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The Pigment of Our Imagination

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August 1, 2013

The Pigment of Our Imagination

by Lance Laird

Our family was camping in Yellowstone on the way to Peace Camp in Spokane last week. As Ashlee slathered sunscreen on her pale pink arms, she offered some to our 12 year old son, Naim. He quipped back, “Mom, I don’t need sunscreen. I already have some.” Holding up a milk-chocolate colored arm, he said, “It’s the pigment of my imagination.” The playful pun on the “figment of imagination” made us laugh, but after last Saturday’s acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, it gives me pause. Many brilliant analysts have traced the layers of injustice and the appalling use of law and its interpretation to justify the murder of a young black man. In this short reflection, though, we take it a bit more personally

“You are wonderful, beautiful, gifted and giving. God loves you, and so do we.” This is what we tell our children: the milk chocolate, the caramel, and the vanilla colored one. We don’t usually describe them in terms of color (or ice cream flavors), as their personalities, attitudes, dress styles, and rhythms of movement distinguish them more easily from each other in daily interaction—at least for people who get a chance to know them. But to our sons, Aidan and Naim, we also have to say, “There will be people out there who will judge you, fear you, suspect you, follow you, and possibly want to hurt you just because of the color of your skin or the way you wear your clothes. It doesn’t matter how smart you are or how well-spoken or well-behaved.” As Trayvon Martin’s mother said, the case is "sending a terrible message to other little black and brown boys -- that you can't walk fast, you can't walk slow. So what do they do? I mean, how do you get home without people knowing or either assuming that you're doing something wrong? Trayvon wasn't doing anything wrong."

As “white” parents of “black” children through transracial adoption, we have become quite aware of our skin privilege, the ways in which the structures of our supposedly egalitarian, “color blind” society give more rights to us than to others. And these others we know; they are family. 

It is because of the “pigment of our imagination,” something that is deeply flawed within our vision of the world, the white racism that Jim Wallis labeled “America’s original sin”. We US Americans live in a country where browner bodies have less value than paler bodies, where a dark-skinned Marissa Alexander can be sentenced in Florida to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot in front of her abusive ex-husband; while a lighter-skinned George Zimmerman can pursue an unarmed dark-skinned teenager, provoke a confrontation, and shoot him to death and be found “not guilty”. This is the world into which we send our boys. 

Actually, we don’t have to send them anywhere.  We’re in the thick of it, and racism will find them. Dr. Miguel de la Torre spoke at the BPFNA gathering on Tuesday morning. He joked about his white liberal activist friends who invite him to “go out and get arrested” for protesting; his witty reply went something like, “I’m Latino. I don’t have to go anywhere to get arrested. The police come and find me.” 

We have tried to introduce our children to police as “community helpers” (and they have been for us in most circumstances), but we have also had to explain the hard truth that sometimes people who are empowered to help may use their power to hurt. Ashlee’s cousin, an army chaplain’s assistant who happens to be white and blonde, had a single car accident on a highway in Northern Virginia. State troopers invited her out of the car, pressed her to the hood of theirs, threw her on the ground, put a knee in her back and pinned her to the pavement. Despite her bruises, she was convicted of felony assault on a police officer and served 6 months in federal prison. Women of color in the prison explained to her, “You got hog-tied! It happens all the time.” Such violence is a part of the system of justice for all in this land.  And this time, it was not about the color of her skin.

As Trayvon Martin’s mother wondered after the verdict, "Maybe they (jurors) didn't see Trayvon as their son. They didn't see Trayvon as a teenager. They didn't see Trayvon as just a human being that was minding his own business."  According to CNN, Martin’s father “said that his children had grown up in a diverse community, so he had never felt a need to have a conversation about how his sons should deal with race. Rather, he said he talked with his children about ‘how we prepare them to become teenagers, to become upstanding citizens, to conduct themselves in public.’” 

But how do we teach our kids that citizenship requires both respect for good laws (the ones MLK said “could keep people from lynching me”) and disobedience to unjust laws (the ones Dr. King said we have a moral responsibility to disobey). This is what de la Torre politely calls “screwing with the system.” Glen Stassen’s “transforming initiatives” interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount aims to do the same: to expose the violence and injustice with unexpected acts of “standing your ground” that demand recognition of one’s own humanity and dignity. But the reality is that doing so could get you killed. Even buying snacks in a neighborhood where people don’t know you could get you killed, because some people have “rights” to shoot the stranger in their midst.

Soon after Trayvon was killed there was a movement on the internet called “I am Trayvon Martin.” Pictures of all kind of folks wearing hoodies popped up to show solidarity with this young man who lost his life. And while the “I am Trayvon Martin” movement had good intentions, the reality is that we are not all Trayvon Martin. I am a 6’2” 49 year old white man. The police will not profile me in a store, no one will assume I do not belong. I will most likely not be viewed with suspicion. My sons will not have the same experience. I am not Trayvon, but they are. The justice system works in my favor, not theirs. The system’s “justice” is a product of a dominant culture with its collectively pigmented imagination.

I recognize that I am much more likely to be treated like George Zimmerman. Can I use the privilege and power I have, that I share with others, the love that we share as a family and the community we have with other families, to provoke creative transformations in lawmakers, neighborhood watch volunteers, jurors, and the collective structures within which we live? Will I recognize the next young black man I see as my son? Perhaps an angel with whom I might share some Skittles and some iced tea? I hope so. 

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