Do you believe everything you read?

It was September 2001 and I was teaching first year composition at Stern College for Women. After the attacks on the World Trade Center, my students had questions that I simply could not answer, so I asked them to do what I do when I want to make sense of the incomprehensible.

Research, read, and question.

I assigned each to collect articles from different sources related to something they’d seen in the news. Then, we analyzed each source as any other piece of writing.

Does this make sense? Do you believe the source? Do you need more information?

Now I find myself in a similar situation.

How can I better understand of George Zimmerman shooting Trayvon Martin?

There’s no way to know with absolute certainty what went through the minds of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.  As I read about it, I see extreme anger.  I see sources misrepresenting facts in order to paint a story that may or may not be true. Some sources flat out lie.

These, for example:

Skittles and Iced Tea: Which makes the case that Trayvon was acting strangely because he was high from making drugs from the Skittles and iced tea he was carrying.  The article even claims studies, articles and more as proof but not once does the article actual link to a reputable source that verifies those claims.

NBC investigates spliced misleading audio from it’s Today segment: So here’s a piece from the Washington Post reporting on NBC’s Today show coverage of the 911 call George Zimmerman made to the police uncovered by FOX news to be misrepresented and therefore ultimately false.

There’s no need to dress opinion in fake fact

Gorgeous drawing of Questlove by Aaron Wolf Illustrations.

One of the best pieces I’ve read around this maelstrom came from Questlove, published in New York Magazine. He talks about how he must manage other people’s reactions to him — particularly one women he met in an elevator — simply because he’s a large black man.

One quote in particular jumped out at me.

I mean, that is a crazy way to live. Seriously, imagine a life in which you think of other people’s safety and comfort first, before your own. You’re programmed and taught that from the gate. It’s like the opposite of entitlement.

It hits home, because I know how that feels. After all, I’m a woman. Yes, it’s up to me to set my boundaries and put my own comfort first, but the reality is women are judged differently than men. We are not hired as often for the same positions. We are expected to take care of others before ourselves. We are generally not supposed to be direct or assertive.

Can I prove this? No more than anyone can prove that the woman in the elevator with Questlove feared him.

Questlove’s article and my reaction do not pretend to be fact.  Our opinions are important, because they allows us to isolate issues and include the other’s experiences in our own world view.

One caveat: Opinion is only useful if you are willing to see beyond yourself and your own beliefs. Are you willing to see beyond yourself?

Trayvon and George could have been

If we so choose, we could pull apart the details of Trayvon Martin’s and George Zimmerman’s lives prior to the night they met to paint a picture of racial equality and hope in the US.

George. The son of an interracial, intercultural family. He was educated, civil minded and a leader in his neighborhood. He wanted to keep people safe by working with the neighborhood watch.

Trayvon. He was young, attended school and came from a family who had more resources than many. He has parents who advocate for him, parents who care enough to notice when he didn’t come home on time. Three aspects that set him up well for a bright future.

Both lived in a racially mixed neighborhood where one could easily see African Americans, Latinos, Asians and white people walking on the street at dusk.

Yet it all went horribly wrong.

Zimmerman assumed Trayvon to be a criminal, because his appearance matched that of others who had burglarized his neighborhood. Trayvon felt threatened by an agitated man following him down the street one evening. There was a creepy ass cracker behind him.

Both of them pulled assumptions not only from their own experiences but from a lifetime of media and messages that inject race into the national dialogue. We draw lines, set limits and create profiles for each other.

Had either been able to take a step back and calmly assess the situation, we might not be having this discussion now. Had Zimmerman held some distance and simply introduced himself, asked questions. Had Trayvon not worried that he was under fire and potentially in danger from an unidentified man following him would have have responded as aggressively?

We will never know.

We cannot change what’s happened. We can only learn from it moving forward.

Public reaction to what happened between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman stems directly from a long and  complicated history of race, gun control, police bias, legal bias and irresponsible media coverage in the United States. There is not one among us who can say we do not hold preconceived notions and opinions about at least one of these issues.

Romany Malco writes A Message to Trayvon Martin Sympathizers in the Huffington Post specifically addressing young black people and advising them to  analyze their own actions instead of  projecting their own deep-seated issues with racism onto Trayvon Martin.

Don’t you find it peculiar that the same media outlets who have worked so diligently to galvanize the negative stigmas of black men in America are now airing open debates on improving the image of black males in American media? Do you honestly think CNN is using their competitive time slots for philanthropy?

He advocates “education, introspection, self-love and excellence [as] the only ways to overcome the wrath of ignorance”. We “will not be capable of intelligent, empathetic debate until [we’ve] cooled down and afforded [ourselves] an education.”

He’s right, but his words don’t only apply to young black people. They apply to everyone, from the white activist wearing a Trayvon hoodie to the deep south FOX-watcher who supports George Zimmerman yet believes that people should only “marry their own” race to the black teen who may find himself in the dark with a bag of Skittles or a wallet or a candy bar.

While anger and frustration may spark the first seeds of awareness, it is impossible to open a dialogue with another through anger. When something goes wrong, look to yourself first.

Think first.

Through the flow of opinion, accusation and assumption, there some things that I believe as fact.

  • There is a great inequity in the courts and law enforcement in the United States.
  • There is great inequity in education.
  • Gun laws are not working.
  • The media distorts and manipulates truth for entertainment value.

Each issue on its own could launch (and has) a thousand books. Imagine if we could shift these things to follow more logical rules, to provide equal resources for all, to report honest news intended to inform and not to sell.

What would that look like? Really think about it. What changes would we need in order to live in that United States?

Then do.

Now that you have a picture in your mind of what could be, how can you make that happen? What can each of us do in our communities with the resources and abilities we each have to make a change?

Your actions do not have to be enormous. You do not have to change the world. You simply need to address one small thing, something important to you, and do so directly and honestly.

What will I do?

I will read, research and question my own beliefs.

I will teach. Right now: English, photography and writing to a group of students in at at-risk neighborhood in Salta. The goals of my classes? Learning marketable job skills, working as a team and how-to tell a story. We talk about the things that are most important to us and why.

I will write. Grant proposals, articles, e-mails to volunteers and donors who give cameras, computer equipment and time to get to know my students. I comment on others’ writing when they come to me for feedback or in The Writer’s Process.

I will never lie or try to manipulate you.

What will you do?