Thoughts on race and masculinity, in the wake of the George Zimmerman trial
The final shot of Fruitvale Station – Ryan Coogler’s remarkable new film based on the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer – is of Grant’s daughter, Tatiana.
She’s looking up at her mother, Sophina, who is struggling to find the words to tell her that her father is dead. A few hours earlier, Sophina was the one frantically asking police for information about Oscar, who lay unseen on the train platform above her.
The impression left by these emotional final sequences is of women on the outside of a tragic and unfair war – being fought amongst men.
Tatiana is a child and the one who will have to deal with the real aftermath of these battles, but if black men still aren’t allowed into the circles of trust in America, what are the consequences for daughters like her? What does she think of all this – of herself?
Early in the film, Coogler, a 26-year-old black man himself, uses the image of an innocent pitbull in the streets – run over by a car – to make a comment on the public perception of black men. Animals. Dying in the streets.
But when Oscar observes this violence, he moves to comfort the dog. And we see an emotion – a deep emotion – which belies those perceptions or expectations of black masculinity. We know he’s capable of anger – minutes later, in a flashback, Oscar is being restrained by guards in prison – but Coogler wants to show us more. At each turn Oscar’s aggressiveness is matched by his capacity for love.
In fact, that scene where he is struggling with and cursing at the guards holding him back, is actually about Oscar pleading for a hug from his frustrated mom – who has just walked out on a visit with him. (Near the end of the film, she similarly pleads with a nurse to let her hug her son one last time, because “he didn’t like to be left alone.”) It’s a depth that we rarely see in depictions of black men on screen.
Like Coogler’s film, our current national conversation around race – ignited by this weekend’s ruling in the George Zimmerman trial – is really about race and masculinity.
Had George Zimmerman never left his car on the night of February 26th, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin would still be alive and Zimmerman would have never appeared in front of a judge and jury. Yet the 29-year-old would have still faced his own internal judgment – one certainly influenced by society’s expectations of men. Folks wouldn’t be singling him out as a symbol of our country’s race problems, but if he had stood down then, or walked away moments later when confronting Martin face-to-face, he might have personally felt like “less of a man.”
Our traditional expectations of masculinity encourage men to respond to feelings of insecurity and fear with aggression and dominance. It’s a code that’s also embedded in the American legal system.
The Florida law that saved Zimmerman from being arrested initially, after he shot and killed Martin, is called Stand Your Ground. It basically stipulates that if a person feels their life is in danger, they are allowed to respond with deadly force. Even if the “attacker” is already retreating. Similar laws have been adopted by more than 20 states in the country.
From birth we teach boys to dominate their surroundings, but do far less to teach them empathy for others. And in the case of race, we do even less to promote understanding. This leaves men with a limited set of tools with which to deal with real human interactions, including conflict. And rather than creating a system around them which might deal with this societal problem, we instead build laws to protect (certain) flawed men from the consequences of their violent actions. It’s a vicious, self-propagating cycle.
If you’re carrying a loaded gun while volunteering for neighborhood watch late at night in a neighborhood that isn’t your own, as Zimmerman was, you might already be dealing with personal insecurities. And as a result, you just might be searching for an opportunity to exert control over your life – to dominate your environment and be affirmed in your masculinity.
Zimmerman was given that opportunity (or took it), when he saw Trayvon Martin, and it resulted in death. Society, rather than challenging this behavior, actively supported it through Stand Your Ground laws.
Daniel J. Flynn, in the American Spectator last week, called the Zimmerman-Martin story “a tragedy involving two males fumbling in the dark on how to be men” and went on to lament that these days, “instead of men, we get feminine imitations lacking beauty.” Flynn, inelegantly, argues that the actions of both Zimmerman and Martin “weren’t the acts of men” and that their lack of true manliness was the cause of the tragedy that followed.
But the writer makes the same mistake as the courts: believing that traditional exclusionary masculinity is the model for justice in America. That “being a man” is some absolute truth which will benefit us all.
By this logic, Stand Your Ground laws would have protected Trayvon Martin from arrest as much as they did Zimmerman. Had that February skirmish gone the other way, and ended in Martin shooting Zimmerman, he would have faced similar charges and – theoretically – would have been acquitted this weekend. Yet we know, based on the ruling and backed by a history of inequality, that these laws don’t necessarily work the same way for a 17-year-old black boy.
So who actually gets to stand their ground and “be a man” in our system? Who really has access to that status?
Since the days of slavery, when we purposely separated black families – taking away fatherhood – America has systematically prevented African-American men from reaching the same ideals of manhood we celebrate and protect in the mainstream.
We continue to do so with these laws, the entire prison industrial complex and through the popular media. Hollywood’s white-washed vision of masculine heroes, from Iron Man to Michael Corleone, all look the same – and completely unlike Trayvon Martin or Oscar Grant (or Rachel Jeantel, Martin’s female friend who was vilified by the public during Zimmerman’s trial).
In fact, it’s much more likely for our villains – our enemies in these films and in the news – to be people of color. And, of course, enemies are meant to be dominated.
But in truth, the half-Peruvian Zimmerman doesn’t have complete access to that cult of masculinity either. He certainly has more access than Martin did, but he doesn’t perfectly fit the profile of a cisgender white, physically strong, wealthy man.
The trouble is, rather than challenging the system of gender stereotypes that has left them trapped – and excluded – men like Zimmerman (and many with much more legal and political clout) too often recreate the very structures and belief systems of the power group. Some end up walking around with guns and fear in their hearts, hoping to gain access to the alpha male club through macho posturing.
It’s not that George Zimmerman doesn’t deserve any empathy at all – he lives in this oppressive hypermasculine culture like the rest of us – but we need to ask ourselves why Trayvon Martin doesn’t seem to deserve the same amount. Legal experts continue to contend that this case was not about morality, but about the rule of law. Yet those laws are crafted from a perspective that is fundamentally weighted towards white heterosexual men. If you’re a black man, a woman, LGBT or anything other than a white male, no court case is ever just about the rule of law.
With Fruitvale Station, director/writer Coogler powerfully reminds us that black men in America are human beings too. They contend with expectations of masculinity (and love their mothers) just like white men. And that the consequences of treating them as less than human, as we have done over and over again, aren’t isolated to the streets where some might spend their youth. Or even the tragic battles they might have with other men.
Oscar Grant rode the same trains as everyone else. His friend was a cashier at a grocery store where you shopped. His mother might be sitting in your workplace today. His daughter is in a classroom with other children and may one day be your co-worker, boss or even President of the United States.
Our legal system, like Hollywood, must step back and expand the lens with which it views human activity. This includes gun culture and laws like Stand Your Ground. That broader lens would help us be more inclusive of and sympathetic to the experiences of not just white men, but of all people. And we must do this not just to prevent the next act of senseless male violence, but to show the Tatiana’s of the world that we care about them and their families.
That she matters just as much as everyone else.
For more on American masculinity, visit the Kickstarter for our new film “The Mask You Live In”
Written by Imran Siddiquee at MissRepresentation.org. Follow him on Twitter @imransiddiquee