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Whiteness’ Invisibility Momentarily Made Transparent: Representations of Race(s) in the Trayvon Martin Case

April 18, 2012

Many white Americans have resented the media attention Martin’s case has attracted and, in retort, have brought forth the “grief of the white man.” Versions of the question, “Why don’t racially motivated crimes against white people get more coverage?” offer us, as critics and citizens, a fleeting mindfulness that white is a race. Martin’s story is an opportunity to reconsider our own attitudes toward a society in which whiteness is invisible and in which white’s normalization has perpetuated racial inequalities. Have we made note (again) that our forgetfulness of the white race is the source and vitality of white privilege?

Geraldo Rivera did not discourage all “youngsters” from wearing hoodies. Just the “dark-skinned” ones. This distinction needs to be made clear because many follow-up blogs and news articles essentially de-racialized Rivera’s comments, making the question more about the apparel than about how different races appear wearing it. Rivera’s point was not that hoodies render anyone wearing it suspicious, but that it is part of the imagery of violent African Americans or Latinos.

While I reject the “victim-was-asking-for-it” narrative, Rivera’s observation was consistent with the controversy surrounding George Zimmerman’s distrust of a kid wearing a “dark hoodie” who “[looked] black.” We’ve seen before that harmless objects like wallets and silver-wrapped candy bars take on a new meaning when presented by a black person; in this case, it was a garment that transformed an unarmed teenager into a criminal. This racial profiling eventually provided a theme for the “Million Hoodie March.” Watching the “March” coverage, I wondered, “Is this what post-racial America looks like? A middle-aged white woman with a hood pulled over her face, carrying a sign that reads ‘I Am Trayvon Martin?’ A young white man, standing next to his black neighbors, calling into the microphone his demand for justice?”

At the risk of sobering the stir we feel at the sight of an interracial cause, I recall white people sporting hoodies before Martin’s death and am hardly optimistic that after these protests, black people wearing them will no longer be associated with thugs. However noble the intentions behind these social movements, equality does not come from erasing racial difference. No matter how many dangerous clothes a light-skinned, middle-class-Soccer Mom models, she will never “be”—that is “appear like”—Trayvon. That so-called colorblindness certainly has not remedied America’s racism. As I develop this point further, we may want to give Geraldo a little credit for at least acknowledging one of the many forms of white privilege: white kids can wear hoodies without seeming like threatening “gangstas,” which, in Florida, lessens their likelihood of being shot.

This doesn’t mean that the over-300 deaths since Florida’s 2005 “Stand Your Ground” law were all African Americans. Timothy McTigue, 43, shot and killed 23-year old Michael Palmer while the two brawled at Phil Foster Park. The prosecutor for the case expressed disdain for McTigue’s self-defense plea since Palmer “retreated” from the fight before being shot. Despite this argument, McTigue was found not guilty, a verdict that left Palmer’s family in disbelief. Why didn’t Palmer’s case—can we call it white-on-white-crime?—rouse as much media coverage as Martin’s?

While the Martin-Zimmerman case gained momentum in the media, on March 4, a 13-year old boy in Kansas City was doused with gasoline and burned by two black 16-year olds. One of the perpetrators told the boy, “You get what you deserve, white boy.”

On March 24, John Sanderson, a white Mississippi State University student, was murdered in his dorm room by three young black men.

My white friends forwarded these stories on Facebook with headlines such as, “Does this make you angry?” or “Why doesn’t the country care about this?” Obviously, these crimes are disturbing and indeed, they do indicate that racism is not limited to the white oppressors. The question as to why these events don’t carry the same heat of racial conflict in mainstream reporting is an interesting and complicated one. Ironically, the explanation for unfair under-representation of white victims has to do with the same social phenomenon that secures white privilege: the invisibility of their race as such.

In Revealing Whiteness, Shannon Sullivan traces the history of white-race consciousness. The dominance of White Americans was very apparent in the Jim Crowe era; brutal lynchings were social occasions. The 1960s may have overturned the systematized tyranny of the white race, but it did not simply do away with their racial privilege. Though decades ago it became socially unacceptable to be frank about racist beliefs, we still see white privilege reveal itself in, to name a few examples, the economy and job market, health and wellbeing, education, and routine perks listed here. Though racial inequality can be fairly easily brought to the public’s attention, there is a stronger resistance to recognizing the racism that enables these white privileges as a present problem.

Because whiteness is, as Richard Dyer calls it, essentially “colourless,” it stands as the norm, the default race, and any violence that a member of that race instigates against another is not called “white-on-white crime,” but more neutrally, an altercation. It should not be altogether surprising, then, that instances in which whites encounter racism go undetected and are far less publicized than a case like Martin’s. If the media were to, in discursive storms, cover crimes against whites that were potentially racially motivated, white as a race would become more visible. And in turn, so would white privilege—

However, as has been custom for the 21st century, the examination of white race (and therefore, white privilege) is only a brief critical opportunity. It doesn’t take too long before whiteness withdraws back behind its veil, usually due to overpowering interest in scrutinizing the problems of other-ed communities. Meanwhile, I pose the following: Is post-racial possible or is it pretense? Is there some rhetorical use to naming “white” as a race in order to spotlight their reigning position of power, even if it means minorities must intermittently sacrifice some of their fragile strength as an other-ed public?

If you want to know more:

  • White as a race and as a privilege is notably analyzed in Richard Dyer’s book White (1997) and Shannon Sullivan’s Revealing Whiteness (2006). But how about thinking about this as also an issue concerning masculinity? For this, I invoke the work of my former professor, Dr. Greg Forter (U. of S. Carolina), who thoughtfully considers literary works at the intersection of race, gender, and violence. See Murdering Masculinities (2000) and Gender, Race, and Mourning in American Modernism (2011).
  • While I hesitate to seriously cite entertainers who brush off their work as “merely comedy,” The Daily Show gave a pointed analysis of race in the Martin case. You can watch the bit here.
  • Etan Thomas offered a number of questions on this case worth considering. Published by The Huffington Post.
3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 18, 2012 10:22 am

    Reblogged this on Thabomophiring's Blog.

  2. Will Penman permalink
    April 18, 2012 12:18 pm

    Fantastic, Susan! I particularly like your portrayal of the “I am Trayvon Martin” protesters 🙂

  3. Candace permalink
    April 19, 2012 12:03 pm

    Speak on it!

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