To my dear Non-black brothers and sisters,
Remember the adage, you never know what it’s like to be someone or understand their consequences until you walk a mile in their shoes… Well, would you like to know what it’s like to be Black in America? Come with me and walk 3 miles in my shoes…
I got up this morning feeling refreshed and happy to be alive, put on my workout clothes and headed outdoors… into the fresh air and the freedom symbolized in my feathered friend who greeted me on my front lawn…
About 60 seconds later I suddenly thought about what I was wearing. Tennis shoes, sweat pants, a hoodie and a skullcap. I thought of Trayvon Martin and I thought to myself, boy, I’m glad I have my skull cap because I’m not sure if I should put my hood on. And then I noticed that my hands were in the front, central pocket of my hoodie holding my phone, keys, and IPod so that they wouldn’t fall out… plus my hands were cold. Then I thought to myself, gosh, what if someone looks at me and thinks I’m “up to no good?” That I actually have my hands on a gun and I’m looking around for a house to burglarize or someone to mug or if they didn’t see the outline of my breasts, that I was a black male looking for an innocent white woman or girl to rape? Am I really safe?
I started walking faster and I wondered, am I’m walking faster because I’m in better shape or because I’m trying to run away from fear, from someone who may want to emulate Zimmerman’s actions and mistake me for someone “up to no good?”
Did I also tell you that I was paranoid every time a car passed by me? Yep. I thought of the black people who were shot while they were walking just for being black … black people who were kidnapped, raped, and lynched after being picked up and out by strangers because they were black. I thought of the black people who died after a “hit and run” cases that were never solved, but the word “nigger” was heard being yelled out of the car window as the car carrying the suspects zoomed to freedom or its next victim.
And as I saw my house of “safety” I thought, just a few more yards and I’ll be ok. As I walked through my door, I thought of how lucky I was, and then I immediately thought of Trayvon again. I thought of how similar our paths were… how frightened he must have been because a stranger, in a car he didn’t recognize was following him… I wondered if he had the same innocent thoughts that I did when he put his hands into his pocket grabbing skittles, me-my keys… and I wondered what this black male was thinking within his masculinity, his gender performance that dictated either fight or flight.
These questions didn’t really matter because someone who thought Trayvon looked “suspicious” took his life.
I’m terribly sad. Sad because I believed and was taught that if you were a good person, didn’t cause trouble, you were safe. Sad, because despite my Ph.D., despite living a life of excellence and doing “everything right” I walked in fear today. None of the earned accolades, accomplishments, or even a life record of being a good person or good citizen will ever change the perception of “trouble-maker” or “antagonist” because of the color of my skin for some people. Like most Black Americans, thoughts like these are a daily burden most times. Not because of who you are, yourself, but because of who you are perceived to be by others.
And so, there you have it. This is what it is like sometimes to be Black in America. You have walked 3 miles in my shoes on one brisk morning.
Thanks for walking with me and remember the privilege that you have as you walk in your freedom today without questioning if you will be killed because of the color of your skin.
Wish me well.
I am Trayvon Martin.
Janice Marie Collins, Ph.D.
Department of Journalism, College of Media and the Institute of Communication Research
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign