Trayvon and Zimmerman—What it Means to Be a Man

July 26th, 2013

Expressing our masculinity without violence.

I’ve had difficulty reflecting on the Trayvon Martin tragedy and the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial. I realized that part of it was the result of being stunned by a verdict that seems so wrong. Part of my difficulty was in making sense of the complexity of this situation. Some people are seeing it as a case of racial injustice and profiling of African American Trayvon and the wannabe cop who was white… sort of (Zimmerman is of Peruvian descent and was classified as White Hispanic). Others see it as a gun law issue, a support (or indictment) of Stand Your Ground laws in Florida.

But as I keep looking into this tragedy, I am struck by the masculinity of it all. I’m struck by the ways in which problematic ideals of what it means to be a man likely played out in devastating ways. I see Zimmerman trying to be a man and protector, donning the identity and the weaponry of law enforcement. But he was play acting. There is limited evidence that he was trained rigorously in law enforcement and he was explicitly advised not to act out the role of the cop-protector in the heat of the incident. Yet, he had to be a man and confront Martin.

And Trayvon, probably rightly in fear of personal harm, no doubt attempted to stand his ground and defend himself. I would argue that he was playing the role of a man (young though he may have been) who doesn’t cower when confronted by a bully. Part of that impulse to not be bullied is about being black—I get that deeply as a black person. But racial dignity asserts itself in a variety ways, many of which are not about violent action. I think Dr. King taught us something about that.

Look, I wasn’t there and no matter what I think, if I were in that situation, I don’t know what I would have done. I’m just asking the question of what might have been different about that night—and about the dialogue that has followed these many months since—if we had a different collective idea of what it means to be a man. I wonder what would have happened if the broader deeper definitions of being a man were ingrained in our culture. What if being a man also meant:

  • Avoiding violent confrontation above all else, if at all possible.
  • Questioning your assumptions about the other men you encountered.
  • Accepting help as a virtue, not a sign of weakness.
  • Seeing retreat as a honorable option.

We can’t turn this clock back, sadly. But we can continue to work on helping broaden what it means to act like—and to be—a man.

[This blog was first posted on the MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) on Jul 18, 2013 12:30 PM EDT. Comment here or read additional perspectives and comments on http://onthemarc.org/blogs/22/199#.UfHVjVO-57c]

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