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Grace Ross:  It Is Time to Talk About Race

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Grace Ross, GoLocalWorcester MINDSETTER™

It has become quite the tradition in Worcester that if a young person is killed for any reason that we try to hold a vigil or some other event that recognizes the loss to our community.

Women Together/Mujeres Unidas has spearheaded a bunch of these. I’ve had the honor of participating, organizing and even leading some of the amazing gatherings celebrating these lives and recognizing that these are lives we shouldn't have lost. 

There is plenty of evidence that shows that the existence of youth jobs and other alternatives for the energy of young people that provide them a constructive path for what to do with themselves and really reduce the numbers of young adult and youth homicides that occur in a community. In fact, economic upturns and downturns pretty much track those statistics. 

In this context where so many of us from lots of different racial and ethnic backgrounds are used to getting together to commemorate a loss and demand a better future, the recent magnetic pull of the Trayvon story has been instructive. In addition to the obvious grief that this tale draws out of us, it’s yet another painful reminder of a young person with tons of potential who gets killed for no good reason.

The weird thing about the conversation has been listening to this public discussion as it relates to race. I’ve heard people say literally opposite meanings in words that sounded exactly the same. And then have someone agree who then voiced the opposite; we are not able to hear each other over our conflicting experiences of words like “race” and racism”.

“This is not about race.”

I’ve heard this said by people who are trying to point out that the death of any young person – regardless of race – is simply unacceptable, particularly a death so wanton and unprovoked. I’ve heard the same exact sentence said by people who argue that Trayvon was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and was the victim of an unfortunate misperception by somebody with a gun.

I’ve heard folks say: “this is all about race”.

Some folks say this meaning that young people who get killed through mistaken identity are almost always young men of color. That statement is statistically true and not worth an argument about whether it’s true. It is factually correct – just like high school killing sprees almost always kill all or a vast majority of young women, not young men. Also statistically true and not worth arguing about.

I’ve also heard folks agree and say: “this is all about race” meaning that young men of color should be careful about where they walk and what community they walk in and explaining away to some extent the actions of the white neighborhood watch guy who shot his gun. I don’t know why he’s carrying a gun and why he thinks he can use it when his responsibility is to report strange activity to the police... !

Still, I’ve heard the statement that “it is all about race” to expose a long history in our country or equally to somehow justifying the long history. Again, statistics. We don’t have to argue about it. Young men of color who are killed by older white men who presumably are doing it out of fear alt the way back to rampant lynchings, when white people were legally in power. Then as now, we need to talk honestly about what exactly the underlying fear is – especially if it is being used as an explanation of murder.

We simply cannot get ourselves out of the needless deaths of the Trayvons of the world until we can all get over our inability to talk about a history well documented of race in our country. There is not a single person who can claim not to have been influenced in their lives by images of racial violence. All you have to do is turn on the TV and watch the crime shows and over and over and over again we’re exposed to the social story of who gets killed primarily and who does the killing. We don’t hear the long story of lynchings or other deaths.

Separate from whether it’s justified or not, those images are flooded into our minds from a young age. There is an expectation that parents of color have to figure out how to deal with teaching young men of color about the social assumption that they’re up to no good if they’re in a neighborhood that’s mostly white. Adults in those young men’s lives have to figure out how to tell them that’s what they’re going to face and help them figure out how to negotiate it without learning to either feel ‘less than’ or to feel like they need to be angry at the world all the time.

It is equally a reality that white folks have to constantly fight a fear that gets built up over time with these images that somehow it’s young men of color who are more dangerous. History has shown that violence can be done by people of any race and that most violence is intra-race, that is usually violence happens within a group of this same race or ethnicity. But so much of the imagery we see, the fears that are created among white folks, the protectiveness people of color feel they need to somehow teach young men without crushing their spirits exists because of the stories that are told.

Just like we’ve had decades of having to undo the concept that women need to fear sexual violence from strange men so we could actually teach young women to be prepared for and deal with reality: that is, that the sexual violence they’re likely to experience is from someone they know. And as a society, we have to set up systems to support women to report these much more common situations of sexual violence.

Similarly, we have to undo this image that it is some young man of color in some neighborhood that’s mostly white that’s our biggest problem. It’s not our biggest problem. Until we can talk about race, we’re not going to get to the reality so that we can then untangle the real problems in our society. In the meantime, the ongoing loss of our young people’s lives should be acceptable to none of us.


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