by Shawn Dye, ’14
My mother restricted me at a very young age. I wasn’t allowed to be outside past a certain time with the other boys on the block. I had no choice in what clothes I wanted to wear until I had my own job. I couldn’t even go to a lot of my friends of other races’ birthday parties. Initially, I thought that it was just her being strict and over protective. When she noticed me getting frustrated and acting out in school, she finally decided I was old enough. She sat me down one night and she gave me “the talk” that most Black parents have with their young sons. It went along the lines of, “I’m warning you now. You are a walking threat. You are a walking target. And you need to be prepared at all times to be perceived as such.” I asked her why and she frankly told me that it was because I’m a young Black man in America. And that was the end of the conversation.
As Trayvon Martin’s name and cries for help caught on the recorded 911 tapes pierce the conscience of the nation, I’ve been having flashbacks to that eerie conversation I had with my mother. I started thinking about my peers who made frantic attempts to escape my quiet wrath on the very sidewalks of this university as I wore baggy sweatpants, Timberland boots and my Stanford hoodie. I realized that not even the name of a prestigious university stitched across my chest would make all 130 lbs of me less frightening.
Trayvon, I just want you to know that whenever I see your name, I’m reminded that I’m not entirely free. The first thing that comes to my mind is not that you were a son, a brother and a friend. Not that you were an athlete and a student with dreams of becoming an aviation mechanic. The first thing I think about is that you were a young Black man, like me. But so were the victims of countless homicides committed at the hands of other young Black men, like me. It took the circumstances surrounding your death for America to do some soul searching. How much does our society actually value the life of a Black child? Trayvon, had your skin been fairer, your hair less coarse and your eyes a hue of blue or green, and had your murderer been darker, would your death have already been avenged with an arrest and trial by now? Or would there have been, at least, a background check and alcohol test for the wielder of the gun at the scene? You and I both know the answer to these questions. But unfortunately, many people will continue to refute the notion that this is an issue of race.
What kind of America do we live in where specific groups of people cannot walk freely in public without drawing unwanted attention? Our young women are perceived as asking for sex and are then raped because they decide to wear clothes that show off their skin. Our LGBTQ brothers and sisters are harassed for rejecting heterosexual norms through their fashion choices and mannerisms. Shaima Alawadi’s blood stained hijab has become a new symbol of American mistrust in Islam. Black youth are being murdered in cold blood for wearing the wrong color in the wrong neighborhood, or for wearing hoodies in the rain in a gated community with a bag of skittles and an iced tea. Suspicious? Who in this nation is defining what “suspicious” means for us?
Stanford, so long as our nation and the folks on our campus continue to eschew conversations about race, profiling and stereotyping, we will have more people like Trayvon mounting upon our conscience. Emmett Till’s glaring eyes have reappeared in Martin’s name. Next time, the victim may be your roommate in your freshman dorm, your teammate or your lab partner. Profiling and tragedies over mistaken identity due to stereotyping know no age, color or gender. Subtle racism today can be just as deadly as it was a century ago. Will I also have to have “the talk” with my unborn son when the time comes? Perhaps.
Shawn Dye is a sophomore majoring in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity from Spring Valley, New York. He has a passion for social justice and making noise about issues on campus and everywhere else.