Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Female Trayvon Martins of America and the Myth of 'Unbelonging'

The Female Trayvon Martins of America and The Myth of ‘Unbelonging’
By T.M. Bonner

   This is a story about Trayvon Martin as an African-American girl.

   As an African-American girl, I never faced the constant threat of death and violence through racial profiling at the rate that African-American boys and men do at the hands of racists, police officers, and wannabe cops with a complex like George Zimmerman. But what can’t be lost as the nation confronts the underlying social injustices of the Trayvon Martin case is this: African-American girls and the male Trayvons of this country share the experience of this notion that we ‘don’t belong’ certain places as African-Americans.  These invisibly-drawn boundaries based in racism, fear, and ignorance may manifest differently sometimes in the experiences of African-American men and women, boys and girls, but it is, nonetheless, a problem that crosses gender lines in the African-American experience.

   I was in the academically gifted program of an all-black, impoverished, neighborhood elementary school on Chicago’s West Side. One of the perks for the students in the gifted program was we were able to participate in special academic and cultural enrichment programs – leading us on many bus trips outside of our neighborhood to the museums, symphonies, and ballets of the more white and affluent Chicago. On one of these trips when I was about ten, as we were exiting our school bus that was parked among other buses full of white children, these little kids communicated this message to us of ‘not belonging’ through the hurling of rocks and the n-word. Sadly, these children had learned at an early age from home, society, or wherever, that black girls like me don’t belong where there is also ‘giftedness’ and ‘culture.’

   About a year later when I was attending a predominantly white and affluent elementary school in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, this message of not belonging was communicated through the amazed stares of the children when I entered the classroom for the first time. It was communicated through their gasps of disbelief and flabbergast when I raised my hand to correctly answer a question no one else could. I would pay for daring to be somewhere I ‘shouldn’t’ each day during recess when a regular group of white children would surround me, call me the n-word, and tell me to leave. Again, the message was clear: a black girl didn’t belong where there was also ‘academic excellence’ and ‘affluence.’

   As an adult, this message of not belonging extended to places where I would choose to live, work, and play. One day, a female friend and I wanted to take advantage of a dollar movie special that just happened to be located in a mostly white ethnic neighborhood in Chicago. Well, a group of bat-wielding white teens had other ideas, as they chased us down the block and out of the neighborhood.  The message: black women don’t belong where there is a white ethnic neighborhood.

   Just when I was tempted to try to pin all the blame on isolated incidents in my much-beloved hometown of Chicago, lo and behold! I couldn’t escape these messages of not belonging in other cities and states, either. When I was an intern at a daily newspaper in Fort Wayne, IN, I was flat-out refused service at a mom-and-pop bodega-style store because “we don’t serve (n-word) here.” Lastly, when I was later working as a reporter for a daily newspaper in the same state of Florida that produced George Zimmerman, I sat down after a long day of work to finally eat at a restaurant. But I was refused service by a waitress who didn’t want to serve a (n-word).

   For the sake of brevity and out of respect for your time, I will spare you the myriad of other stories I have of people telling me that I don’t belong places.  Now, before anyone seeks to ‘Paula Deen’ these incidents, they didn’t allegedly happen a million years ago. I was born after the Civil Rights Movement had ended. I consider the 8-Track Tape an antique. So these incidents were pretty recent. I also didn’t imagine these things happening – anymore than Trayvon Martin imagined some random guy following him as he walked to his own home that fateful night on February 26, 2012.  ‘Imagining’ I am not. But what I am – and what the myriad of other African-American women and girls are – is tired. We are tired of having to cope with the burden of constantly being told – both covertly and overtly – that we don’t belong places where we have every right to be.

   So, no, as a woman, I am not Trayvon Martin. But in many ways, my experience is similar. Except instead of an actual threat of physical death, African-American girls and women must contend with battling the threat of psychological death. And, somewhere, as schools across the country begin to convene in America over the next month or two, smart, talented, unknown black girls will get the stares or the ostracisms of not belonging. Defending themselves against that potentially fatal message if internally ingested will have to be as much a part of their daily itinerary as their homework and class projects. She will have to stand her ground. She shouldn’t have to retreat, to just go away and stop being a ‘threat’ to others because her presence where others feel she doesn’t belong makes them uncomfortable. This is the exact opposite of the message that Zimmerman Attorney Mark O’Mara kept emphasizing during the trial. Trayvon, O’Mara contended, should have just run, just gone home, just disappeared from the vision and the consciousness of Zimmerman (who perceived him as a threat), instead of continuing to be on his own street in his own neighborhood.

   As we continue to fight against the social injustices and laws that resulted in Trayvon’s death, we must also not forget the female Trayvons – and those places where our gender experiences with racism and other social injustices both intersect and diverge. We also must not forget to address the individual racism that teaches white 10- and 11-year-olds to believe that others different from them have no right to be where they also tread. These same children will grow up to be business owners, elected officials, policy makers, police officers, neighbors, and parents themselves.

   I will conclude this story about others believing the myth that African-American women don’t belong places with something Trayvon Martin sadly did not get: a happy ending

   One day when I was being surrounded and called the n-word on that playground at that Lincoln Park elementary school that I mentioned earlier, suddenly another group of white children broke into the tiny mob and formed a protective circle barrier of their own – around me. They stared down the little gang of tormentors, and, without words, communicated their own message: that I had every right to be where I was and that their hatred would not be tolerated.  I was never tormented again for my remaining time at that school.

   Those brave children are proof positive that just as homes across America can produce children filled with hatred, they can also produce children filled with love and respect. It can produce children, and hopefully later, adults who understand that the Myth of ‘Unbelonging’ is just that: a myth that is based on irrational and biased perceptions and unsubstantiated ‘facts.’

   As for me, I continue to live my authentic life to its fullest – outside of limiting, socially-constructed racial boundaries.


T.M. Bonner is a writer, filmmaker, MBA, Social Advocate, and is currently doing studies in the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service in New York City. 

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