Race, White Womanhood, and Trayvon Martin

Reflecting upon the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, I’m struck by the expectations so many in mainstream and social media held for the six women jurors who found Zimmerman not guilty 0f second-degree murder. This jury was more often “gendered” than they were “raced.” Many of us—whatever “side” one took in this controversial high-profile case—assumed that the very biological determinism of their femaleness would engender maternal empathy for Trayvon Martin, the murdered victim, and trump other identities these women held (five of whom were white, one of whom was Hispanic).

There was another narrative that Zimmerman’s defense attorneys conjured up for the jurors that we need to consider, one deeply embedded in the intersections of race and gender: Essentially, his attorneys feminized Zimmerman as they simultaneously criminalized Martin.

It’s curious to me, if we look back to when this case first received national attention, how we as a nation were fairly united in believing the death of the 17-year-old Martin deserved an arrest and a trial. During those early conversations, the prevailing opinion seemed to be that this death, whether based in racial profiling or self-defense, resulted from an unjust confrontation involving an older, heavier, armed man against an underaged, unarmed teen. At the most, Zimmerman was a cold-blooded killer; at the least, he was a coward.

But then President Obama entered the fray and tried to humanize Martin by commenting that, if he had a son, he would probably look like this now-deceased teenager. It was after that moment that Trayvon’s posthumous image was denigrated. Instead of magnifying his humanity, Obama’s comments of paternal compassion deepened the political will of his opponents to demonize this teen.

What unfolded in the wake was what I consider a two-fold demonization. On the one hand, the narrative of a young black teen walking through a middle-class neighborhood in a hoodie deemed him a threat, even though he was only armed with Skittles and iced tea. Those who wanted to conjure an image of the criminalized “thug” could spin this tale however they wanted; Trayvon Martin was dead and rendered forever speechless.

The other narrative, the one less talked about, is perhaps the more enraging: the hypothetical “black president’s son.” This symbolic trespass is sacrilege for some.

The double-reading of “threat” applied to Trayvon Martin’s body propelled enough citizens to raise funds for Zimmerman’s defense, and his defense team did the rest: from ridiculing star witnesses such as Trayvon’s friend Rachel Jeantel to wrestling with an effigy representing Travyon (in the infamous “dummy” demonstrations) to the block of concrete that Trayvon was supposedly “armed with” (when defense attorneys argued that Travyon supposedly slammed Zimmerman’s head in the sidewalk, thus representing life-threatening danger). I thought I was watching theater of the absurd and not a legal court system at work.

I was holding out hope that the jury of women would see through the absurdity and, as prosecutors urged, use common sense. But what  is common sense when one is told that the heavier, older George Zimmerman is just a “scared, inept and cowardly Mr. Softy,” while the 17-year-old deceased is a super-scary black man, so dangerous and so embodied with superhuman strength that he could literally “arm himself with pavement” to the point that Zimmerman had no other choice but to use deadly force to save his own life?

That six women believed such a narrative, enough to constitute reasonable doubt, speaks volumes—less about their lack of maternal empathy for Sybrina Fulton’s son walking home, only to be killed by an armed stranger, and more about the gendered powerlessness, combined with racialized fear, that certain women are conditioned to understand. Never mind that Zimmerman has had a history of domestic violence and assaulted a woman while working as a bouncer—nformation that was never brought up in the trial.

I have a hard time believing that, had there been men on this jury, the defense team would have portrayed an armed “Mr. Softy” threatened by an unarmed teenager. Such a portrait violates the codes of masculinity that they have learned since the playground (i.e., who has the upper hand, which is always, always the guy with the gun). Granted, the attorneys might have tried an altogether different strategy had their been men on the jury, but somehow the feminine, powerless Zimmerman narrative was enough—and could only be convincing (at least enough to create reasonable doubt) if one accepts that Trayvon is the more powerful and violently oppressive of the two. Given his unarmed and underage status, this narrative can only be convincing if one believes, however subconsciously, in the stereotypes of black masculinity.

What bothers me about the gendered and raced narrative that feminized Zimmerman and criminalized Martin are the assumptions made about the women jurors—and white women in particular, most of them mothers. This isn’t just biological essentialism but also the assumption of loyalty to white supremacy. In the past, and perhaps even today, women were often appealed to because of the belief in their “inherent” compassion and empathy—based in motherhood, of course.  This was especially demonstrated during the antebellum Victorian era, when women abolitionists constantly appealed to white women’s common bond as mothers in empathizing with powerless, enslaved black mothers: from Angelina Grimke’s “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South” to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Frances E. W. Harper’s “The Slave Mother” to Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

But think also of the white women who, when they failed to be included in the 15th amendment, which extended the vote to black men but not to white women, fell back on racist outrage and eventually rallied around white supremacy and supported groups like the Ku Klux Klan, which lynched black men to “save” white women’s virtues. White supremacy had become a system worthy of their loyalty.  Indeed, just from listening to Juror B37 in her interview with Anderson Cooper, her ability to sympathize with a George Zimmerman while dismissing the likes of Martin and his friend Rachel Jeantel as “those people,” indicate where her loyalties lie. No wonder Jeantel, in her interview with Piers Morgan, had to sum things up the way she did: “They old! That’s old-school people.” (Translation: based on the age, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds of the jurors, they’re woefully clueless about the lives of others.)

Adrienne Rich said it best in “Disloyal to Civilization” when she argued that white women could not form important connections with other women across the planet—the kinds of connections that would advance women’s collective power and overturn patriarchy—if they remained forever loyal to a white supremacist system. This year we’ve seen women like Abigail Fisher try and overturn affirmative action in a Supreme Court case, much like Barbara Grutter before her, even though white women as a group have benefited more than anyone else from affirmative-action programs. And now, another group of women have failed to give Trayvon Martin justice. These instances suggest that white privilege, power and dominance outweigh any notions of gender justice and solidarity.

Despite white privilege, this loyalty to the same oppressive system that would gladly run roughshod over our rights to choose or not choose motherhood, as has occurred in states like Texas, is woefully misguided. If feminism is to have a future, as Rich noted, “disloyalty [is now] urgent necessity.”

Picture of Rachel Jeantel taken from Youtube


Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.