Lessons from Trayvon Martin

Last night I had the honor of hearing from Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton – perhaps better recognized as the parents of Trayvon Martin.

It’s been three years, one month, and two days since their son’s death.

They are powerful advocates, determined to make something good come from their tragedy. “I needed to do more than cry,” Fulton explained.

They spoke about gun violence, about how no parent should loose a child, and importantly – they spoke about race.

At first, Fulton said, she wanted to believe the media reports. She wanted to believe her son was targeted primarily because of his hoodie.

She wanted to believe it was the hoodie because she didn’t want to believe it was the color of his skin.

“I didn’t want to believe our country hadn’t come far enough,” she said. “I cannot take off the color of my skin.”

“We thought we had done everything in our power to raise our sons to be good, upstanding citizens,” Martin added.

And they had.

But it didn’t matter. As Fulton described:

“I didn’t want to believe my son was dead, deceased – murdered – because of the color of his skin. Something he couldn’t change. It didn’t matter what I taught Trayvon.”

“It’s not about me or how I carry myself,” she added, “it’s about someone else perception.”

That’s what it really means to be powerless.

And as if that wasn’t enough, I was really struck by something Tracy Martin said:

“People say the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. So if we appeared to be destructive, people would say, ‘that’s why Trayvon was killed.'”

I’d been surprised by Fulton and Martin’s calm, somber tone. People act and react in all sort of ways, but somehow I’d expected them to have more fire.

I thought of the advocates who emerged from Sandy Hook and Columbine. Grieving parents who’d been irrevocably radicalized by the terrible loss of their children. Advocates who’d willingly shout down Senators, who would fight anyone in their way, and do whatever it takes to prevent another parent from experiencing what they had experienced.

Fulton and Martin were passionate…but somehow subdued.

And suddenly it all made sense.

Not only had they been robbed of any agency in determining the fate of their son, not only had they realized that there was nothing they could have done – the context of race also determined how they had to respond.

It’s no coincidence that the advocates who emerged from Sandy Hook and Columbine were white. They were people of privilege who enjoyed the freedom to express themselves genuinely.

Not everyone has that luxury.

As one student of color put it during the question and answer discussion, “there is so much suffering and so many people who are privileged to be immune to that suffering.”

And that’s what makes systemic racism so insidious, so intractable.

It’s not enough that a young, black man was murdered in the street. Systems of justice and public opinion all conspire to ensure the continued oppression of black America.

And perhaps that is why white allies – or whatever term you prefer – are so important. Some of us do have the privilege to speak out, have the power to confront power. We should be careful not to steal the stage – not to use that power to keep ourselves the center of attention.

But we can speak up when others can’t. We can create space for those forced to the sidelines.

Sybrina Fulton said she didn’t want to believe our country hadn’t come far enough. She didn’t want to believe that we lived in a place where a person could be killed because of the color of his skin.

She didn’t want to believe that.

No one wants to believe that. It’s too much, too terrible, to believe.

But we have to learn to believe – and we have to work together to change it.

After all, as Fulton said:

“We have American citizens who are afraid to walk down the street. That’s a problem. I shouldn’t have to go through life afraid.”

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