Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Who Do We Mourn?

         I was deeply disturbed when Caylee Anthony went missing and mourned her death.  I know why, too.  She was of a similar age to my own daughter, and at least one person told me that Caylee reminded this person of my own daughter.  Caylee's big brown eyes, in particular, do have a resemblance.
         I cried when I read about Christina Taylor Green, who was 9 years old when she died in the shootings in Tucson.  She, too, reminded me of my daughter, a precocious, politically-involved, brown-haired, brown-eyed girl. 
         I know why I mourned these little girls who, for a moment, caught our nation's attention.  They were innocent, beautiful, and gone too soon.  And they were in the media spotlight -- beautiful little girls -- white little girls.  Their deaths were horrible, outrageous, and made us sad and also furious.
         Too often the children whose deaths we mourn as a society are like Caylee and Christina Taylor -- the white little girls.  Too seldom do we, as a society or as individuals unconnected to the family mourn young black children killed.
         This point about who captures our national attention and who we mourn and how there really is racism involved in this was brought home to me this week from an unlikely source -- a fictional one.  Like many others, I've read The Hunger Games and went to see the movie last week.  The character of Rue had a particularly tragic death in the book.  It's particularly tragic because she becomes a person who is important to the heroine, Katniss, and who Katniss particularly mourns, because she reminds her of her own little sister, Primrose.  Suzanne Collins, the author, describes Rue saying, "She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that's she's very like Prim in size and demeanor."  I know why I mourned Rue.  I had little sisters, too.  Rue was beautiful, innocent, and young.  Her character as portrayed in the movie also reminded me of my sisters and daughter. 
          But for some, the fact that they identified with Rue and mourned her death means that she can't be black -- even though the text says she is and the author has directly stated that she is African-American, too.  There are a number of twitter users who have posted about The Hunger Games following the movie saying thing such as, "why does rue have to be black not gonna lie kinda ruined the movie" (prompting, thankfully, spoofs such as "why does Frederick Douglass have to be black not gonna lie kinda ruined abolition"), "call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn't as sad" (Yes, you're a racist), and "Rue looks nothing like I imagined her.  Isn't she supposed to be a pale redhead (or was that just in MY head?)?  Why is she black?" (Yes, it was just in YOUR head.)  For more, see what I think is the original Jezebel story here, more Jezebel commentary here, and a bunch of racist tweets here.
         Yes, too often the children whose deaths we mourn as a society are the white little girls, and too seldom do we mourn young black children killed.  That's why these people struggle with Rue being black--they mourned her, not realizing her race, and assumed her, therefore, to be white, despite textual evidence.  If you care, if she's important, she must be white.  We're used to not caring in our society about young black children who are killed.  And even more so those who are boys, boys killed too soon like Trayvon Martin.  Trayvon was innocent, beautiful, precocious, and gone too soon, too. His death was wrong, horrible, outrageous.  And remarkably, it, too, caught media attention and made us sad and furious.
         The fact that we are, really, conditioned through our media and our culture to be more sympathetically inclined towards dead white children and to find their deaths sadder and more outrageously wrong makes it even more clear how very, very wrong Trayvon's death was.  The fact that we are paying attention to it not because of his race but despite of his race shows how very, very horrible and wrong it was.  If you've listened to the 911 calls and heard him crying for help and heard the level of distress of the callers calling 911 you know it was brutal.  A beautiful, promising young man carrying iced tea, Skittles, and a cell phone, gunned down for the crime of walking while black and wearing a hoodie -- of course we are, and should be, outraged, sad, angry, furious, and tearful.  And there can be no doubt that if this was a young white boy, a high school football player, walking home from a store who was shot by a black man who happened to think he was up to no good for walking home that night, that the shooter would be behind bars awaiting trial, a trial at which he would not be treated kindly by the justice system.
         President Obama has said that the nation needs "soul-searching" in response to Trayvon's death.  In response, people are saying things such as "If Trayvon’s mother were white, would Obama give her a call?" implying that it is the president, not the shooter, who is the racist.  Of course, for Christina Taylor Green, Obama did speak at her funeral.  But facts never get in the way of racist attacks on the president.
         We do need a national soul-searching in response to Trayvon.  And especially if his death doesn't prompt sadness and outrage, we do need soul-searching.

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