Lessons From Trayvon: Raising Mixed Race Boys in the Face of Racism, Fear, and Inequality

Mariana_19 years old
Me at age 19

By Mariana Oldenburg

I have been reflecting on the Trayvon Martin case a lot. The fact that Zimmerman got away with murder angers and worries me because I am the mother of two ethnically diverse male children living on this planet.

Injustice, inequality, sexism, and racism are not just USA problems; they are global problems. I myself was harassed by the police in Europe when I was a traveling teenager. I was racially profiled because of my brown skin and wild curly hair. One of the police officers asked for my passport and after confirming that I was a 19-year-old tourist with a proper visa, he said “It’s just that we have a lot of undocumented Brazilian prostitutes arriving here.” And that was supposed to make me feel better? Thanks for the Brazilian part, but I did take offense to the disrespectful noun.

Just walking down the streets in Italy, men would yell “hey, Marroquina” (woman from Morocco). My Italian girlfriend explained to me that many of these women were immigrant sex workers and the men were wondering if I was available. At the airport in Spain, security officers picked me out of the line and scanned my creeper shoes because they thought I might be sneaking drugs in the soles of my shoes. All of these accusations were purely based on my ethnicity, gender, and appearance. As a female teenager I felt angry, impotent, and vulnerable, and even though I wanted kick them in the face with those very shoes, I knew I had to handle myself with dignity and keep it together, so that I could get on the plane back to the USA where I had been living since I was 15 years old. (And might I add that I am grateful to live in this diverse country.)

I may not be an African-American male, but I am Afro-Latina woman and I have experienced racism in Panama, Europe, and in the USA, repeatedly. I know how it feels to be denied good job opportunities based on where I come from, my age, what I look like, and because I am a woman. I have experienced racism walking down the streets in progressive San Francisco for holding hands with my husband. He was called a white pig and I was called the N word. Scott and I have had racist encounters with both white and black men because we are an interracial couple and those people felt we should not be together. If we changed our behavior to accommodate others’ ideas of who we should love, our children would not exist.

I have experienced racism from white people because they don’t know exactly what I am and that makes them uncomfortable. Then when they find out I am from Central America, and they hear me speak, they tell me “Wow, you speak English really well!” What did they expect? Why should I not have excellent command of the English language? This often happens to me. It happened to me just three months ago at a client’s office here in New Orleans. Back when I worked in corporate America in the Bay Area, I was the token minority woman who was fortunate to be able to reach senior level positions. At my last corporate job, HR even pointed out that they were happy to hire me because they believe in equal opportunity – yet in an office building of 250 + employees, only two of us were Latina.

I have experienced racism from black people who don’t like me because I am Latina or because my skin is not dark enough. I have experienced racism from Latinos who don’t like my skin because it’s not light enough. I have heard a couple of my white friends use the N word in the context of fear and anger. I have heard some of my Latino friends speak quite negatively about black people. I’ve heard some of my black friends speak with deep anger towards white people. I have had my black female neighbor call me a racist because I speak Spanish and I am married to a white male even though my father is a black Jamaican. (Hence my Afro roots that I am very proud of.) I myself have had to unlearn a lot of the colonialist brain washing that was impressed upon us in our Panamanian culture. In Panama, people of color were not allowed to go to a university until general Omar Torrijos changed that law in the early 70s.

Who is right? Who is wrong? What should I believe? Who should I be? The whole thing is very confusing, and back when I was younger, all these complexities of race and culture were extremely hard to navigate and comprehend. I continue to listen and learn, and I continue to be friends with all of my friends. I continue to learn about their history, their thoughts, their feelings, their beliefs, their cultures, their religions, and their truths, and I often engage in heated debates with them because dialogue is exactly what we need, even if we agree to disagree.

The part that troubles me the most about the Martin/Zimmerman case is that the failing justice system can be fashioned and manipulated to the point that it becomes a strategic game of knowledge and power, and of course, the power of money. I feel that every single human life is equally important and worthy of respect and happiness and should have a chance to reach their full potential – even if they annoy the hell out of me.

In cases like this it’s important to not get too distracted by the ongoing argument of racism. I suggest that we focus on a solution to the flawed justice system because the system is not working. Let’s talk about these events with our children at the dinner table, lets discuss it within our communities, our spiritual circles, and peers, and most of all, let’s get involved by telling our political leaders what we want, until we see meaningful change. Folks like Zimmerman exist because they choose to live in fear, and they teach their children the same things their parents taught them, that is, to live in fear and to hate. Let’s stop demonizing the youth. Let’s stop tainting their spirit with heavy dogma, mental slavery, guilt, the burden of the pain from the past, and colonialist ideas that simply do not support them as the loving and creative human beings that we were born to be. Let’s teach our children how to think and not what to think.

Why should I live in fear? Why should my friends question whether they should bring children into this world? That’s not a privilege; that is their right. Should I stop holding hands with my husband? Should I tell my son Diego that he should live in fear and that he should not wear his hoodie while walking down the street because some paranoid delusional fool might shoot him? Should he too eventually carry a gun and forget about our family values of love and nonviolence? How do I carry on as a parent?

I say we talk with our children honestly about the elephant in the room. I say we make a conscious effort to get to know each other a little better so that we may understand or at least tolerate each other. As a triple minority living in the United States and as a parent, I refuse to be distracted, deterred, or defeated by racism, and much less by the intimidation of hatred and fear. It’s evident that when it comes to racism, we have a long way to go, but in regards to the Trayvon/Zimmerman case, we musts demand that the government does away with the Stand Your Ground law.

I stand the ground of not giving up hope for a better world for our children.