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NewBlackMan: Black Manhood and the Racist Imagination (Participation)

March 22, 2012

Black Manhood and the Racist Imagination:

On Trayvon Martin and the two Un-named Black Men Attacked in Texas

by Darnell Moore | special to NewBlackMan

Trayvon Martin has suffered multiple murders. His character was annihilated by the racialized mistrust of George Zimmerman, a 28-year old White gunman. His life was, subsequently, terminated by a bullet from Zimmerman’s 9mm handgun shortly after. In fact, the continued references to his suspension from school and suspicion surrounding his character, as scholar David J. Leonard has rightly pointed out, are but another type of assassination.

Trayvon’s tragic death has set afire a portion of the translucent veil that has only partially protected us from truly “seeing” others and ourselves in racialized America. And with his taking, we are being summoned, yet again, to deeply examine our conscience and the ways that racialization shapes our thinking and behavior.

Robert Zimmerman, the 64-year old father of the gunman, has identified his son as “Hispanic,” as someone who grew up in a “multiracial family.” In his mind, Zimmerman’s racial and ethnic identities are significant points of consideration because it authenticates his father’s argument that the murder has nothing to do with race.

According to Zimmerman’s father, “[George] would be the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever.” He went on to say that “[t]he media portrayal of George as a racist could not be further from the truth.”

His father seems to be arguing that the brutal murder of a blameless young Black male by another “multiracial” (read, non-white) body disallows even the remotest possibility of racist motivation. But let’s consider some other possibilities.

The multiracial perpetrator (though, it should be noted here that the term “Hispanic” is not a racial signifier but an ethnic category) stared upon the 17–year old black male victim and perceived him to be “suspicious,” which is another way of reading the victim as a potential threat.

“This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something,” Zimmerman can be heard voicing on a recorded conversation with police during a 911-call.

It could be argued that Zimmerman interpreted Trayvon’s comportment, affect, body frame, clothes, style, skin color, and gender presentation (i.e. the extent to which he acted out senses of masculinity or femininity) as signs that conspired to produce an image of distrust and terror in his mind. Trayvon’s black male body became the object of Zimmerman’s “multiracial” gaze.

Zimmerman imaged a “suspicious” guy and not a “typical kid who loved sports and music.” Zimmerman interpreted Trayvon to be someone who “looks like he’s up to no good” and not the adoring son who saved his father from a fire. According to Zimmerman, Trayvon had to be “on drugs or something” and not someone’s teenage son who has been described by a teacher “as an A and B student who majored in cheerfulness,” who just happened to be armed with skittles and a can of iced tea as opposed to heroin or crack, when he was slain.

What prevented Zimmerman from seeing Trayvon as anything other than treacherous? What forces impact our seeing so that our images of others are distorted?

A turn to another recent, under-reported incident that occurred in Texas might provide another way to assess the problematics of White racism and the ways that it shapes our understandings of Black manhood. The Texas incident is grounded in a different set of circumstances than Trayvon’s murder. In fact, the Texas case does not involve differently raced perpetrators and victims and is not centered on a murder; yet, there are some similarities that should be seriously considered.

Two unnamed Black men, 20 and 27, were brutally beaten, left unconscious in the northeast section of Dallas on March 13th. According to police reports, a group of five or so Black men yelled the dehumanizing epithets “fag and sissy” from their vehicle, exited with two baseball bats, and began to beat the victims. The incident has since been identified by police as a hate crime though the sexual orientations of the victims have not been identified out of respect for the victims’ privacy.

In the Dallas case, the victims were also the objects of the perpetrators’ gaze. Might they have similarly interpreted the victims’ comportments, affect, body frames, clothes, style, skin color, and gender presentations as signs? Is it possible that the group read the two victims as the antithesis (i.e. fag and sissy) of a certain construct of Black manhood?

 

Like Trayvon, the two Dallas victims are also cast in the imagination of the perpetrators as “suspicious” bodies. In both cases, the bodies of the victims (Trayvon and the two unnamed men) are read as “suspicious” bodies because they are Black men. In both cases, the perpetrators’ perceptions precede the actual materializing of the Black males that they subsequently victimize. In other words, the perpetrators’ set of beliefs about Black boys and men, which shaped their seeing of the victims, also influenced their acts of violence. Trayvon was shotfirst, by Zimmerman’s skewed perception of a “suspicious” Black teen male. The bullet followed. The two men in Dallas were beatfirst, by the perpetrator’s skewed perceptions of the two suspiciously imagined Black men. The bats followed.

 

 

In both tragic cases, the perpetrators read Black male bodies through a particular racialized gendered lens. In the case of Trayvon, he was interpreted by a “multiracial” perpetrator as a hyper-masculinized Black male subject and, therefore, a site of terror, (sexual?) power, criminality, heterosexuality, of suspicion. In the case of the two Black men in Texas, they were interpreted as having failed to achieve this archetypal (racist) construction of Black manhood (in other words, they may have been read as non-masculine,, perceived as weak, non-heterosexual, and helpless) and were surveilled, policed, and beaten because of their suspicious gendered, and, therefore, racialized, appearance. In both instances, the representations imagined are re-configurations of White racist cultural tropes like the “Big Black Buck.” The internalization of the ideas associated with these tropes is a phenomenon that affects even those who are cast as the objectified other in the White racist imaginary.

 

 

We (Black men) are at once the object of others’ myopic gazes and the ones who might very well objectify other Black men by freezing them in constructions of Black manhood that were never meant to heal us, free us. Our reliance and internalizing of White racist prescriptions of Black manhood and masculinity will further the brutalization of Black boys and men like Trayvon and the two hate crime victims. In this regard, Cleo Manago, the founder of The Black Men’s Xchange and the AmASSI National Health & Cultural Centers, offers the following considerations in an opinion piece in the LA Sentinel:

 

 

A very doable remedy to this American cultural and institutional phenomenon would require explicit and active resistance to conditioning to be in denial about the problem of Black internalized [White] racism. Blacks have to actively commit to unlearning and acknowledging their high likelihood of having “White biases” themselves. These are essential to breaking out of this often unconscious, anti-Black trance.

 

 

The unconscious buying into of a project that seeks our demise allows racist ideas to be insinuated in the minds of folk like Zimmerman, the group of men in Dallas, and in all of our minds. Such internalizations result in the type of violations that kill spirits and bodies like Trayvon and the two unnamed Black men in Dallas.But how can we reverse this trend and bring about justice?

 

 

Many of us want justice now. We want Zimmerman jailed. And Zimmerman will be jailed, we hope. And justice will seem to have been served. His gun will, alas, be stripped from his person. Yet, it is very possible that his perceptions of Black men will remain. We want the group of men who beat the two Dallas victims into unconsciousness imprisoned. And the group of men will be jailed, most likely. The prison cell will hold their bodies, but it may not transform their minds or those of society at large.

 

 

But many of us also desire other ends like transformation of the mind. We desire violences of all types, especially those forged in the belly of racism, to never be imagined or enacted. We desire an end to the premature deaths of black men by others’ hands and our own. This is not the time—and it never is—for untimely deaths.

 

 

In these times—and all times—daily living is a radical act of resistance if you happen to exist in the world as a suspicious boy, fag and sissy, threat, as a Black man. The only demise that we should now desire is that of the racist imaginary that has and continues to construct and constrict us.

 

 

***

 

Darnell L. Moore is a writer and activist who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. Currently, he is a Visiting Scholar at the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University.

via NewBlackMan: Black Manhood and the Racist Imagination.

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2 Comments
  1. Kyla Chappell permalink

    What is shown true here in this article is that stereotypes are still very much acted upon. Both cases, the people affected were judged based on their looks, either being “suspicious” or “sissy”, and I don’t believe that the people injured being black was any sort of coincidence, I think it plays a major part on the attacks. This article does a great job pointing our key facts in both of these tragic cases.

  2. Brittany Dyess permalink

    I now see that, back to back, Tragic Events keep happening Based on people “looking Suspicious”..SO what can we do as Blacks to not look suspicious if our skin color doesnt help as it is?Im confused..One thing I did Respect in this article, was the comment, on how yes we want zimmerman and The Guys who killed the two dallas boys in jail, but how successful is imprisonment? Like stated abive, “The prison cell will hold their bodies, but it may not transform their minds”.What happens if the same mistake happens?over and over and over again?but with different Cases.How many times will “THey Looked Suspicious “be a Valid Excuse?and the fact that He may have beena little hispanic?I mean Im sure everyone has that “one drop” of something other than their outer appearance can show.

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