The deaths of Trayvon Martin and Shaima Alawadi should have been teachable moments. Instead, in their respective aftermaths, the opportunity for engagement and discourse has turned to experiential warfare. There are sides against sides, fears against fears, oppression against suppression, and ignorance against everyday realities. Trayvon Martin’s death brought accusatory finger pointing, anger, and indignation — both justified and not. The death of Shaima Alawadi met with such relative indifference that it has become incredibly apparent the extent to which we have dehumanized a racial and religious minority.
We acknowledge that their deaths are tragic — but acknowledgement is not confrontation. Though headlines give up-to-the-minute developments on their stories, confrontation through engagement and discourse mean understanding the significance of their deaths within our society and ourselves. Acknowledgement is news, it is not understanding.
The reactions to these two deaths are the results of ripping open the ugly scars of wounds that were never adequately attended to, and so, never properly healed. They are the results of a conversation cut short. The public responses are in familiar forms — calls for justice, protests, and petitions — but without the openness of a past era, one where we could speak of inequalities without politesse or dilution.
During the Civil Rights Movement, there was such social, political, and legal progress that society reveled in and, over time, became comfortable with its changes. But after the Movement, racial conversations, if they did not end outright, turned back into the social divides from which they came. Today, the Movement's struggles and successes are distant; we have begun to take them for granted. Some speak a new rhetoric, one of cohesiveness and union, they call America a “post-racial” society. Though this recognizes that the Movement did much to cut down the historical fruits of racialized thinking, it is a mistake to believe that the Movement pulled out the tree’s roots. The falsity of this new rhetoric shows. Many respond to the introduction of race with discomfort, and moments of such discomfort demonstrate the latency those roots. Race may be a “card” that some would rather keep face down, but the card is always in the deck.
Public responses have gone beyond the tragedy and horror that Trayvon Martin and Shaima Alawadi met on their final day. When he died, Martin was an unarmed, 17-year old wearing a hoodie. However, mainstream media now focuses not on the boy of that day, but on his prior transgressions. Alawadi was brutally beaten and left next to a note calling her a “terrorist.” Religious freedom allowed her to wear a hijab, but headlines now ask whether she made herself a target by exercising her right. These diversions and alternative narratives confuse the issues — this confusion only creates distance and fuels anger.
It has become difficult to dig down to the roots of our anger. These roots have divided and nourished us for decades. The responses to these deaths reveal the substance of opposition and underscore what is at the beating heart of our anger — that, as a society, we do not meaningfully discuss race across the arbitrary lines that divide us. Racial discussion has compartmentalized — omnipresent are the physical and ideological versions of the self-segregating tables in our cafeterias. We do not understand each other or our realities; we do not approach the breach.
But why not? It is social myopia not to capitalize on conversations borne of teachable moments, and lamentable are the disappearances of curiosity, willingness, and risk-taking. When, as a society capable of so much, did restriction and compartmentalization become desired comforts? We have become terrified to have a conversation about what we used to be and what we are. American history is a rough one, but we do not benefit from having its edges smoothed or thinking that racial histories are the narratives of only a few. By being afraid to address realities together, we are afraid to recognize our truth.
Confrontation and conversation are the great necessities of our time. We cannot let tough moments go and anxiously await the next, only to repeat the cycle. Let’s air our fears and grievances, and let’s express our prejudices and preconceptions. Let’s take our conversations outside of our social and ideological churches and engage those standing on the corner. Is this difficult? Yes — but it is not impossible. Today, we have the ability to communicate every detail of our lives; let’s start communicating about the things that matter.
If we do not — then what are we even talking about?