"Racism has been a banner to justify the enterprises of expansion, conquest, colonization and domination and has walked hand in hand with intolerance, injustice and violence." -- Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Guatemalan Indigenous Leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.
The UN has designated March 21 as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The theme for 2012 is "Racism and Conflict," highlighting the fact that racism and discrimination often are at the root of deadly conflict.
I couldn't help but think of Trayvon Martin when I read that the theme was chosen to reflect how racism, prejudice and xenophobia create extreme tension and are used as powerful weapons to create fear or hatred. While the UN's declaration focuses on times of outright conflict in the world, I think we in the United States need to look within our own borders where white privilege (consciously and unconsciously) still maintains business as usual in unjust institutional systems. The racial profiling that led to the death of Trayvon Martin is just one recent example.
On Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell last night, Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida's Third District made a pitch for all of us to use this as a "teachable moment" -- what better day to start than on day dedicated to ending racial discrimination?
To me, the "teachable moment" idea is always a call to stop, take a deep breath, and climb to a higher mountain with a better view of the whole situation. Too often the potential of such powerful moments as Trayvon's death has brought us are destroyed in outrage against an individual perpetrator or the police or any one of a number individuals or agencies that will be targeted for blame. When the guilty party is tried and convicted, we go back to business as usual...until the next tragedy.
This reflects that our society is still in the grips of an outdated worldview that sees us all as separate beings in a world of unconnected parts. In such a belief system, the "bad apple" theory is used to explain racial violence. Somebody has to be wholly at fault, and too often we're content to blame the victim. A society of living beings is reduced to something more like a car that won't run: all we have to do is find the broken part and take it out and replace it and everything will be fine again.
But nature (and ancient teachings and now science, by the way) tells us something different. Earth is a living system and we humans are all part of it, connected and interdependent, one to another and to all other parts. My human heart-brain tells me that Trayvon was my little brother, and yours, and even Zimmerman's.
What would we have to do to end racial discrimination once and for all? In a larger sense, I think we need a collective shift from the old paradigm of world as machine to world as a whole, dynamic, living system. I think that can begin with new ways of relating to (and engaging with) these teachable moments.
I'm recalling a theme in the Harry Potter series around the aversion most of the wizarding world had to saying "Voledemort" or acknowledging that Voldemort had returned, as if the name itself had some magical power and that saying it would somehow give Voldemort power over the person who said it.
Who or what is it that must not be named in the case of Trayvon Martin? That depends, of course, on who you are, what your life experience has been, and dozens of other factors. Speaking for myself as a member of the dominant group/culture in the United States, I would put white privilege, systemic racism and patriarchy at the top of the list. These are the shadows -- the Voldemorts -- that I have not always been able to see and name.
But see them and name them we must, and then carry on the social healing process that comes when we realize that the natural state of humanity is not "every man for himself" but "we're all in this together".
Some resources for the journey:
Beyond Whiteness -- A Resource for Dismantling White Privilege and Racism (website created by Be Scofield)
"Racism continues to cause suffering for millions of people around the world.... I look to all people to join the United Nations in our drive to eliminate racism. We must, individually and collectively, stamp out racism, stigma and prejudice."