When I first saw Trayvon Martin's picture, all I saw was my cousin. I have a cousin who, at 14, at 15, at 16, until he grew his hair out into dreadlocks, looks so much like Trayvon in my memory it is a physical pain. My cousin, who is no longer a teenager. My cousin, who is handsome, and kind, and smart. My cousin, who is a father. My cousin, who is fighting in a war I don't believe in, for reasons both altruistically patriotic and personally pragmatic. My cousin, who has yet to reach his 25th birthday.
Before he joined the army, I didnt think about his chances of survival. Why would I? I'm white. And he is my baby cousin. He was my summer companion for years. And I knew he was sweet and responsible. I knew he cared for our grandparents, knew that he mowed their lawn and did woodwork with my grandfather. I knew he took care of his little brother and sister. I knew that he was the type of kid any parent would be thrilled to have. And I didn't have to think that his skin was something that someone who didn't know him would find suspicious. Because I'm white.
The thing that hurts about Trayvon Martin in a true and visceral level is that when I first saw his smiling face, he was my cousin. He was someone I love dearly.
That's not to say I wouldn't have been outraged about the very nature of the injustice perpetrated against Trayvon if I didn't have a cousin of mixed race, if I didn't have three of them. But it does mean that the equation changed from a general feeling of anger at how institutional racism makes a kid walking home in the rain suspicious to one man and inconsequential to an entire police force to a specific understanding that this could have been someone I love. When I think of Trayvon Martin, when I think of the fact that he was a John Doe for a day before he was given a name, when I think of the fact that he was so close to home, when I think of his family, I think how easily it could have been my cousin not coming home and not knowing where he is. I can imagine myself being mad at him, believing he was fine until it was proved that he wasn't. I have the luxury of not immediately leaping to the worst of conclusions because I'm not black. I am only related to blackness and all that entails. Trayvon Martin hurts because he looks like my handsome cousin did - and still does. Trayvon Martin hurts because I see the man my cousin is, I see the man he has the potential to become - and I see a boy who was denied that opportunity. But I can't truly understand how incredibly limiting being that black boy is because I'm a white girl. It was never really in doubt whether or not I'd live to see my 25th birthday. And it was never in doubt that people would look at me and not see someone who is by her very nature suspicious. But it is a reality for millions of young men who could be my cousin. It is the world my cousin lives in.
I don't know how to fix that. I don't know how to make the George Zimmermans of the world recognize the humanity, and more importantly the individuality, of my cousin and all the men and boys who could be him - all the men and boys who could be Trayvon Martin. All the men and boys who could be Oscar Grant. All the men who could be Barack Obama.
President Obama said that if he had a son, his son would look like Trayvon. It's strange to think of a president who had to worry about having a son, who had to consider what having a black son would have meant. It's strange to think of any parent having to do that. To have the joy of having a child mitigated by the fact that the world would be an actively hostile place for that child. To have people both hold the worst expectations of your child and simultaneously question why your child wasn't succeeding - to have people attribute his successes to affirmative action and his failures to bad character while protesting they and the systems were not racist. To have a child in a world where he could be shot on the street for walking while black and then have the police accept the perpetrator's assertion that he was the threatened one.
And these are all things I knew, intellectually, before Trayvon Martin was shot. These were things my parents took care to tell me. These were things I understood when I read an interview with J. August Richards, who played Gunn on Angel the Series, when he talked about how he was followed around a store after getting the role and assumed it was because the guy thought he was shoplifting but was instead because he wanted an autograph. Think about that. It's horrific. Your normal life is being suspected of shoplifting, and not because you're doing anything - just because you are. Just because of the skin you exist in.
Because of the skin he was in, Trayvon Martin was seen as someone who didn't belong in George Zimmerman's neighborhood. Because of the skin he is in, Barack Obama's legitimacy is questioned. Because of the skin he is in, my cousin is at risk.
That is beyond horrifying. It is sickening. It is a sickness that has infected us all. And I don't know what the anecdote is. But those of us who aren't inherently seen as suspicious have to work tirelessly to remove that presumption from those of us who are. Because Trayvon Martin isn't the first Trayvon Martin. But we need to do everything in our power to make him the last.