Racism, Dehumanization, and Trayvon Martin

Trigger Warning: Racism, dehumanization, discussion of racial violence and the George Zimmerman case

I’ve spent a few blog posts recently talking about the way that the patriarchal mindsets in some popular Christian dating books dehumanize both men and women in specific ways. They dehumanize men to absolve men of responsibility, or to use “bad” men as a threat to women who refuse to submit to the “loving, godly leadership” of “good” men. They dehumanize women  in order to keep women tied to traditional gender roles, and in ways that make women responsible for how men treat them.

In doing my background research for my You Are Not Your Own series, however, I learned that dehumanization is not just a tool of the patriarchy used to oppress women. Just about every form of oppression uses dehumanization, and the recent George Zimmerman trial has brought to popular attention the way that white supremacy uses dehumanization to oppress black people.

When I read a book like When God Writes Your Love Story, as a white woman, and I hear the authors draw a line between the “good” men who act like Jesus and the “bad” men who act like animals, specific images come to mind.

Sitting in my father’s car, stopped at a red light, when a black man starts to cross the street. My father telling me “lock your door!”

My mother, telling me I can’t go by myself to visit my friend who lives in Detroit. When I ask her why, her answer is “because you’re a pretty white girl.”

My father, again, telling me I’d better never date a black man.

Sometimes I wonder if my experiences are unique because I and my parents both grew up in a fundamentalist church setting, but when I read responses to the death of Trayvon Martin I know that’s not true.

White America sees black men as the “bad” animals that need to be either tamed, locked up, or put down, for the protection of white women. It’s been that way throughout this country’s history, and it’d be easy for me, as a white woman, to pretend that things have changed and that my family’s fear of black men was an anomaly. But that simply isn’t the case. White women are still treated as weak animals that need protection from black men, who are treated as aggressive animals. Racism is used to convince white women to submit to white men for their own good, and the idea of “protecting white women” is still used to justify many levels of violence toward people of color.

I mentioned earlier that in the context of patriarchy, saying “men are animals” is a way of excusing them from responsibility for their actions. This is NOT true when we’re talking about the dehumanization of black men in the context of white supremacy.

I think about Dateable, by Justin Lookadoo and Hayley DiMarco, one of the books I analyzed for my “You Are Not Your Own” project. Men are talked about as animals or cavemen throughout the book, and this is usually used to say “that’s just how men are.” But the narrative changes drastically in the one place in the entire book when the authors are obviously addressing black men.

The context of this one place where black men are specifically addressed is, strangely, in a chapter about modesty addressed to women called “If What You’re Showing Ain’t On the Menu, Keep It Covered Up.” Right away, we see the dehumanization of women (their bodies being talked about as food) used not to absolve women of responsibility, but to place blame on them when they are treated badly. The authors state, “If you dress like a piece of meat, you’re gonna get thrown on the BBQ.” (p. 110)

The author’s continue, saying, “people will treat you the way you’re wrapped.” Then suddenly, the authors aren’t talking about women and modesty anymore.

They’re talking about black men having “baggy pants hanging down to your rear and your hat turned sideways, talking like you do with your friends.”  They’re talking about black young men dressing like black young men and talking like black young men do. They tell these young men not to blame racism when they are treated like “pieces of meat,” saying, “It’s not racial. It’s not prejudice. It’s not that they don’t like you. It’s just that they are treating you the way you are presenting yourself.” (p. 112)

Black men are dehumanized here, but they don’t get the privilege of the “get out of anything free card” that white men get in exchange for dehumanization. In fact, black men are told to take responsibility when others treat them like shit. They shouldn’t have been acting like, looking like, or talking like a black person (and though this book seems to be specifically addressing black men, not specifically black women, from the way white people responded to Rachel Jeantel’s testimony in the Zimmerman trial, it’s obvious that “talking like you do with your friends” is something that White America punishes in black women as well).

I thought of this quote as I listened to white responses to the George Zimmerman trial. Over and over again, “Why didn’t the media show pictures of Trayvon Martin dressed like a thug?” as if the way Trayvon Martin was dressed justified George Zimmerman murdering him. Trayvon Martin’s dressing like a young black man, in a racist world where young black men are seen as dangerous animals and where white men are still convinced that they need to protect their wives and daughters from these “animals,”  meant that he was just “asking” to be put down.

White Americans, our passive acceptance of these dehumanizing narratives leads to so many deaths, so many unjust imprisonments. It leads to so many people feeling they must reject their culture or hide it in certain spaces. As long as we continue to accept the racist notion that black men are animals who prey on white women (or white people in general), as long as we continue to say that dressing like a young black man, talking like a young black man, or even just being a young black man is “asking for it,” we have blood on our hands. 

I’ve called many times for people to repent of the violent dehumanization that results from sexism and patriarchy. But now I speak to myself and to my fellow white people when I say that we need to look at our prejudices, our privilege, and our participation in systems of oppression, and we need to repent for the ways we’ve reinforced white supremacy.

Dehumanization is violence. It needs to end.

  • Kristen Rosser

    Thanks for this. Tied to it seems to be the idea that if Trayvon Martin had been anything other than an innocent, pristine church boy in his past, it somehow mitigates what Zimmerman did. This reminds me so much of the dismissal of a woman’s rape allegations if she has had less than a pristine sex life, that it seems necessary to point it out.

  • http://faithfulmomof9.com/ Sylvia

    I recently came across a pinterest board about teaching women to protect themselves. The cover picture for the board had a white girl about the age of ten with a black man’s hand over her mouth. It made me sick.

    I’m ashamed to say that even I, who would never in a million years consider myself a racist had a “feeling like I should lock the doors” moment like you mentioned. You can read about it here if interested. http://www.faithfulmomof9.com/im-so-sorry-trayvon/

  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

    Though I am not at all convinced the Zimmerman confrontation had a racist component, it certainly brought racial concerns back into our national discussion. I like your commentary on it. We must stop responding to blacks and black culture with white fear and judgment.
    And there is nothing wrong with baggy pants and sideways caps. They are no different from the long hair and bell bottoms of my generation, which also generated fear and judgment.


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