“To the middle class, white, socially concerned activist who wears a shirt emblazoned with those slogans, you are wrong. I know you wear that shirt to stand in solidarity with Trayvon, Troy, and other victims of injustice. The purpose of those shirts is to humanize these victims of our society, by likening them to the middle class white activist wearing it. And once we’ve humanized the victims, this proves to us the arbitrariness of their deaths and thereby the injustice at play. But the fact of the matter is that these men’s deaths are anything but arbitrary. The fact that the real Troy Davis and Trayvon Martin and countless other victims of oppression are buried under 6 feet of cold dirt while we middle class white activists are alive, marching, and wearing their names is an indication that our societal system is working exactly as it’s intended.” – Emma Halling, March 2012
My brothers are black. That often throws people off when we talk about our family, but it is true. In March of 2012, I was initiated into the Pi Lambda chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated. The five distinguished men who were on that line with me are five of the people that I am closest to in this world. They know that they can call me up day or night and I will drop what I am doing if they need me. They do the same for me. They have been there for me in my darkest moments. They have shown me love and compassion that I thought couldn’t exist beyond the blood bonds of family. They have shown me the true meaning of solidarity and brotherhood.
Around the same time that my line brothers and I were having one of the most transformative and rewarding experiences of our life, Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. Many young people rallied around his parents in a call for justice. We marched. We took to social media. We demanded that Zimmerman be apprehended and be put on trial.
On Twitter many, myself included, took to using the hashtag #IAmTrayvonMartin and demanding #JusticeForTrayvon. One young woman saw it a little differently though. Emma Halling, a young activist, took to YouTube with a compelling message for people like me (that is to say her white, middle class peers). She called us out for identifying with Trayvon when in reality we needed to check our privilege and recognize that we had more in common with George Zimmerman. On that account, I don’t disagree with her. I am tremendously privileged. As a white man in America, my cup runneth over with societal privilege. I am also tremendously fortunate, like Emma was, to have had life experiences that led me to question societal norms and the status quo.
I’m encouraged by the dialogue that she spurred with her video last year and also fascinated by the “We Are Not Trayvon Martin” meme that has taken hold in the past few days. To see men and women of different colors and creeds name their privilege and talk about how they are honoring Trayvon’s memory, is something that is powerful. Still, I’m conflicted. Try as I might, I can’t fully sign on to that line of thinking. While I recognize that the systems in place in our country treat us differently and in ways that are unbelievably unfair to men of color, I still have a desire to identify with the hopeful young soul who was gunned down tragically.
For me, it boils down to the concept of Ubuntu that Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains so eloquently:
“In our country we’ve got something called ubuntu. When I want to praise you, I say this person has ubuntu. Because in our culture there is no such thing as a solitary individual. We say a person is a person through other persons. That we belong in the bundle of life. And I want you to be all you can be, because that’s the only way I can be all I can be. I need you! I need you to be you so that I can be me.” -Archbishop Tutu, October 2007
For me to live a full life and feel completely whole, I need to see the humanity of Trayvon or that of my line brothers. Just because they were born black and I was born white and we were both born into a system that grossly favors me over them, doesn’t give me the right to say “I am not them”.
I refuse to believe that we are not Trayvon Martin. Because as long as young men of color are not safe to walk the streets in peace, none of us are whole.