By Miguel De La Torre
By now we are all familiar with the Feb. 26 tragic story surrounding the fatal shooting of the unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch crime captain, “stood his ground” and shot the young man who was wearing a hoodie and armed only with a box of Skittles. We may not know with any certainty what occurred that night between Zimmerman and the teenager; but the case has raised concerns about Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” legislation that protects people like Zimmerman who claim they were threatened and protecting themselves.
Stand Your Ground is dangerous because of how society teaches us to see race. This law needs to be repealed because of how Zimmerman, as well as the rest of us, see.
“Seeing” is not an innocent metaphysical phenomenon concerning the transmittal of light waves. It encompasses a mode of thought which radically transforms the subject being seen into an object for possession. Zimmerman understands who he is when he tells himself who he is not. He, and the rest of those privileged by society, define themselves through the negation of what is being seen: in this case, an African-American in a hoodie.
Self-definition via the negation of the Other who is being seen allows the Zimmermans of the world to define themselves as civilized, law-abiding citizens protecting their homes. When “black in a hoodie” is seen, society has taught us to impose upon this particular type of body a certain definition. We are taught to see danger, evil, uncivilized, savage. Once these definitions, through the power of the gaze, are imposed on the young black body, said body can be transformed into an object.
Furthermore, by defining “black in hoodie” as dangerous; the one doing the gazing through the negation of the Other is self-defined as virtuous. Those privileged by society define what it means to be “good” by emphasizing the differences with their Other; thus reflecting the established power relations within society that give meaning to the differences between them (blacks in hoodies) and us (the Zimmermans of society).
“Seeing” can transform human beings that are subjects into things, into objects. Once social structures adopt this form of seeing, it becomes normalized and legitimized within society. Seeing (or defining) dark-skinned bodies as dangerous occurs unconsciously. This is demonstrated by simply consulting a dictionary for a definition of the word “black.”
When the dominant culture gazes upon a dark-skinned male body, that body is automatically defined as something evil, wicked, harmful and dangerous. If the act of “seeing” is used to mask the power and privilege of those who benefit from how reality is constructed, then seeing dark bodies as dangerous is the first crucial step in maintaining a system that continuously seeks to punish or confine those dangerous dark bodies.
Actions taken upon people of color based solely on appearance are illustrated by a study conducted at the Department of Psychology of the University of Colorado, whose findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The research was inspired by the shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed 22-year-old West African immigrant killed in the Bronx in 1999 by police officers who mistook his wallet for a gun.
The subjects of the study played a video game where they were instructed to shoot human targets that were armed. Some of the targets were white, others were black. The subjects, who in all but one sample were primarily white, were more likely to mistakenly conclude black men were armed and shoot them. When confronted by blacks holding cell phones, wallets, soft-drink cans or cameras, the subjects were more likely to shoot than when confronted by whites. When confronted by white targets with guns, subjects were less likely to fire than if the targets were blacks with guns.
The study concluded that: “Ethnicity influences the shoot/don’t shoot decision primarily because traits associated with African-Americans, namely ‘violent’ or ‘dangerous,’ can act as a schema to influence perceptions of an ambiguously threatening target … [hence] participants showed a bias to shoot African-American targets more rapidly and/or more frequently than white targets. The implications of this bias are clear and disturbing.”
But isn’t Zimmerman a Hispanic? What’s up with that? Hispanics, African-Americans and other marginalized persons (specifically those of us who possess a lighter hue), learn to “see” through the eyes of the dominant culture. For many people of color, their minds have been so colonized that they too have learned to define “darker” bodies through the definitions imposed on those bodies by the dominant culture. Not surprisingly, the actions of some Latino/as and/or blacks toward darker members of their own ethnic/racial group is not that much different than the dominant culture. Hence, the first step toward salvation may be to learn to see with our own eyes.
How our culture teaches us to “see” dark bodies shapes the behavior of people responding quickly and automatically when confronted by those from the margins who are dark-skinned. Hence, Zimmerman’s action is probably more the norm then we may care to admit.