Several years ago my best friend sat on the jury for a hate crime case. The prosecution and defence agreed that the accused had refused to pay a taxi driver, who he called a “Paki bastard” before he broke the taxi driver’s arm. The defence argued that the incident was an assault, not a hate crime.
The judge directed the British jury to find the accused guilty “if they believed he had used the words ‘Paki bastard’ before the assault.”
The jury found him not guilty of hate crime, because as one of the other white men on the jury said “I call people Pakis all the time, that’s not racist.” My friend and the sole person of colour on the jury were unable to stop the majority verdict.
Now, the recent killing of African American teenager Trayvon Martin.
It’s not disputed that George Zimmerman got out of his car, with a gun, to follow Trayvon Martin, who was walking home while Black. It’s not disputed that George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin.
Similarly, when Māori teenager Pihema Cameron was killed in Auckland in 2008, it was not disputed that Bruce Emery had chased Pihema down the street to stab him.
Yet both George Zimmerman (not guilty) and Bruce Emery (reduced sentence of manslaughter due to family standing) avoided being found guilty of murder.
The men who killed Pihema Cameron and Trayvon Martin said they were afraid.
The white imagination is coached to see people of colour as dangerous. We learn early and often. When I was nine my school principal called me into his office after I’d been fighting an older girl who was bullying my sister. The principal told me to stop hanging around my friends, as they were leading me astray. I thought this was strange, since neither of them were involved in the fight. I laughed about it with my friends, both of whom were Māori, afterwards. Somehow, looking back, I doubt they were finding it quite as amusing as I was. White privilege is funny that way.
I felt sick when I heard George Zimmerman would walk free, and the deja vu with Pihema Cameron was unavoidable. But the problem isn’t just Trayvon Martin and Pihema Cameron’s killers, if it was this would be easier.
The problem is when George Zimmerman and Bruce Emery say they were afraid while they chased after unarmed young men of colour with guns and knives, lots and lots of white people can imagine how that felt, because they feel it too.
If George Zimmerman and Bruce Emery were afraid, imagine how Trayvon Martin and Pihema Cameron felt, chased down and killed in cold blood. Imagine how it feels to know that other young men who look like you have been killed – just for walking and looking like you. Imagine how it feels to be told by the criminal justice system that those killings don’t count as real crimes, because you don’t count as a real victim.
That’s what we need to change. The dominance of white narratives, telling stories – both historical and current – from one perspective. The white imagination, and the excuses “othering” gives us, for all manner of racist inequalities. The reluctance of white people to call out racism when it’s there, because it might implicate too many of us.
Rest in peace Trayvon Martin. I don’t know what more to say but that your death fills me with pain and despair and horror. You should still be here, walking home in your hoodie, instead of being the latest casualty of racism’s license to kill.
*I’m aware George Zimmerman is not white. This post is more about the dominance of white narratives and the impacts that has on all of us.