Dear Facebook Friend: A Primer on Racism – The Feminist Wire

Dear Facebook Friend: A Primer on Racism

By LaKisha Simmons

In response to your racist memes and our ensuing discussion.

You believe that race “doesn’t matter in today’s day,” that you treat all people as human, and that you do not see race.  In your heart you are color blind.

But racism does not live in hearts.  Racism is not about your intention to be a good person.

Other commentators have explained how race matters structurally, particularly in the justice system and in racial profiling.

But racism is, among other things, cultural.  There are a number of cultural ideologies (let us call them cultural “truths”) that perpetuate racism.

This is easy to understand in the following cartoon from Harper’s Weekly published in 1866:


When I use this image in my Women’s Studies classes, many of my students see two black women.  Their belief that the ‘objectionable’ woman on the left is black is informed by the cultural “truth” that black women are unbeautiful, beastly, simian.

But, the woman on the left is not black. In 1866, viewers would have immediately recognized that woman as Irish.  The cartoon played on several “truths” from the early 19th Century: that Irish people were uncivilized, drunkards, and above all, not quite white.

It is easy to see the ways in which racist and xenophobic cultural “truths” are at work in this cartoon because they seem outdated —indeed impossible.  So impossible that students cannot even “see” the cartoon as it was intended.

Facebook Friend, you have taken exception to this photograph of Trayvon Martin:


You’ve objected to this photograph on the basis that it presents Martin as a “cherubic” child when he was instead “over 6 feet tall, capable of beating the shit out of a man and only a child in the eyes of the law.”

Your claim plays on a number of racist cultural “truths.”  First, you’ve drawn a stark opposition between innocence and black teenaged boys who are six feet tall.  One cannot be both things at the same time, you say.

For you, Trayvon Martin was not a child.

Black communities and black parents have struggled against the cultural “truth” that black children are never innocent children.  As a historian of black girlhood, I’ve seen these arguments made time and again by white perpetrators of violence.  Black girls could be raped by white men because they were not children—they were already sexually developed jezebels.  For example, in 1895, a representative of Kentucky argued against age of consent laws because black girls tempted white men with their already developed, sexual bodies. He believed black girls could not be raped and said,

We see at once what a terrible weapon for evil the elevating of the age of consent would be when placed in the hands of a lecherous, sensual negro woman, who for the sake of black mail or revenge would not hesitate to bring criminal action even though she had been a prostitute since her eleventh year![1]

He could not see black girls as children.

There is an eerie echo of these racist sentiments in your denial of Trayvon Martin’s youthfulness.  Indeed, perhaps Martin’s parents released that particular photo to remind people like you—who would see his adolescence as proof of his guilt—that he was still a child. Their child.

However, if you take a look at this photo from a week before his death, you see a teenager with his family.  I see this kid as “cherubic,” as a youth.  Can you not see that Facebook Friend?  Does he still look scary to you?  Racist cultural “truths” are powerful.  They inform not our “hearts” but something so basic as our vision: the way we see.


You may not see Martin as a child, but black communities and black parents see youthfulness when they look at his photographs.

Your claim that he was 6 feet tall and therefore dangerous plays on another cultural “truth.”  That black men are brutish (unnaturally big), dangerous (they’ll beat the shit out of you), and should be feared.  A number of black men and black feminists have written about this.  This particular cultural truth dates at least as far back as Reconstruction.  Once blacks were free of the chains of slavery, white supremacists constructed narratives about the inherent danger of free black men.  (See Birth of a Nation for evidence of this.)

So, Facebook Friend, while you claim to be color blind and treat all people as human, you are romanced by racist cultural “truths.”  Your insistence that race does not matter makes you blind to the violence of these cultural “truths.”  It allows you to fear black men without question or self-reflection.  It allows you to devalue black adolescence.  And Facebook Friend, it allows you to perpetuate racism while believing in your “heart” that you treat all people as human.

[1] Mary Odem, Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 33


IMG_1549LaKisha Michelle Simmons is a professor of Global Gender Studies at the University at Buffalo. She teaches and writes about black girlhood and segregation, black youth and sexuality, and black reproductive health.


  1. firewing

    August 30, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    Powerful and to the point. I am definitely linking people here when/if I hear them denigrating Trayvon on racist grounds.

  2. Cynthia Drake

    August 30, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    Thank you for this thoughtful and truthful exposure of our yet racist world. I hope and pray that we do shed more light on this issue day by day and moment by moment as you have so amazingly done here. -Cynthia

  3. Raven

    September 2, 2013 at 2:32 am

    Honestly, he does look innocent as a child. It sounds more to me like his crimes were inspired by mental illness. Not all children are necessarily innocent, but here’s a little fact for you: most serial killers and most sex offenders are WHITE males. So who is really lore dangerous? And being large does not equal being dangerous. One of my friends is 6’5 and as harmless as can be.

  4. ch

    September 2, 2013 at 5:37 pm

    You are perpetuating racism. Kids are kids! Seventeen is seventeen black, white, yellow, or red. I was that boy at 16 walking home many, many nights! I am a 45 year old white mother of two. I should not have been out on the streets at night twenty something years ago. I wore hoods to keep warm on my way home from everywhere. I was profiled as a target for rape, drugs, and profiled as a trouble maker teen ager, I was profiled as trouble because I was out walking at night with my green hooded sweatshirt 28 YEARS AGO! I had to run many times to be safe. I was never in trouble with the law and my intentions were only to get from point a to point b. I ran, and ran many times from threat! I was a little 16 year old white girl on my way home at night from anywhere!

  5. Tamera

    September 2, 2013 at 11:20 pm

    The way we treat our minority youth is critical in how they come into adulthood.

    I live on the Eastside of Buffalo on a notoriously known intersection.

    During the neighborhood’s middle school and high school spring break the kids hung out in droves on my block. They were considered by the police to be a gang.

    On a particular afternoon, I was sitting at home doing some paper work and I heard yelling. I peeked through my window and saw 12 kids pop out of a car and jump a couple other kids in front of my house. One kid pushed another into my car and busted out my passenger window.
    The next day all the kids were walking around together like nothing happened.
    A couple days later my neighbor’s car windows were all busted.

    Fed up and fearing what else could happen, we called the police to report it.

    In my the meantime, my neighbor asked the kids if they knew what happened to his car. All the kids said they didn’t know. Eventually, one said that a kid was playing with a BB gun and shot them out.

    My neighbor was later threatened by the leader of the gang.

    I went away and worked out of state for the summer and when I came back none of the kids were there.

    They had all been arrested and sent to juvy.

    I was of course scared of the kids but I was also upset with the way they treated each other. The way the disrespected other’s property. The way they talked to adults. But overall I was disappointed when I heard they were simply locked up for their bad behavior.

    I know I will see them out again in the year’s time and I’m sure in no time all the problems will come back and be much worse.

    I do not want to see kids locked up. I want to see them being taught coping skills and what a community looks like and why it’s important. I want them to feel what working for something means and how crappy it feels when someone else comes along and trashes it. I want them to understand responsibility and ownership.

    I asked a parent in the neighborhood who was worried about her teenage son what she thought was the problem. She said, “His cousins. They’re terrible. They live around the block.”

    She said she would like to move but can’t afford to.

    Where are these children’s peer role models?
    Why are we not employing them?

    I do not want to buy them street cred with juvy. I do not want them to perpetuate a life of crime.

    I want them to value education and be taught responsibility through gainful youth oriented employment.

    I see my neighborhood becoming worse because we are not teaching our youth basic values and responsibility. Instead, we’re making them rougher by not showing them care and gratitude.

    The are imitating in powerful and harmful ways what is being done to them. They are victims and should not be treated like criminals.

  6. be_free

    September 10, 2013 at 9:40 am

    I’m black and I’m 6’1. When I was 17 I was strong as hell, I played basketball 4-5 times a week and I played both on my own team and had a history of playing in the men’s team since I was even younger. Sure, I looked youthful, was scrawnier, had round cheeks, etc. and to my family I was a child but I was far from defenseless among muscular mid-20s men and could hold my own. People that didn’t know me wouldn’t have described me as a child, but as a young man. Probably less so in the dark with a hoodie covering my profile and parts of my face. I could have easily been mistaken for an adult. This has nothing to do with my race, it’s just a fact of circumstances and body build.

    The problem with portraying Trayvon solely as a child that was just out buying candy is that provides an incomplete and ultimately false image of who Trayvon was, which is not unimportant in the bigger scheme of things. The cherub images make people think of an “innocent” 12-14 year old who is defenseless, and discount the physical damage a 17 year old is capable of which plays an extremely important role in how this is case is perceived. The imagery provided to us on Zimmerman is that a fat heavy gun-slinging paranoid guy which appears to be largely true. But before we move on, let’s put all the cards on the table, let’s talk about the true person behind the cute Martin images as well.

    This visual imagery and insinuating language is text book deceit tactics used in advertisement and propaganda since its so extremely powerful. It’s hard not to call this a media sensation agenda to continue to describe the two individuals so disparately to keep the outrage going and the rates up. The fervor with which this slanted imagery and language was used across the board is remarkable.

    It turns into a type of emotional programming that turn people away from actual evidence when they see it, since emotion tends trumps logic. When the public hear that Zimmerman’s nose was broken, they say no, it can’t be true since cute lil’ol Trayvon can’t possibly have caused such damage. When several witness accounts separate from each other put Trayvon on top pounding away, the emotions about the cuddly sweet-tothed child fool people into thinking that the witnesses under oath must be mistaken. This is the very reason jurors are not allowed to read newspapers or see or listen to the news.

    Look, Zimmerman obviously have issues and does not appear to be a very nice man, but that doesn’t turn Martin into a saint either. They both had issues like all of us, and they encountered each other which caused a tragic event.

    My last point is a fact. With a parents signature Martin could have enrolled to the military. The armed forces regards 17 year olds as “young men” capable to be trained to kill for the country. In the end, Martin was no child, plain and simple.

    So does that mean I think that Martin was to blame. No, I do not. To me it sounds like Zimmerman should have gotten a man slaughter charge at the least, but not based on that Martin is a cuddly cute little child because he wasn’t, and he certainly didn’t have a history of behaving like one, but simply because Zimmerman pursued Martin despite the police telling him not to.

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