SAN FRANCISCO – I got mugged by a black teenager 10 years ago. I was walking down a street when a young man came up to me and pulled out a gun.
I gave him my wallet, and he walked away. I wasn’t hurt, but it was a scary experience.
But looking back, I was glad it happened when it did.
That’s because by then, I was just a tad better informed, a tiny bit wiser.
By then, I had been working for more than a decade as a reporter for a big city newspaper in the US, covering crime and court cases, some of them involving African Americans.
But by then, I also had learned more about US history, had read books and watched documentaries about the struggles against racism and prejudice, for social justice and civil rights, had listened to the stories and insights of friends and acquaintances who took part in those battles.
In other words, by then, I knew, more or less, the context of what happened to me. In many ways, it was the same context President Obama talked about when he finally spoke publicly about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case.
“I did want to just talk a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling,” he said.
When Trayvon Martin was shot, Obama had said the young man “could have been my son.” On Friday, his statement was even more stunning.
“Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” he said. “There’s a lot of pain around what happened here. I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.
“There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. And there are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator.
“There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
… Those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.”
It recently has gotten harder to get excited about a president who has appeared to condone the use of drones that have slaughtered innocent civilians, and who has defended Orwellian spying tactics aimed at US citizens and other peoples of the world.
But last week, I was once again glad that my children are growing up in the age of Obama. It was a personal, moving, powerful speech, one that will be remembered for decades.
And Obama’s candor deserves an honest response from me. From us.
So I say this now: George Zimmerman could have been me. He could have been us.
I’ve been guilty of some of the gut reactions to black men the president mentioned. I suspect many Filipinos are too.
The reasons are clear: I have been exposed to the same negative images, the same historic biases that have plagued the African American community.
While I’ve learned to reject many of them, it’s safe to always assume they may still be there, trapped in hidden corners of my consciousness.
After all, embracing these images and prejudices can, at times, be part of the immigrant experience as novelist and Nobel Prize Winner Toni Morrison pointed out.
“In race talk, the move into mainstream America always means buying into the notion of American blacks as the real aliens,” she wrote in a 1993 essay in Time magazine. “Whatever the ethnicity or nationality of the immigrant, his nemesis is understood to be African American… It doesn’t matter anymore what shade the newcomer’s skin is. A hostile posture toward resident blacks must be struck at the Americanizing door before it will open.”
Certainly, some of these biases are rooted in reality. Through the years, the African American community has struggled with many problems, including youth violence. I encountered these realities as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Even Obama noted that the African American community is “not naive in understanding that somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else.”
Understanding that ‘context’ also does not mean condoning thuggish behavior from anyone, including young blacks. But ‘context’ allows me to pull back from making easy, essentially stupid, conclusions about any race or ethnicity, from making the sweeping condemnation I’ve heard many times from Filipinos in America: ‘Tang—— mga eg— ito e!”
There is yet another big difference between Zimmerman and me.
A certain form of profiling may kick in when confronted by a real or imagined threat from someone who is black. But ‘context’ always makes me pause to think: ‘What if I’m wrong?’
To be sure, I would not have walked around with a gun, acting like an arrogant, self-righteous vigilante, eager to nail a bad guy, real or imagined.
(And I would have followed a dispatcher’s instruction to stand down and let authorities handle the alleged threat.)
The man who killed Trayvon Martin has been found not guilty because, according to the law and the jury, he acted in self-defense — even though it was he who set in motion the events that led to a deadly confrontation, and it was he who came to the incorrect and deadly conclusion that a black teenager was a criminal.
And so a young man who was unarmed, minding his own business, who was incorrectly deemed a threat because of the way he looked, is dead.
If only Zimmerman had stopped to think: ‘What if I’m wrong?’
For can you imagine the message this sends to other young black teens already struggling with, or even working hard to debunk vicious stereotypes?
I’ve sometimes used my mugging experience in talking about race with my sons.
‘You know that nanay and I got robbed by a black kid, right?’ I told my oldest son once.
‘Now, does that mean all black kids are bad?’
He answered quickly, without any hesitation. There was also a hint of disbelief, even dismay, as if to say: ‘What in the world are you talking about, tatay? Why in the world would I think that?’
Indeed, why would he?
His friends are white, Filipino, Korean, Chinese, Latino and African Americans. My question simply didn’t make sense.
I remembered that conversation while listening to Obama’s talk on the Trayvon tragedy.
“I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better,” he said. “Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. It doesn’t mean that we’re in a post-racial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated.”
But from his own interactions with his own daughters and with their friends, he said, there’s reason for hope.
“They’re better than we are,” he said. “They’re better than we were on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.”
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