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Sunday, July 28, 2013
Following a keynote on diversity I delivered recently, a woman approached me and commented on the fact that I had referred to myself as biracial. She said she was reluctant to use the term “biracial” when referring to herself because people accused her of betrayal.
“They make you choose sides,” she said.
I thought for a moment and then replied, “No one has the right to tell you who you are. You’re you. You’re free to be whoever you choose to be.”
When President Obama spoke to the nation on July 19 in his surprise address in the White House briefing room, I was reminded of the many ways in which those of us who are biracial are told we have to pick sides.
Seventeen-year-old African American Trayvon Martin had been killed when George Zimmerman, a biracial man of white-Peruvian heritage who dreamed of becoming a cop, saw someone in a hoodie walking in his neighborhood, and was unable to resist the temptation of taking the law into his own hands. The would-be cop carried a semi-automatic weapon, and the site of conflict was Florida, where, in 2005, stand-your-ground legislation had been passed with bipartisan blessing.
In spite of his lawyers’ assertions to the contrary during his trial, Zimmerman must have known he had the right to stand his ground. He’d been practicing for a moment like this for a long, long time. He could no doubt feel the weight of the gun and the way it empowered him to be the kind of man he wanted to be. A protector. A cop. A vigilante. He followed the dark shadow in the hoodie. After hand-to-hand combat, he killed him with a single bullet to the heart.
Much has been written about the ways in which this tragedy resonated in the black community. Like the Negro spirituals and blues melodies, the Trayvon Martin shooting became a sorrow song — a physical manifestation of the anguish of generations, a way of reinforcing the notion that black people can’t find refuge in the law or on the streets. It reopened wounds, forced us to recognize that black males are always being judged by self-appointed judges. It extended the authority of the court into the streets of Sanford, Fla. It said, “It’s time for you to run again. Run fast; run now!”
And though people who have a more distant relationship with slavery may initially find it hard to understand why running was such an offensive option, that’s because they may not remember how closely linked running is to the whip and Jim Crow. Stand Your Ground buttressed the playing field’s uneven terrain. Martin’s and Emmett Till’s mothers became conjoined in our collective memory. When the jury decided that Zimmerman was innocent, it confirmed our worst fears: Our brothers and sisters had been standing on someone else’s ground all along.
This isn’t to say that Zimmerman is the devil, or even a racist. Zimmerman’s own biracial heritage was largely ignored, but it is relevant. And though race is indeed a part of this equation, it’s quite possible he was not motivated by racial hatred but rather by excessive aggression, a hyper-masculine desire to be seen as the savior of his community — the little man who confronted the scary intruder. He’d spent hours each day in the gym preparing for this moment. He was about to prove something to himself. The hunt was seductive. Whatever happened, Zimmerman wouldn’t back down.
What I’m trying to say is that I can see both sides. I can see why Zimmerman pushed himself toward what had become by then an inevitable confrontation. If we wear the mask of the vigilante-savior for long enough, that is who we become. I have seen how guns can affect those who carry them, especially if they are insecure or angry. Either trait can make them pull the trigger. I can see why Martin didn’t simply run away. For three centuries, this has been a black man’s primary option in America. At some point, running from an attack isn’t an option. It’s a cage.
President Obama is a black man; President Obama is a white man; President Obama is a biracial man. He is obliged to adopt a triracial identity. Those who are biracial, particularly those of us who trace our roots back to Africa, are always actively engaged in racial synthesis. We have three primary racial allegiances that all compete for our attention: allegiance to our black mothers or fathers, allegiance to our white mothers or fathers and allegiance to ourselves. This third allegiance is, perhaps, the most challenging of all. If we discard our whiteness, we discard a beloved parent and a rich heritage. In my case, that heritage is British. In my heart is Salisbury spire, London’s tantalizing energy, the novels of Dickens and the plays of Shakespeare. This love of England has been married to Chinua Achebe’s wrenching African accounts of British colonialism, Bessie Head’s compassionate South African prose, the gorgeous beaches and lilting voices of Jamaica, to my own racial history. It’s a synthesis that results in a new form of identity.
We biracials are not simply the sum of our parts; we are a fusion of opposites and similarities. For this reason, we have a particular role to play in this dialogue. If we’re true to who we are, we will be able to see both sides, while, at the same time, remaining sensitive to injustice. I have always identified with people in distress, not simply because I’m a woman of color but because I’m human. The incarceration of 1 million black men is, quite simply, criminal — an appalling stain upon this freedom-loving nation.
So when my African-American husband speaks to me of the time his father was riding on a bus filled with soldiers, and a white woman who said she had been raped boarded the bus with police to see if she could pick out the black soldier who had attacked her, my husband doesn’t need to explain why his father said these were the scariest few moments of his life. When my white English mother told me how my black Jamaican father never set foot in a church again after he’d been thrown out, bodily, from a segregated church in Texas, I didn’t need to ask why it was he’d spent the rest of his brief life painting images of a black holy family, in spite of how poorly the savior’s ethnicity was received by critics; or why he kept depicting a flight into Egypt, portraying the love between a black mother and son, who was, and always would be, in jeopardy. For weren’t there people who wanted to kill her beloved son? And didn’t she know, as so many mothers would know after her, that, however fast he ran, they would catch up with him? And didn’t she also know that, some day, her son would refuse to run away?
It’s at this point, some would say, where, if I were true to blackness, I would blast Zimmerman, who is, after all, a different kind of biracial than I am, with a very different heritage — a different nose and eyes, different hair. This is where I’m meant to call him names, and assert that he is a confirmed racist. But something happened as I looked at Zimmerman during the trial. I saw something in his eyes that was recognizable to me: fear. I saw something in his mother’s eyes, too. It was anguish.
I am not suggesting for one moment that Zimmerman was right to follow and shoot Martin. Of course he wasn’t. But I also know that Stand Your Ground was not only Zimmerman’s accomplice, it was his enabler. We need to rid ourselves of it as fast as we can because it encourages our worst, most terrified selves to triumph over our best, most compassionate ones.
On July 19, President Obama took roughly 17 minutes to speak about Trayvon Martin — one minute for each year of a boy’s life. He told us how our experiences shape our beliefs. He urged us to have faith in the young. It was a hopeful, thoughtful address by a biracial man who dared to speak from the heart, without a teleprompter or a script. He gave himself permission to speak honestly in an attempt to describe what it means to be a black man in America today. “Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?” he urged us to ask ourselves. For me, this was the fulcrum upon which the rest of his speech turned. So much bloodied laundry to wash; so much to wring out of ourselves, and out of a biased system, as we march forward together, black and white and mixed, arm in arm, on a quest to save our young.
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