Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Unfortunate Satire of Trayvon Martin

The Daily Tar Heel ran an editorial cartoon today that has drawn the ire of campus, the Triangle and supporters of Justice for Trayvon Martin across the nation. I'll get to that cartoon in a moment, but first, a story.

Growing up, I lived in Shelby, N.C., a small city about 40 miles west of Charlotte. I lived with my mom one street over from my grandparents. Since my mom worked 40 hours a week, I would spend a lot of my afternoons after school with my grandparents. Here's a quick visual of the set up (WARNING: This is really bad but I'm terrible at Paint and InDesign), with my grandparents house on the top street and mine on the bottom.

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When going to and from those houses, I would try to stay off the roads. The residential street on the left is one that has a posted speed limit of 35 MPH, but it's not uncommon for speeds to get up to 50 on the small road. To the right is Highway 74, the busiest street in all of Shelby. At the time of this story, I was no more than 10 years old.

My mom, the mother of an only child, would admonish me from walking on either the left road or the highway, and instead she wanted me to walk through other folks' yards. No problem. Going from my grandparents' house, I would walk parallel to the dangerous residential street and be insulated by the row of houses. Keep to the fence, and when I arrive on my street, just walk to my house.

That was fine and dandy until one day, I was confronted by the owner of the final house I would walk behind. I don't remember his name, but he was an older (70ish) white man who had several broken down cars and assorted machinery in his carport. I was with my friend, a white, blond-haired blue-eyed guy who, for the sake of brevity, had done things that should have landed him in juvenile detention while I was pretty straight-laced growing up. The elderly man approaches us, but he only talks to me. Apparently some things had gone missing out of his carport. He said he had been watching me cross the past few days but hadn't seen me take anything, but went on to say that if I ever crossed through his yard, he'd call the police.

So that was that. From then on, I walked down the road my mom thought was unsafe while my grandfather had some words with the guy. But last week when I heard about the Trayvon Martin case, I remembered that tale from the coffers of my memory. If accounts of the confrontation are true, Trayvon had enough of George Zimmerman following him around and eventually confronted him, inquiring why he was being followed when he was walking down the street minding his own business. Had I been 17 years old when my confrontation occurred, I wouldn't have acted like a scared pre-teen. I would have been confrontational. Who knows what would have come from it -- I'm not at all trying to make myself out to be a potential Trayvon Martin, because that would be obtuse and insensitive -- but it certainly made me think.


As for this cartoon, let me first say I'm glad DTH Editor in Chief Steven Norton is sticking to his guns. In his response letter, he shows how much thought was put into the decision to run the editional cartoon. He responds to the points raised by the overwhelming majority of people on why the cartoon shouldn't have ran. But it is not for those reasons I feel the cartoon was not the right one to run.

I joined the masses in outrage over the cartoon at about 10 a.m. today. Folks were saying the cartoon shouldn't have shown the dead body. Others said it was a subject that should not be broached. I disagree with both arguments. I find that showing the image of a slain 17-year old is a powerful, graphic message to those who may still side with the Zimmerman camp. Likewise, not broaching the topic only makes more people unaware of what happened in Sanford, Florida. You wouldn't believe how many people on the UNC campus don't actually know the basic facts of the case.

The cartoon (which it should be pointed out was not done by a DTH cartoonist but rather one from a wire service) attempts to depict the absurdity behind the killing. The text reads: "This wasn't about race. I shot because I felt threatened... Skittles are full of high fructose corn syrup." The cartoon isn't supposed to be funny. And yes, I agree, it's completely absurd to shoot someone because they feel threatened by a bag of Skittles, no doubt.

But what's even more absurd is to shoot someone because that person feels threatened by a young, black male walking down the street with a hood on. It's bigger than Skittles, or an Arizona iced tea or really any other facts of the case that aren't germane to the topic. That is never mentioned in the cartoon, but it's the biggest issue facing America right now.

Folks like Geraldo Rivera are going on national television to tell parents of black children to stop letting their kids wear hoodies. Black kids across the nation are being told to not look so suspicious. But who is telling the George Zimmermans of the country to stop being George Zimmerman? Who is out there pointing out the ridiculousness of a grown-ass man feeling that his community is being threatened by a skinny black kid with a hood on talking on a cell phone? (By the way, Bomani Jones wrote an excellent post on similar points in this blog.)

I wish the cartoon would have depicted that absurdity. Instead, the cartoonist went the route of Skittles, which effectively trivializes (or ignores, however you want to look at it) the important issue of the entire ordeal. It's as simple as this: You don't need a Skittles metaphor to show how senseless the killing is when you can actually show, WITH FACTS, how senseless the killing is.

The quote bubble says it wasn't about race before getting into the joke. I completely get it was a joke, but it was about race. And if the cartoon ignores that, if people ignore that, then the lessons from this unfortunate Trayvon Martin situation never reach so many. If American pundits satirize this situation with candy metaphors and ignore the racial aspect that's so prevalent, more people will continue telling black parents what to do with their kids instead of telling white (and half-white, half-Hispanic) adults what not to be afraid of.

No one is afraid of Skittles. Plenty of people are afraid of black people with hoods. Don't patronize that simple, unfortunate fact. Instead, attempt to change that irrational fear that far too many people have. Don't accost the dark-skinned boy for crossing your yard to get to his house. Don't act like you need a candy metaphor to make your case. Most importantly, don't go hunt down a kid walking to his dad's fiance's house minding his own business. Talk about race, and direct that talk to the George Zimmermans. Until you do, it's still about candy to them.