Dear Trayvon Martin,
I have wept so many tears over your tragic death, and I know they cannot begin to compare to the tears shed by those who knew and loved you for your 17 brief years. They knew what music you liked, what made you laugh, what you were passionate about, who you loved, and a million other things that made you uniquely you. I am heartbroken at the end of your young life. And I want to write this letter to apologize to you for my role in your death.
Yes, I had a role in your death. I am part of the problem.
I am part of the majority culture. I get called ma'am, am treated respectfully, and get warnings instead of tickets when policemen pull me over (which isn't often). People don't cross the sidewalk when I'm walking toward them. In fact, people look me in the eyes and smile at me because they don't see me as a threat. I'm assumed to be the most educated or most experienced candidate for most jobs for which I apply. I get the jobs for which I apply. I choose whether or not to examine my cultural identity. I choose whether to learn about other cultures or remain immersed in my own. Sometimes they don't take my ticket on the train because I look just like everyone else. I blend in, and when people notice me, they presume that I am kind and innocent. Part of being a minority in the United States, and especially being a young Black man, means that none of those things were true for you. And some of those privileges I have, if you had them, would have saved your life.
I have sat silently and watched my country belittle your humanity as a young Black man. I have listened to people label you as a problem child without considering a) whether or not it is true and b) whether or not the problems our society has created for you may have contributed to any of your alleged behaviors. They dismiss your humanity, and they dismiss your context. They do not understand the fear you must have felt when you were targeted as a criminal, whether or not you were one (which I whole-heartedly do not believe you were). They don't understand the necessity of fighting to save your life, which you knew was in danger, whether or not the man who killed you had yet brandished his gun. They don't think about the impact of being told by an entire society - explicitly and implicitly - that you are a criminal.
They minimize your experience by saying that everything is equal now and that racism no longer exists, demanding that you swallow the party line or be branded a criminal. If you do swallow the party line, you are considered an "exception" to your culture, which simultaneously robs you of your cultural heritage and demonizes everyone that looks like you. But somehow, that's not considered racist. After all, some of their best friends are Black. And everyone knows that if you have a Black friend, you can't be called a racist. Just like a misogynistic man can't hate women if he has a female friend. Oh wait...
But let me come back to the way that I have failed you, my brother in human dignity. My role is perhaps the worst of all, because I have remained silent. I know the truth. I know tiny pieces of the massive racism that still undergirds our country's policies and politics. I feel the bile in the back of my throat and the heat in my face and chest when people spurt out words about an entire group of people that "aren't racist" even though they would have at least thought twice about saying them if my skin weren't the same color as theirs. I hate when they make me a co-conspirator with their statements of hatred, assuming that I agree because I look like them.
But I have done nothing. I stew silently. Sometimes I literally run away from it. And this, this is why I must apologize to you. You deserved more than my dumb and fearful silence.
For whatever reason, God has chosen to make me White. When I asked friends in South Africa what I should do to even begin to address the atrocities that my people have committed, generational sins whose weight rests also upon my shoulders, they said that I must use my voice. My voice will reach ears that would not listen to their voices, who would brand them as "reverse racists." I have unmerited and undeserved privilege as a result of being born from English and Irish families in middle class America. I have failed to use that privilege to fight for you and the millions like you, Trayvon.
My good intentions don't matter. Yours didn't, either.
I have used my words too sparsely and too carefully. I am ashamed, and I am sorry. Can you ever forgive me? I didn't pull the trigger, but I function within a system that allows the trigger to be pulled every. single. day. against young men who don't deserve to die. If I am not working to change it, I am supporting it.
I will fight for you, Trayvon, and the beautiful faces of so many others like you, who have suffered the loss of their dignity and humanity. You bear the image of God just like I do. You are not the face of crime. You are the face of innocence. And I will fight for you.
Your sister in Christ,