By Kelly Macías
Like many other Americans, over the last three weeks I was firmly gripped by the George Zimmerman trial. I watched with anxiety and anticipation; waiting for our legal system to embody justice and sentence George Zimmerman to jail for ending Trayvon Martin’s life. Deep in my heart, I feared that justice would not be done.
From my social science background, I knew that white juries tend to have bias against Black defendants. And while the defendant was not Black in this case, I saw very clearly that the defense put Trayvon Martin on trial. As a Black woman, who also spent a few years teaching inner city youth, I knew from experience that this country misunderstands and devalues Black children. Especially the males– who don’t speak the “right way,” who are colorfully expressive in their language, who like rap music and baggy clothes. The very same males whose presence and very essence scare us to the core until we can’t even acknowledge them as human beings worthy of dignity and would rather watch them kill themselves off in inner cities until we don’t have to deal with them anymore. Like those who watched, I heard the names Trayvon and George over and over again and thought this case was all about racism, gun violence and men. Travyon and George.The prosecution; all male and all white. The defense; also all male and all white. While that white male patriarchy played itself out in the courtroom, my fears slowly became reality when, ultimately, Trayvon did not receive justice.
But another surprising dynamic emerged throughout the trial which is worthy of note. While the case may have been all about the men, the trial and the verdict was actually about the women.
The first week of the trial began with the testimony of the prosecution’s star witness, Rachel Jeantal. I watched in horror as defense attorney Don West disrespected Rachel in every way; treating her as a caricature of a human being—a big, dark-skinned, inarticulate woman no one could relate to, who wore big, flashy hoops to court and couldn’t read cursive. I read the nasty Facebook posts and articles criticizing her, especially coming from other women and some people of color. I heard pundits say that Rachel was not a credible witness; that she was angry and defensive and that the jury would hold that against her. My face burned hot as I empathized with Rachel since I was reminded, from my own experience, of how humiliating and shame inducing it can be to be the sole black woman in front of a room full of white people watching you, waiting for you to prove yourself and seeing you as nothing but a stereotype. Of how your voice can feel stolen in those instances and how small they make you feel. In Rachel I saw a girl who, in spite of enormous odds, was trying to come across as confident and to tell her truth—determined not to be beaten down. A young woman so badly traumatized by the experience of being the last person to talk to her friend alive that she couldn’t even bring herself to talk about him in the past tense; as if she had yet to process the gravity of what had happened. In spite of the focus on George and Trayvon, to me, this trial was about Rachel.
Then I watched Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, in all her beauty and dignity take the stand. I listened in disbelief at how defense attorney Mark O’Mara had the audacity to ask her if she believed that her son had actually caused his own death. I watched in admiration at Sybrina’s courage and strength as she confidently articulated that she knew, without a doubt, that the voice on the tape was that of her youngest born son. I marveled at how she remained steadfast as the defense painted her baby as a weed-smoking, angry, aggressive thug who was responsible for what happened to him; showing pictures of his slain body over and over again. Sybrina became my newest shero when I realized that in the entire two weeks of the trial, she never lost her composure no matter what was said, and she didn’t shed a single tear in front of that room full of white men and an almost exclusively white female jury. I know all too well what it’s like to feel devastating pain, frustration, and anger inside and to be forced to wear an armor of steel on the outside so that people, especially whites, won’t perceive you as weak. And while her testimony was discounted by the jury, I say this trial was about Sybrina.
In the last week of the trial, Gladys Zimmerman, George’s mom, took the stand. I desperately wanted to hate her and blame her for raising a racist son. I wanted to judge her for what I saw as George’s arrogance and sense of privilege. I assumed she thought she was better than women like me, Black women—the same women who were being made a mockery of in the courtroom. I wondered if by marrying a white American she thought she was somehow improving the life chances of her children whom she wanted to be seen as “gringos” instead of Latinos so that they would be saved the heartache that racism elicits. But then I saw Gladys on the stand and she reminded me of my own mother-in-law. Both being proud, hardworking immigrants from South America whose lives revolve around the pride and joy of their lives, their sons. When I listened to Gladys on the stand, I was shocked at how much I identified with her. I know exactly what it’s like to function in both English and Spanish; never feeling fully expressive, no matter how many years you have spoken that language or how fluent you are, in the language that isn’t your mother tongue. I know what it’s like to have to put yourself on the line and prove your credibility in that other language in front of public officials and have dozens of pairs of eyes judging you. I know the sheer nervousness of that experience and how, despite your best intentions, your native accent betrays you, giving you away as an imposter until you are reduced to speaking in short sentences and phrases just to get by. I thought about how it must have been a humiliating experience for her—to have her child-rearing skills on display for everyone to judge and question what kind of mother could have raised a killer. And yet Gladys, like Sybrina, didn’t shed a single tear or share her humiliation with anyone. In Gladys, I saw a brown woman like me– surrounded by white supremacy and patriarchy. And while I am still very angry about the verdict that set her son free, I believe that this case is also about Gladys.
Lastly, I cannot forget about the jury. The all-female and almost exclusively white jury which found it in their souls to let a killer go free. I had hoped that these women would see reason, would hear the testimony of Trayvon’s mother and best friend and know that Trayvon deserved dignity and justice. I prayed that as mothers, they would see Sybrina’s anguished face and empathize with raising a child in a country where so many of the odds are stacked against him. A child who, as a descendant of the people who were victims of the most despicable, degrading, and evil institution in the history of humanity, would always and forever have an antagonistic relationship with this country. The same country which views him and people like him as nothing more than disposable, worthless, and unworthy of justice. I thought that there was a tiny chance that, just once, sisterhood would prevail and that the women on the jury would choose to value Trayvon’s life. But then I remembered all the unfortunate experiences I have had with many white women. Women who I confided in and saw as allies only to learn that they were white first and sisters second. The same women who made me feel “less than” all through high school and college, who talked about my hair and features as if I were an animal on display in a zoo, who told me that I was just too sensitive when I claimed that I was the victim of racism. Women who were curious about me because they couldn’t figure me out, told me I had “attitude” when I disagreed with them and who acted like friends to my face and secretly schemed behind my back. This is not to say that all white women behave as such. However, I find that many white women, though well meaning, are oblivious to their racial privilege and biases and live in a world in which they claim that I am equal but is not actually my reality. There are a handful of white women I would call true friends and sisters, but unfortunately I have had many more experiences with white women who didn’t get me nor I them. It then came as no surprise to me when they didn’t get Rachel or Sybrina either and pronounced George Zimmerman not guilty. This trial was definitely about those women.
Unlike many people, I don’t actually blame those women on the jury. I firmly believe that women have been so deeply brainwashed by racism and patriarchy that we can’t trust each other or see each other as fellow human beings. We are so separated that we can’t even empathize around common experiences like the death of a child. White women and women of color may make meaningful individual connections but those require true openness, empathy, and a willingness to check your privilege. Moreover, it requires the ability for us to acknowledge that while our struggles are similar, sisters who are of color, poor, not native born Americans, and/or not straight are not just affected by sexism but also by racism, classism, xenophobia, and heterosexual bias. Our psyches are so damaged by white male patriarchy that we don’t even realize that we are taught to fear and marginalize black teenagers with Skittles wearing hoodies. We want to believe that everyone is equal and that we are color blind. But the ugly reality is that we don’t want “those kids” to date our daughters, hang out with our own kids or in our neighborhoods. We don’t see them as human. We have a hard time seeing each other as human.
So while the rest of the nation contemplates what this trial means for racial justice and the legal system, I will be reflecting on what it means for women. I will consider how women were pitted against each other so insidiously during this trial–black against white, native-born American against immigrant, suburban against urban. I will cringe at how the unifying experience of sexism, which should move us toward collective action, has only served to divide us and how brown women continue to experience multiple oppressions while a number of our white sisters sit back and watch silently. Mostly, I will mourn that women will likely never be united when we continue to embrace misogyny and patriarchy, and when we let the system of white supremacy win. This case may have been about the men; but the trial and its long lasting impacts are, indeed, about women.
Kelly Macías is currently a doctoral candidate in the Department of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at Nova Southeastern University. She works full-time as a trainer, researcher, and organizational development specialist based in Washington, DC. She credits the foundations of her activism and passion for social justice to her favorite nun in Catholic school who taught her the expression “Si quieres paz, lucha por la justicia” (If you want peace, struggle for justice). She has tried to live by that motto ever since.