Race, Reflections, and Unanswered Questions by Shanoya Conner

The Florida v. George Zimmerman trial has filled our news feeds as a top story. As someone interested in social justice, particularly ideas of race and gender, I have been closely following the case of Florida v. George Zimmerman. On the rainy evening of February 26th, 2012 in Sanford, FL, a 17-year old, Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a member of the neighborhood watch in the Retreat Twin Lakes neighborhood. You can catch up and find more information about the case here.

I have glued myself to my couch each evening to watch attorneys, journalists, professors, and other analyst argue on behalf of either the prosecution or the defense. In the end, the defense ended up winning the case and George Zimmerman was found not guilty. I have a particular affection for popular culture, politics, and the places that they intersect. Thus, I have been followed this story very closely. My students have also followed his story very closely. As a graduate student, I watched as students organized and gathered participated in a March to petition for the case to be tried in a court of law. The purpose of this blog post is not to argue in support of either prosecution or the defense nor to criticize or analyze the morality of the law; it is just simply to reflect on an interesting story of justice in America, and to pose questions for the reader to reflect on.

Many have argued that race should not be a factor in this case. I think it should. Americans are challenged by race, as it is such a hot topic in the United States. For many, it has historical implications and brings up painful feelings of unbelievable acts of oppression. However, what if a part of this case actually was about race? Maybe it’s not argued in the courtroom but it is a discussion among us on our campuses with colleagues, with our students, and in our communities.

Various analysts argued over whether or not race (and in some cases gender) are an issue regarding this case. Sometimes race is a factor, and that’s okay. It’s an opportunity for us to have a conversation. Maybe you have planned and implemented a program on your campus and encouraged conversation around why race matters? Even in the moments when race is not factor, it may still matter. For many, particularly, people of color, it’s a part of their identity that should not be ignored, but acknowledged. If we keep running from engaging in conversations about race (because there is no perfect time and place), when will we ever be able to come to resolve with some of our racial issues?

All six jurors in this case were middle-aged. Five of the women were white, and one a person of color. Throughout the media coverage, people made assumptions about which side the jurors may be on based on characteristics of their gender, assuming that because they were women and mothers they would sympathize with Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin. An analyst also argued that it is racist to bring up the issue of race because George Zimmerman (Caucasian/Hispanic man) killed Trayvon Martin (African-American). While I don’t think it is “racist” to bring up the issue of race, I find it interesting that people are ignoring the relationship between African-American men and the criminal justice system (that’s for another blog post though).

More than anything this case has left me asking a lot of questions. More questions than I have answers. Often, I feel like in this higher education, particularly student affairs, we put a lot of emphasis on trying to find answers and practical solutions and leave it to our scholars to ask the questions. Thus, below you will find some questions that have been inspired by this story.

  1. What have you done to address issues of race and gender on your campus?
  2. How do we assist our students to not compartmentalize issues of social justice?
  3. What are we doing on our campuses to support men?
    1. What are we doing on our campuses to support white men?
    2. What are we doing on our campuses to support men of color?
  4. How are we helping our students to be resilient community members that can bounce back from pain?
  5. How are we encouraging our students to be community members that assume that people are good and not that people are bad?
  6. How do we help our students look out for members of their communities and social self without causing harm to others?
  7. How do we check in with our Caucasian students about potential feelings of white guilt following conversations about race?
  8. How do we check in with our students of color who are shy about bringing up the race issue but desire to talk about it?
  9. How do we check in with our students of color who don’t identify with an important part of themselves?
  10. Are we encouraging our students to be change agents for the issues that they are passionate about even if we fundamentally may have a different opinion?
  11. If you have answers to some or all of these questions above, what are you doing to share them with others who don’t?

Sometimes all we need is a controversial story to fuel the passion that exists within all of us. All we need is a dialogue. So for me personally, while the verdict is particularly disappointing, I look forward to some great dialogue about race, gender, and justice, and some answers to some not so simple questions.

Bio: Shanoya has the pleasure of serving as an Area Coordinator and Social Justice Education Coordinator in the Residence Life Office at Davidson College.  She has a B.S. in Child Development from Appalachian State University and M.A.Ed. in Higher Education from Virginia Tech. Shanoya can also be found on Twitter @Shanoyamc

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