for third period Spanish again. No one apologized.

That same year, the eighth grade, my history teacher moved my seat in the front of the class to the back with a pair of boys who harassed me, teased me and made trouble with me every day. Then, because I'm near-sighted, my vision worsened and I needed new glasses. I couldn't read the blackboard. I told my teacher of both, the harassment and the inability to see.

He, oddly, agreed I was being harassed, but thought I was "weak" to complain. As for my inability to see, he told me I was lying.

Even though I wore glasses. We got a doctor's note from my optometrist that I needed new glasses and should sit up front until they were ready.

The teacher suddenly decided everyone in the class could sit where ever they wanted. 

He never apologized. 

My mother, far more blunt than I, called it what it was. I was black. My teachers were white. The school was mostly white. It was racism. Even though all my teachers, even the jerk ones, thought I was a bright and talented student who was polite and respectful. They would lose my extra credit homework on purpose rather than add it towards my grade, lest I test higher than whoever they would always hope would beat me when the boys would play the girls in History Bingo.

But as annoying as all this was for me. For other kids in my public school experience it was far worse. Boys who defended themselves when picked on by bullying the school ignored until it got to a breaking point? Suspended. Kids who fought back or spoke up when they were being picked on, abused, harassed or marginalized? Sent to the "alternative school."

But see? In my child mind, I tried to rationalize this. They were "bad" because the talked back or actually hit their tormentors. I was "good" because I took the abuse. And my "goodness" was rewarded in that I graduated in the top 25 percent of my class, but was still judged with the same suspicion all black kids were judged by at my school.

What difference really was there between I and my peers who had dropped out or wound up in halfway houses or jail other than I picked up the load and just thought about Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King, Jr. the whole time? I picked up the load and they wouldn't. But who could ever want that load of shit? The only difference was I still believed goodness would be rewarded. If we all, as a people, were just "good" they'd have to stop accusing us of lying, assuming we were "bad" or criminals or ignorant. W.E.B. DuBois and the Talented Tenth and lead by example and all that rose colored lens malarky.

That if we're just "good" we'll be safe. If your son doesn't listen to hip hop, goes to the church camp, gets A's and Bs in school, is polite, says "sir" and "ma'am," if he's a good kid, he'll be safe. That's the bargain black parents make with their children.

If you are "good" the gangs and the violence and the racism won't get you. You will be safe. You will live to see 25. You will have a great life. Opportunity will abound for you. We will be proud of you. The community will be proud of you. You will be Barack Obama and Michelle Obama and life will be beautiful if you just want it enough.

Just be "good." Be good, Trayvon Martin. Stay in school. Listen to your parents. And you'll be safe.

But that's a lie. No one came make you safe. No one can save you for that day some sick person just decides you're the bad guy because you're black and carrying a bottle of ice tea and some Skittles and he self-appointed himself neighborhood watch and some black teenage boys aren't good, therefore ALL BLACK PEOPLE ARE NOT GOOD. And you are a black person. And you're a boy. And you had on a "hooded sweatshirt." So, you're dead now.

You lose.

Sorry. You didn't follow the rules. It wasn't good enough to be "good." Why didn't you just apologize to that man for existing as he had you on the ground, gun pointed at you? Say you were sorry for being born black and apologize for all the black people in the past who may have ever thought of robbing that neighborhood or doing whatever things George Zimmerman, 28, thought black people in Sanford, Fla. were doing in his neighborhood.

Maybe if you'd just taken it and accepted that it's Zimmerman's world and only his comfort matters and not yours, you would have got it. Maybe your parents could have been more paranoid. Kept you locked up in the house until you turned 25 (gotta keep you from being a statistic). And then ...

And then ... What? Then what?

If you have a child, what do you tell them? Especially him. What do you tell him? How do you tell him as his mother or his father or his grandmother or grandfather that you, the person he loves and trusts and believes in more than anyone in the world, that you can keep him safe? How does he believe you now? He knows you're full of shit now. He's on Facebook. He's heard and read about Trayvon. Someone who looked like him. Someone who was "good." How do you tell him that if he just stays in school and is "good" it will be OK? How do you tell him to handle something like this? Not a cop, just some guy. Some crazy self-appointed neighborhood watch guy with a gun who thought he was Batman that night? If you're a good parent you tell your kid that if some guy, some scary guy is following them, you tell him to run and if he can't run, to defend himself. Bad men in cars to terrible things to children and teens. You tell your son, if you can't run, if you can't get help, do whatever you have to do to stay alive. Fight, run, call out for help, make yourself trouble. Go down fighting, if you're going down. Don't do the thing the stranger in the car with the gun wants you to do.

But that doesn't keep you safe.

And the cops are so worried about how Zimmerman feels and thinks -- and their precious "Kill Your Neighbors" laws, but not how a 17-year-old would react to a stranger following him in his car at night. Not how anyone in Trayvon's situation would react.

I know how I, as a 5-foot-3-inch woman, would react to some strange man following me in a car.

The cops say maybe Trayvon would have done something "differently" if he could do it over again.

Do what? Not be born black in America where black men are viewed with suspicion no matter their age?

People, and by people I mostly mean our society as a whole, tells us that if we just do the right things and follow the rules we will be safe and our kids will be safe. But these things are lies. The onus is not on the victim to wear a longer skirt when she goes out on night. It's on the guy who thinks it's OK to rape her.

The impetus is not on the kid walking home from the 7-11. But on the self-proclaimed, gun-wielding, one-man-neighborhood watch, calling the Sanford Police more than 40 times in the last year. It is not Trayvon's job, or your job or my job to make bigots feel more comfortable with us because there is no way to get their comfort. It is a lie.

No amount of goodness will fix it.

You could get rid of every thing that has ever made you feel embarrassed, every black person you ever felt fulfilled a stereotype. It doesn't matter. Because racism is illogical. Bigotry does not need a reason to fear and act on that fear with violence. There is no different clothing you could wear. There is no different accent you could take on. There is no grades you could get that could change them. Because it doesn't matter.

We can't Jackie Robinson our way out of this. Some people just want to hate you. And they don't want to change. But they really enjoy you going through the gymnastics trying -- because it takes the weight off them.

Don't apologize -- Because it doesn't matter.

In St. Louis, my hometown, folks in the county would say, it wasn't that they didn't like black people it was the "quality" of the black people. Why? If it were Cosby-esque doctors and lawyers moving in next door in the suburbs they'd feel just fine.

Then, when my family and tons of other black professional families moved to the 'burbs, they fled to O'Fallon and St. Charles anyway

But you said doctors and lawyers were "OK?" I guess bigots lie. It wasn't really about the "right" kind of black people. Ha ha. You were "good" too, weren't you? Cute. Didn't mean anything. Didn't mean a damn thing.

My favorite book, Invisible Man, tells of Anonymous and there is a letter in that story that haunts me as it haunted the unnamed narrator that says "keep this nigger boy running."

And that's what they do to us. They keep us running. They keep telling us it is us. That if we just made ourselves a little different, it would all go away. If we're just good. 

And then, in our goodly and true lives, they give back to us the corpse of a 17-year-old boy and say --

Take this.

Pick it up.

Before Trayvon's murder. Before now. Before I was even 25. I realized it didn't matter what I did. It didn't matter what any of us did. And so I decided, I was just going to live my life, however I saw fit. And that was my protest to an unfair world. That I didn't care about their "rules" anymore, whomever "they" may be, because their rules were lies. I would be good to those who were good to me. I'd do what was right for myself and those I loved. I wasn't going to be ashamed of who I am because it might check a stereotypical box.

Still, though. I wondered. 

A woman, much older than I, who I've known most of my life, used to say "I feel like my purpose in life is to make white people mad." I used to think that what she said sounded really silly. She was born under Jim Crow (hence her tendency to talk of white people as if they're monolithic) and was a long-time housewife. All she'd ever done was marry a nice guy and have lovely children. She'd lived a quiet, sweet sort of life, isolated from most of the drama anyone -- white or black -- ever has to deal with. I thought the statement was awkward and short-sighted and weird. I would smirk and brush it off. What the hell was that supposed to mean? You're not Angela Davis, I'd think. No one is shaking in their boots at night, worried about the fur coat wearing black housewives of Florissant, Mo.

Then, in a conversation with a friend of mine, Dr. Jason Johnson, I told him of what she said and he actually argued my pampered housewife had a point.

To paraphrase: "When you really think about it," he said. "What she did ... falling in love, getting married, staying at home and raising her children ... that's not what she and her ancestors were brought to this country to do. We weren't brought here to go to college, fall in love, get married and live our lives. We were brought here to work and live the lives others wanted us to have."

Jason said our lives as free people is a protest to this society that criminalizes a boy just for being black.

Our love for each other. Our community. Our friendships. Our bonds are a form of protest.

Because we aren't doing what we were brought here to do.

To this end, I say, if you ever thought about not doing, loving, saying, being something that you wanted to be because you were worried about what "society" would think, stop thinking that way. There is nothing you can actually do. All you can do is live your life in the most honest way possible. Be good to those who are good to you. Love whole-heartedly. Care for your friends and family. Follow your dreams. You can't waste any bit of your short, precious time on this Earth worrying about what some unknown bigot thinks.

Or what anyone thinks.

Because it is beyond your control.

And there is no path that promises your child will be safe. And this is the world that we live in. But you don't have to accept anything.

Not. One. Damn. Thing.

And you don't have to take that load and just accept the racism and injustice and crime and rape and murder in our world. Nobody owns you. They can't make you accept that tragedy as just "part of your life."

When the murderer pulls out the gun and takes a life and puts it back on you. You say no, you murderer. That's your load. Pick it up.

You did it. Deal with the consequences. Whatever those may be.

Us and our children are not picking it up anymore.

No apologies.

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Reader Comments (140)

As I quickly skimmed to the comment section, I read someone post that they felt naked while reading this. I could not agree more. I felt exposed. I felt like I'd been opened up, torn apart, and had my innards exposed to the world. So much to say...

March 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMaya

I found this website because I get emails from the Randi Rhodes radio show and she had this article listed. I'm very grateful to be here and to read your column and all the following comments. I could never profess that I understand or can empathize with how it is to be a black person in America; I've only been exposed through the friends I have and through loving my ex-husband—seeing as much as I can through his life, the experiences he's had to get through, and help our teenage daughter make her way in this world.

I was so scared that our nation wasn't ready in 2008 to elect the first African-American President, and then I was so thrilled to see him actually elected, only to become disheartened that the haters became more hateful. The realistic, cynical side of me wasn't surprised, but the idealistic, optimistic side of me was crushed.

You wite: "All you can do is live your life in the most honest way possible. Be good to those who are good to you. Love whole-heartedly. Care for your friends and family. Follow your dreams. You can't waste any bit of your short, precious time on this Earth worrying about what some unknown bigot thinks." Direct. Honest. Beautiful. So very true.

Thank you for your post.

March 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKat Ward

Thank you for this. I'm moved beyond words and grateful for your raw, poignant thoughts here. Thank you.

March 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnnie

As one of your white readers (yes, you have them -- I share most of your political views and love your humorous take on politics), I must tell you that this incident is deeply repugnant to me, both because it is very unjust, and because I fear that events like this may deepen prejudices in this country, which is in no one's interest.

I've noticed that Trayvon Martin's death has affected many black people very deeply, even beyond what I would have expected given the senselessness of the killing and the dereliction of duty of the police. Your article suggests some reasons why. Perhaps this situation strikes such a painful nerve with black people because it taps into bad experiences they've had throughout their lives, in which they've often been forced, unfairly, to start from a deficit and work their way up to zero.

So, what if they were put in a nightmarish, worst-case situation where they weren't actually given that chance to prove they're not one of the "bad black people"?

And what if it cost them their life?

And what if, even after death, they were still being labeled one of the "bad black people," and therefore nobody even cares that they're dead?

I think I understand the emotional impact of this tragedy a bit better now.

March 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersmartacus

Thank you.

March 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoann

It would be an entirely different outcome if this poor child was white. Society has a long way to go. Don't let color cloud your judgement, murder is murder! I don't understand why this is even a discussion! This poor young man was murdered by some unauthorized vigilante! This young man had his life taken for no reason! Let their be justice for him and his family. God rest your young soul.

March 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMamaC

I am so sorry. We have done you wrong, and continue to do it. I don't know how to fix it, other than to raise my children to love everyone.

Thank you for writing this so I can start to understand a little. I know I can't really without walking in your shoes, but this helps.

The death of this young man is a travesty. I feel deeply sorry for his parents, his family, the community, and the poor misled justice system that has allowed the animal that killed him to roam free. But, we must remember that this happens everyday across the country; black on white, white on black, asian on black, white on asian, etc, etc, etc, etc. Let us all recognize that this is a horrible isolated incident that is garnering much needed attention; but it is just that, isolated. We need to use Trayvon's memory in order to promote tolerance, not point out isolated injustice. We cannot use it to draw lines and separate race, we must use it to erase lines and come together to prevent future injustice regardless of race.

March 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJug

I am simply stunned by the sheer beauty of this essay. I know I can't be in your shoes as a white, middle-aged man in my 40's, but I'll make no apologies, either. If I've ever been guilty of any kind of bigotry, I've always, ALWAYS tried to catch myself on it. I have read Ellison, and I've read Richard Wright thoroughly -- two of my very favorite American authors.

This essay like a concentrated dose of the themes they explored.

I have already emailed this off to my mother, my two sisters, and my favorite aunt. As soon as my 15-year-old son gets home, I'm making it his homework assignment, schoolwork be damned today.

I want to say thank you for taking the time to do this, but I don't feel like "thanks" is the right word. I'll just say that I appreciate your intelligence, your insight and above all your humanity. I honestly am feeling love in some sense right now.

As far as my neighborhood goes, I'd love to have you right next door.

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDan Williams

Deep and right on target!!

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdesertvoice

I write this with tears in my eyes because it's a bitter truth I had to learn for myself, from the stories of my family, and through the eyes of others growing up. It is a lesson I've had to accept in adulthood that has both harmed me and helped me in different ways. When you said that some people just want to hate you and there's nothing you can do....I just had to cry. It's a VERY illogical and I find myself trying to find a way to explain this to generations to come.

What you've written is so HONEST and beautiful and opened up a lot of emotions and thoughts in my head. There is no better way to put it. I need to share this.

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRoni W

God Bless You, Woman!

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLuisa

What about DJ Henry????

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterYmetoo

Powerful essay, moving. I am motivated to respond to some of the responses.


No I am sorry, this is NOT an isolated incident. Zimmerman killed that kid because he HAD to get the suspicious Black guy, for no other reason but that his very existence was a threat. That in tandem with poorly thought out laws around the Second Amendment make Black males target practice for bigots of every stripe. The blog isn't about some call to have antipathy against white people (but wait...why is the focus about worrying about the harm done to white Americans?), but to STOP caring about having to prove that you are worthy of love and respect from SOME people who will never love and respect them, no matter what they do.


The essayist of this blog was exceptionally kind and diplomatic to you, and it pained me of her use of "sorry" when responding to you. Frankly, the kindest thing that needs to be said about your opinion is...Eff You. And it is meant with true and an absolutely pure sincerity.

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R Hicks

I am so sorry.

I am sorry that my university lecturer references the old law pertaining to slavery as if it is a historical curiosity, and embarrassing to talk about - but he doesn't need to really express his outrage at the whole idea, because it's not really a reality we deal with anymore, right? It's not relevant anymore, right?

I am sorry that my friends argue that racism doesn't really exist anymore - just the after affects, which will eventually right themselves. That part of the problem is 'reverse racism', that apparently turns us all against each other.

I am sorry that sometimes I make a snap judgment, based on my prejudices. That for a few seconds I think of a person as being more dangerous, less civilised, because of their race, before I remind myself that no person of colour has *ever* given me reason to fear them. That even if they had, it wouldn't have anything to do with any other person of colour. That so many white men have threatened me, frightened me, offended me, and yet I automatically assume that they are less of a danger to me.

I'm sorry that Trayvon is dead because of people like me. I wish I had done better, I wish I was doing better.

I'm so sorry.

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteranon

Beautiful and tragically sad at the same time. Genius!

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWayne in DC

Magnificent prose for a fundamental American truth: as far as white people are concerned, we will never be good enough.

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIvan Ivanovich Renko

I'm a white male in my 50's and I can't tell you how ashamed I am that this sort of thing still happens. Doesn't surprise me at all, unfortunately and sadly.
Grew up in a very racist suburb of Boston, but was lucky enough to have parents that taught me to listen to reason, not to blind hate. Maybe I wish sometimes we were all "literally blind", but probably not even that could stop the ignorant hatred.
I heard the 911 tapes on the TV and thought, HOW COULD NOT ARREST ZIMMERMAN FOR MURDER!" Then as I saw the people "in charge", it reminded me of those I grew up with, and I sadly thought. OH, I get it... same old shit!
I'm a musician, and at 19 started playing in R&B bands around Boston. I found myself totally accepted in the Black community based on who I was, not what color I was. It was one of the best times of my life. (Of course, went I went home to visit my Mom, couldn't tell any of those I grew up with where I was spending my time. Didn;t care though, cause their small minds were to "shut" for me to care, maybe only feel sorry for them.... maybe.
I know there's nothing I can do, except for what I affect right around me. So I agree... live your life, love your family, and try not get too hard of a heart.
Just know that there are those of us out there, who, because of what color WE were born, can never truly feel your pain, or understand what you have to deal with in life. But that doesn't mean we aren't ready to stand with you, march with you, and fight with you to try to change the world.
In one R&B band, they would call me "the snowflake in the coal bin"... it was said out of love, and taken as such. MAde me realize that one day, with hard work, love may finally make us all color blind.... I have to hope!!

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRick Cutler

I'm a white guy and I can see how racist many white people are, especially in the southern states. I made a comment on twitter that if Trayvon had been the police chiefs son, and had Zimmerman been black, he would have been arrested and charged with murder the day this happened. Some people tried telling me that I couldn't prove it or that I was speculating. I don't know what fantasy world they live in cos it's not the world the rest of do. A person is delusional if they really believe a police chief would accept the self defense claim from a black man who had just murdered his unarmed son.

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKeith


March 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterZ

This Article needs to be posted on every site. Well written.

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDion

I guess I'm not seeing it the same way as the rest of my fellow blacks. We, as a community, are so screwed up! We're quick to label Tupac Shakur as a "poet", cry for the death of Biggie Smalls, but then call Colin Powell and Condaleeza Rice "sellouts" b/c they don't support liberal programs that keep our community down. What REAL discrimination did Tupac or Biggie face? All I ever hear in their music is claims of racism when the white police arrest them for selling drugs.

Chris Rock jokes (but is serious at the same time) about how it's more acceptable in our community to be "street hard" than it is to be educated. I think we're the ones who are confused here, not everyone else. Everyone else views our problems as a cultural problem, not a skin pigment problem. Our race has decided that it's better to be on welfare, selling drugs, being "street hard", than it is to be a good, law abiding citizen.

There are reasons why the police "racially" profile. It's b/c our kids are the ones doing the crimes. I rarely see white kids in trouble for anything. It's not b/c the police let them off the hook. It's b/c they're not going out with groups of friends and robbing people like our kids are. Sure, you can pull up examples in the media that show white kids doing that. I'm not saying it doesn't happen. I'm just saying that it's not the norm. When it does happen, no one shows up fighting for "racial justice" so that the courts let them off the hook, like we do.

Why did Obama say that if Trayvon was his son that he'd look like him? What does that have anything to do with anything? There are plenty of white people that are killed by blacks everyday, but we never see it. Where are the hate crime charges on our community? They don't apply.

Until we are held to the same standard as everyone else, we will never be treated equally? We really won't. Whites throw their trash in the trailer park, but we accept them back and act like they never did anything wrong and make excuses for them. It's time we quit doing this and demand more from our black brothers and sisters so that we're not pulled over and harassed b/c our culture doesn't know how to act.

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJim Byler

Jim, if you think that way, as supposedly a black man, then, sorry, but you need a new scene. I have been surrounded by black people my entire life and have never heard one call Condi or Colin a sellout, even though we do hail Tupac as a poet.

Furthermore, white kids don't commit crimes? Ha. I won't even touch that one.

Overall, surround yourself with more diverse and enlightened people and then MAYBE you'll find a way to stop believing you are the great savior and exception of the black race. No, you didn't say it, but from the likes of you comment, you clearly think you are.

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMiss Upwardly

this gave me the chills many times over. thank you for sharing these words and experiences.

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSummer

Miss Upwardly, I agree with u. I'm not too surprised by Jim's comment tho. There are some African Americans who think that way, but they're the exception. What really surprised me was to see African Americans supporting prop 8. Because of their history of being marginalized by society and discriminated against by their own government I would hope that of all people, they wouldn't support discrimination of other segments of society. It was hard to see them holding "Yes on 8" signs. They allowed themselves to become what they despise the most.

March 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKeith
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