This morning my 11-year-old niece and six-year-old nephew took me on a rollercoaster of emotions in the span of 20 minutes as they were unwittingly indoctrinated into #Nerdland while watching me watch the Melissa Harris-Perry Show this morning on MSNBC. Melissa and her guest spent the first few segments discussing Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law and it’s relationship to the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case. About 30 minutes into the program, my niece asks for some clarity on the details of the case, which prompts me to pause the television and answer her (very thoughtful) questions:
Niece: If everyone knows George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin and everyone knows Trayvon wasn’t doing anything wrong, how come George Zimmerman didn’t have to go to jail?
Me: In Florida there is a law called the “Stand Your Ground” law that gives people the right to use deadly force to “protect” themselves if they find themselves in a situation where they feel severely threatened.
Niece: Didn’t George Zimmerman follow Trayvon, so wouldn’t Trayvon be the person who felt threatened?
Me (trying not to let my pride in her line of questioning distract me): In a jury trial, there are rules about what jurors can consider when making their decision on whether the accused is guilty or innocent. In this trial, the jury was instructed to rule on one very specific detail - at the time of the shooting did George Zimmerman really feel that his life was in danger. Although Trayvon was likely very scared by the unknown man following him, once the situation turned into an altercation, once the two began fighting, it was quite possible that George Zimmerman could have honestly felt his life was in danger and that killing Trayvon could therefore be considered a reasonable response by the jury.
Niece (with a face full of skepticism): That doesn’t make any sense. Me: A lot of people feel similarly, but under the law the verdict, though heartbreakingly disappointing, is legally reasonable.
Niece: Is the jury’s decision final?
Me: Yes, but because the law has been applied in a way that seems so unfair to so many people, it will likely be scrutinized (which I defined for her) and hopefully reevaluated.
I watch her face intently as she processes our conversation and subsequently her first tangible experience with moral injustice and I am pleased (#MakesMsBHappy) with how our dialogue has played out. With a smug smile on my face, I turn to unpause the television and reinsert myself into #Nerdland, when my six-year-old nephew (who has stopped playing his iPad game to listen to my conversation with his sister) decides to join in:
Nephew: Why was George Zimmerman scared of Trayvon?
Me: George Zimmerman told the police that Trayvon looked suspicious (I checked that he understood the meaning of the word) because he was an unknown black teenager wearing a hoodie walking around his neighborhood.
Nephew: I would have been scared too – black men in hoodies at night are creepy.
I cringe internally (I told you 20 minutes – full rollercoaster ride of emotions with these two), but try not to let my feelings show on my face because I want to understand how and why he’s come to this assertion. Our conversation proceeds as follows:
Me: Are all men creepy at night
Nephew: No, but dark skinned men I don’t know in hoodies are creepy at night.
Me: So would you be scared of a white man in a hoodie?
Nephew: Because white men aren’t scary.
Me: But dark skinned men in hoodies are scary?
Me: Your dad is dark skinned and wears hoodies, is he scary?
Nephew: (laughs) no.
Me: You grandfathers and uncles are dark skinned are they scary?
Nephew: No, but I know them.
At this point, I call his mother and we have a family intervention, which is both necessary and traumatic for my nephew who doesn’t remotely understand his unconscious bias, and now feels shame for sharing his honest point of view. We spend about 10 minutes trying to use if-then logic to deconstruct and reprogram how he connects skin color to fear. At the 11th minute, his father, recognizing that our approach may be too much too soon, allows my nephew to retreat into the pool.
I am, of course, mortified on a variety of levels. How does a six year old develop this type of bias? Have we done something to encourage this thought process? If a six year old with no direct personal history of negative racial experiences can form such a misguided blanket fear of “dark skinned” people, what should I expect of adults who have had years of movies, music, and news coverage reinforcing and justifying the idea that to be black is to be scary? And lastly, how can we argue against young black men arming themselves, when the justice systems keeps affirming that hunting black men is perfectly acceptable?
Hopefully over the next few weeks, our continued conversation around the Zimmerman/Martin trial will spawn answers to these difficult questions. But in the meantime, perhaps sharing how the case affects our children, their self-image and their perception of people who look like them, can help answer the lingering question of why the racial aspects of this case matter so much, to so many….