Sunday, March 25, 2012

Who Is Trayvon?

Trayvon Martin, murdered on February 26, 2012
Everyone knows about the 17 year-old boy from Florida walking to his father's girlfriend's house from the store with a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea.  Trayvon Martin. Everyone with a conscience, a heart, and half a brain understands that Trayvon's death was a tragedy, that it was unnecessary, cruel, and inhumane.  Everyone knows that the killer has yet to be brought to justice, and like the coward he is, he is currently hiding because he is afraid for his own life.  (Funny how he's not even giving someone an opportunity to chase him down any streets, huh?)

Over the past week, many people have spoken out about the case, the motive, the murderer, and the investigation, but President Obama verbalized what many of us have thought, but maybe didn't articulate so eloquently: "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."  President Obama reminded us that Trayvon Martin is a person, and he could have been someone we all know and care about.

I work with  students at a four-year public residential college.  The assumption some might make is that, if these students are making it to college, they are safe.  This assumption could not be further from the truth.

  • My students come to this rural, conservative, largely Caucasian community and feel out of place. 
  • They are noticed because they look different.
  • They are either greeted by phony friendliness or just completely ignored.
  • They are treated differently by some of their professors, as if they are not as intelligent as the other students.
  • Some of their peers assume they got into college because of affirmative action.
  • They are arrested and given excessive charges for making dumb decisions most teenagers make.
  • They are given the run-around by people who don't want to be bothered to help them navigate the system of undergraduate education.
  • Although they speak English, they come into an environment that speaks a language of privilege and cultural capital they have not learned.  
  • They might be the first in their family to go to college.  They might even be the first in their family to graduate high school.
  • They are scared that they will fail.  And they are scared that if they fail, they have not only failed themselves, but their families and friends.
  • Many of them chose this rural, small community hours from home because it is safer than the streets where they live; yet, this environment is almost as frightening if not more so.  

I didn't know Trayvon Martin, but I know countless teenagers and young adults who have lived a life running and hiding because they did not feel safe anywhere.  Those are the ones who ask me, "Why is my life so hard?"  They look at me and wonder, "Why do I continue to fail no matter how hard I try?"  "Why did I get picked out of the crowd and blamed for something I didn't do?"  And sometimes I tell them the truth: This system wasn't created for you to succeed, so you have to work harder; you have to study more; you have to watch every decision you make and never make a mistake that will get you noticed by the wrong people.  Sometimes I have to tell them: Your race is a factor whether you like it or not, or your gender is a factor no matter what anyone says about how far society has come.  Because the truth is what they need to hear so that they can empower themselves with the tools to cope, and to succeed.

Who is Trayvon?  All of our youth are Trayvon.  Our sons and daughters, our nieces and nephews, our students, and yes, even the boy walking down the street with a hoodie that you might not know.  And we, as adults, need to care enough to tell them the truth, and to be there for them so that they have a place to feel safe.  

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