Stand Your Ground: A conversation on the Michael Dunn verdict

[Roots of Justice Trainers and Accountability Council (board) members share thoughts and analysis about the Michael Dunn verdict and Stand Your Ground laws.]jordan-davis

Tina LopesTina Lopes: As the mother of two sons, I begin with the dreadful recognition that you, the mothers and fathers, the sisters and brothers, the aunts and uncles, the grandparents, the lovers, partners and dear friends of young Black men, must now be even more afraid that the young man you love will not return home safely. And for all the fears that haunt me as the mother of two South Asian boys, this is not one that I have to carry in the same way.

I am shaken by the outcome of this case. As I think of the jurors, I am reminded of the need to be vigilant: I need to notice when I am being tempted into a similar default position. I must ensure that I constantly listen to alternative sources of history, news and analysis of our society. I need to check the reactions I have in tense situations for my unexamined assumptions and stereotypes. Most of all, I have a responsibility to ask questions of myself and of others when a system fails as dismally as the justice system failed in the trial of Michael Dunn.

Conrad Moore

Conrad Moore: If we define racism as race prejudice plus power, Stand Your Ground laws are classic racism unmasked. As usual, white people’s prejudice and fear is STILL our problem. It is no secret that white men have been afraid of African American men for centuries. White people have expressed that fear by attempting to enslave us, control us through mass incarceration and other attempts to annihilate us. We still rise. Yet while they act out their FEAR through violence against us, they get to pretend that they are in fear for their lives from us. We don’t have to be doing anything but playing our music too loud or simply walking home with some Skittles and an iced tea. They get to pretend that our very presence on the street, day or night, is reason to be afraid. And fear translates to a threat. And a threat MUST be met with deadly force. This is an example of how racism changes it’s shape. While actual lynching is no longer legal, this law gives white people permission to lynch (shoot) us when they feel afraid, even when their fear is their own imagination, as is the case with these two unarmed black male children whose only crime was their age and race.

Rick DerksenRick Derksen: The pattern of this irrational white fear that Conrad has named is accompanied by a narrative of imagined/perceived threats throughout the history of this country. This narrative has been used to justify genocide, the enslavement of people of African descent, the stealing of land from First Nations and Mexico, the waging of countless wars (of which the invasion of Iraq and the imagined threats used to justify that action is just a recent example), the rise of the Prison Industrial Complex as a response to the Civil Rights movement (see Michelle Alexander), and the murder of young African American men like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. This narrative has also been constantly repeated and reinforced by white-owned and controlled media. This narrative, in spite of abundant evidence to the contrary, has almost always managed to create an alternative universe where the white man or the United States is the victim under threat.

This irrational white fear played itself out in our neighborhood in Seattle in December when our local police department swooped in to forcibly remove a coalition of African American parents and educators called Africatown from a building owned by the school district while they were in the middle of negotiating a lease. This police action was justified by a “report” that there were snipers and explosives in the building, a report that was very obviously false to anyone with any knowledge of the people involved in Africatown, but was somehow seen as credible by most of the local media outlets, which basically regurgitated the police department version of events.

Yvonne PlattsYvonne Platts: My heart screams for something to be said. Some young people are believing that black men have created this problem themselves.

Tina: I’ve also felt speechless in the face of the enormity of all that the Michael Dunn verdict makes evident, but don’t want to remain so. As a South Asian in North America, I don’t want to be silent and collude in reducing this to an issue that implicates only White and African-descent/Black people/communities. Those of us who are neither White nor Black are often expected to join the White perspective in order to belong, to be viewed as reasonable and trustworthy, and we are fed a steady diet of television shows and news articles that reinforce images of dangerous Black men. I’ve never had cause to fear Black men, young or old. When I arrived here as a young South Asian teen, the greatest threats to me were posed by White teenagers, both boys and girls. They were terrifying, yelling racial slurs, spitting and threatening to beat me up as I ran from them. I took their threats seriously because people who looked like me had been thrown in front of subways or beaten to death. As these teens threatened me, no one intervened – not the White bus driver who steered the bus where the taunts began, and not the other mostly White adult passengers. To this day, some forty years later, I don’t cross a dark or deserted street when there is a Black man walking there, but I do when I see a White man or a group of White teenagers. I actually breathe a sigh of relief when I see a group of Black teenagers, feeling less alone in an otherwise brutish world of racism. So as a rational and thoughtful human being of mature age, I do not agree that this is a reasonable way for Michael Dunn to have behaved, and I hope other racialized people will not condone his behaviour either.

Pam NathPam Nath: Conrad’s and Yvonne’s comments specifically about white and African American men makes me wonder “What about white women? And what about Black women?” I’ve been learning about ways that white supremacist heteropatriarchy has been propped up by the portrayal of white women as people who are vulnerable and need protected. And its not just Black men who are threatened by white people’s fear as evidenced in the murder of Renisha McBride.

Tina: In the court proceedings and the media coverage, we are made to believe that “most people” would have acted as Michael Dunn did. We are asked to share the assumption that these are people who are credible, reasonable and worth listening to because they can be counted on to offer a rational and objective position. It’s clear in the way this case has unfolded that White people get immediate admittance into this group, regardless of class, occupation, country of origin, etc. There is perhaps a minor qualification for White women who are not always seen as rational, but nothing that would usher them out of this particular tent. I wonder if the shadowy sub-text of this case is that it is also on their behalf – the safety of White women – that this question of threat is being posed (just as it has been throughout the history of racism in this society). Was Michael Dunn acting to protect not just himself but the companion he was waiting for? Was he protecting her not only from the potential physical threat but also the discomfort and harsh presence of Black men being loud in a way that is frightening to White women? And wouldn’t every White man want to ensure that White women can walk the streets without such an affront?

Rick: There is the rather glaring contrast between the trials of George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn (white men [see here for discussion about Zimmerman’s compliracial identity]) on the one hand and the trial of Marissa Alexander (an African American woman) on the other hand. Even though a Florida appeals court has now called for a new trial for Marissa Alexander (no doubt in response to the Free Marissa national organizing campaign), the same system that exonerated Zimmerman and Dunn on “stand your ground” was quick to convict her of aggravated assault and give her the mandatory minimum of 20 years.

Conrad: And manifestations of this fear happen everywhere, but not always to the same extremes. I had an incident on the job where one of my colleagues and I had some tense words between us. He was one of those white guys who everyone seemed to be afraid of and tried to placate. We were at the same level of management. I had only been on the job a few weeks. We had a departmental misunderstanding of some kind. His response was to barge into my office and attempt to chew on me, figuratively. I wasn’t having it. I stood up and in no uncertain terms let him know that he will not barge into my office and he does not have permission to talk to me using that particular tone. Simple and direct.

Next thing I know I’m getting a call from HR. He is asking for a meeting. Trying to get me fired I suspect. Long story short, he said he felt threatened and intimidated. I reminded him that I never verbally threatened him or lunged at him in any way. “Well not exactly Conrad. Not in so many words.” Then where did those feelings of intimidation actually come from? I asked rhetorically. Why exactly are we here? If you are just afraid of black men you should see a therapist. Your sense of fear and intimidation in the presence of black men is not my problem. Bottom line. This law has now made his fear, real or imagined, my problem.

Pam: I’m not convinced Michael Dunn even felt fear. The facts of the case seem to suggest to me that he felt rage rooted in entitlement, but he can claim fear and use it to justify his behavior and juries seem to accept that. Like you, Conrad, I’ve been thinking a lot about “less extreme” expressions of the logic that underlies these verdicts and Stand Your Ground laws. I think its important for all of us to think about the ways in which we are implicated, rather than distancing ourselves from the injustice that they represent, as if it has nothing to do with us. As I’ve observed interactions across race lines, I’ve been noticing how white woman are not socialized in ways that make it acceptable to assert our power in direct ways. In fact, I think its quite the opposite – white women often exert their power through vulnerability and expressions of weakness or need. So in groups where white women are in the majority, folks who communicate directly especially about conflict are often seen as dominating or even as threatening. The “Angry Black Woman” stereotype is still alive and well.

When it comes to feelings in interpersonal interactions, its not uncommon these days to hear things like “feelings are not right or wrong, they just are.” Does this mean that its not appropriate to question what relationship the feeling has to what actually occurred? Does this mean that if a person “feels attacked” in an interaction, that is somehow the responsibility of the other person no matter what actually occurred in the interaction? If so, this does seem to be a logic parallel to the Stand Your Ground laws and these jury verdicts.

The Stand Your Ground laws use the language of “reasonable” perception of threat. If our understanding of “reasonable” is based on what “most people” would feel, in a white supremacist society, our understanding of that is going to be biased to what “white folks raised with racial stereotypes” are likely to feel.

I think we need to have a way to understand or define threat that is not so subjective, not so feelings-based, and that attempts to discern more concrete evidence of threat. This is a tall order, and to do this, we are certainly going to need to pay better attention to the ways that our subjective experiences of threat are rooted in pervasive and often unconscious racial stereotypes.

Rick: One of the biggest challenges I face as a white person working with other white folks and in multi-racial coalitions is to find effective ways to counter the irrational white fear/imagined threat/white victimhood narrative and not allow myself to feel paralyzed by what Tina describes as “the enormity of all that this makes evident.” Another challenge we have been discussing and organizing around in European Dissent (a white antiracist group here in Seattle) is to identify and articulate why it is urgent for us as white people to address and work at dismantling the Prison Industrial Complex. What is in it for us?

Tina: As I ran from the group of teenagers who threatened me all those years ago, I remember wishing in my impotent rage and fear that I had a gun to defend myself. I am deeply thankful that I never did, and never will have a gun. But it begs the question: Would I have garnered the same sympathy that the jurors gave to Michael Dunn if I had shot one of these White teenagers? It’s highly unlikely. Those White passengers who were silent on the bus would likely have become outraged, would have insisted that those teenagers were “just being kids,” and that they did not deserve to die for their bad behaviour. That’s because our society teaches us to have empathy for the White person in the scenario, to see the White person in her or his full humanity, to give her or him the benefit of the doubt, to think the best of her or his motives, to identify with him or her as we would our own children – it’s the default position that is the product of a society where White people are always presented as the norm for being human.

Where is that same concern, identification with and profound care for the child who is Black and just as vulnerable, just as prone to play loud music, stay up late, drive over the speed limit and do all the things we do as youth because we are pushing the boundaries that adults impose in this phase of our development? How can these common teenage infractions be deemed punishable by death?

This Is What I Mean When I Say “White Feminism”

This Is What I Mean When I Say “White Feminism”

Parsing out the term “white feminism,” beginning with this:

Every single time women of colour talk about “white feminism” or “white feminists” within the context of discussions about the way that the mainstream feminist movement privileges whiteness, we deal with an onslaught of defensive white women insisting that they personallyare not like that, and would you please say “some white women” and not make generalizations?


What those women fail to realize is that by making that request, they are exemplifying Mikki Kendall’s #solidarityisforwhitewomen battle cry; by once again insisting that a conversation created to facilitate discussion about the issues of WoC, be centered around the feelings of white women.

If only moving could insulate us from racism: Thoughts on Justine Sacco

So, if you haven’t heard, Justine Sacco, (now formerly) public relations for an internet company that owns a number of websites including The Daily Beast, offered this tweet just before boarding a plane from London to Cape Town, South Africa: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Over the next several hours, the tweet went viral, spawning the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet.


Well, when she landed, she was greeted by her father, a horde of hungry reporters, and other on-lookers. She rapidly deleted her Twitter account. And she was fired: Not only did she make her company look bad by putting her racism out for the world to see, but her job is to do the exact opposite. Slate has a rundown. Read her apology here.

Her father, according to Twitter user @Zac_R, who went as a curious bystander to the airport, says that he raised Justine in the USA instead of South Africa (where he is from), because SA was too racist. What a shame that Justine’s father didn’t understand that the insidiousness of US racism can shape white people into racists just as easily and completely as South African apartheid.

Now, where we live and occupy space impacts our racial identity, but parents who explore social identities with their children and talk about privilege and power have a lot better chance of raising children who are likely to resist oppression. No matter where the children are raised.

That’s not to give an out to white families who think, “Let’s set up our house in this all-white, gated community, and just talk to our kids about privilege. That will be enough.” No, that’s not enough, that’s just lazy and entitled. You can’t expect to raise kids who resist racism, if you surround yourselves with privilege in a monoculture and only pay lip service to privilege awareness. At the same time, moving to the most diverse neighborhood and school in the world won’t automatically generate racism-resisting kids.

I don’t know how Mr. Sacco raised his children. He may have done everything right. As a parent and a son myself, I don’t find blaming parents to be very productive. Most parents do the best they can with the information and resources they have to raise their children to be decent people. Moving from South Africa to the United States in the 1980s (I’m just guessing how old Justine is) to avoid virulently racist society may have been a good idea. But moving is never enough.


ImageIf you’ve never heard the term “microaggression,” take a look at these links. In short, a microaggression is an individually small act that demeans, insults, or otherwise sets apart a non-privileged person. Being the target of countless microaggressions over the course of a life, week, or day, takes a very real toll.

21 Racial Microaggressions You Hear On A Daily Basis (Buzzfeed) – The photo on this page is from this list.

Microaggressions Tumblr – Hundreds of real examples.

When Uncle Jim Says Racist Things

RacistUncleBobAmong many things that come with holiday season, there are those opportunities to respond to racist, sexist, or otherwise oppressive jokes and comments made by family members that you really don’t see very often. These opportunities may be more likely for white people, but not exclusively.

Don’t be caught off guard! Armed with some of these ideas, you can be prepared to respond instead of just looking awkward and uncomfortable. Not all of these are appropriate for every situation and relationship, so have a range of options up your sleeve. The power of most of these lies in uncovering the comment and exposing the ugly racism/sexism/heterosexism/stereotype behind it.

  • Pretend you don’t understand and ask them to explain it. It’s not so funny when it has to be explained. And really go on with this asking a lot of questions. (h/t Carmen Van Kerchove)
  • Just outright embarrass them and don’t allow them to save face, with a comment like,  “Wow, that’s really racist!” or other examples from Captain Awkward. (The comments to that post are also worth reading.)
  • To avoid getting into a discussion about how racist they are or are not, you might try, “Oh, you must be so embarrassed. Do you know you said that out loud?” Or, “I’m so embarrassed for you!”
  • Say, “You probably said that because you think I’m white.” If a Person of Color uses this tactic it really throws off the offender. (h/t Conrad Moore, ROJ trainer)
  • Know some statistics, history, and current events so that you can use to provide counter-examples to: “Indians were friendly with the Pilgrims.” and “Black people are just more violent. Look at the statistics.” Don’t get your hopes up too much that you will change their point of view, but at least you won’t let them get away with it. (Also, Conrad)

What tactics do you use? If you use these over the holidays, how did it work out for you?

Excessive and Lethal Force: It’s Not Just Against Black Men

There is no shortage of high profile incidents of African American men and boys being shot and killed by while unarmed in places they have every right to be. From (and before) Emmett Till (1955) to Sean Bell (2006), Oscar Grant (2009), Trayvon Martin (2012), Jonathan Ferrell (2013), and countless others. (Twenty are reviewed at The Root.)

The frequency of these murders of Black men might give the impression that other women and other people of color groups are not also murdered under similar circumstances. Lest we be mistaken that Black men are the only group of people that are held in suspicion by our White-normative culture, we should remember the recent cases of:

Andy Lopez – 13-year-old shot by a Sonoma County deputy, while carrying a toy rifle

Renisha McBride – young woman shot on the doorstep of a homeowner as she sought assistance after a car accident

The fact that some of these sons and daughters were killed by other People of Color doesn’t negate the racial framing of the shooting. All of us, no matter what our racial identity, are influenced by the lie of White supremacy and the systems that reinforce it.

Prepare for Thanksgiving Stereotypes and Myths

The First Thanksgiving, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930)

It seems that once we finish dealing with racial caricatures on display for Halloween, we have the annual (U.S.) Thanksgiving-related caricatures of Native people. Rather than waiting until you need to correct the problems at your kid’s school (for those who have kids), you can be proactive in providing information about how harmful stereotypes are to both Native and non-Native children (and adults). It’s a lot easier to say, “I don’t know if you have any lessons or crafts planned for the Thanksgiving holiday, but I want to encourage you to avoid racial stereotypes that reinforce ahistorical myths” than to say, “This craft/decoration/story you presented to the class is a racist stereotype.” It’s just better for everyone.

Here are some resources to help you whether you want to educate yourself better, present some authorities to teachers, or run into others who don’t yet understand that, yes, stereotypes hurt people even if you intend it as a way to “honor” the stereotyped group.

Teaching Kids the Wonderful Diversity of American Indians, By Bernhard Michaelis, Founder, Native Child. Short article focuses on the impacts of stereotypes on preschoolers and dispelling some common stereotypes about feathers like tipis.

American Indian children who frequently encounter stereotypical images of their cultures are hindered in developing a feeling of pride in their heritage and a healthy self-image. When asked, there are American Indian preschoolers who will say they are not Indians. Why? Because they have already learned from popular movies and cartoons that Indians wear feathers and face paint and live in tipis and carry tomahawks. Preschoolers don’t look like that, so they don’t consider themselves Indians.

Deconstructing the Myths of “The First Thanksgiving”by Judy Dow (Abenaki). Deconstruction of 11 myths about Thanksgiving. Perfect for the history teacher. The website hosting the article,, also has other resources including book reviews.

Myth #11: Thanksgiving is a happy time.

Fact: For many Indian people, “Thanksgiving” is a time of mourning, of remembering how a gift of generosity was rewarded by theft of land and seed corn, extermination of many from disease and gun, and near total destruction of many more from forced assimilation. As currently celebrated in this country, “Thanksgiving” is a bitter reminder of 500 years of betrayal returned for friendship.

Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princesses: The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots, by Stephanie A. Fryberg, Hazel Rose Markus, Daphna Oyserman & Joseph M. Stone. This academic journal article provides data to back up the assertion that stereotypes hurt Native people. While it focuses on mascots, I think the onus is on the other side to craft a coherent argument as to why this wouldn’t apply to stereotypes in other contexts. Here’s the abstract:

Four studies examined the consequences of American Indian mascots and other prevalent representations of American Indians on aspects of the self-concept for American Indian students. When exposed to Chief Wahoo, Chief Illinwek, Pocahontas, or other common American Indian images, American Indian students generated positive associations (Study 1, high school) but reported depressed state self-esteem (Study 2, high school), and community worth (Study 3, high school), and fewer achievement-related possible selves (Study 4, college). We suggest that American Indian mascots are harmful because they remind American Indians of the limited ways others see them and, in this way, constrain how they can see themselves.

And for the video-minded, the American Experience series We Shall Remain, presents a decolonizing history with dramatizations depicting five moments of U.S. Indigenous history. The first episode looks at the relationship between the Wampanoag and the English settlers that has given rise to the popular first Thanksgiving myth. You can watch the entire episode online through Hulu (free) or Amazon (free with Prime, or $5.99 to own the entire series).

At the heart of the project is a five-part television series that shows how Native peoples valiantly resisted expulsion from their lands and fought the extinction of their culture — from the Wampanoags of New England in the 1600s who used their alliance with the English to weaken rival tribes, to the bold new leaders of the 1970s who harnessed the momentum of the civil rights movement to forge a pan-Indian identity. WE SHALL REMAIN represents an unprecedented collaboration between Native and non-Native filmmakers and involves Native advisors and scholars at all levels of the project.

Costume Flow Charts and Analysis

Each of the last couple of years, Halloween time sees a number of flow charts getting passed around through social media helping people answer the question, “Is this costume racist?” These are helpful to an extent, and usually add enough humor to help them spread. But their medium limits their analysis.

Jenée Desmond-Harris has contributed some great analysis on The Root, last year and this year. In addition to pointing out that one needs to consider a costume’s effects on others and not only the wearer’s intent, she also comments on the “I’m-just-having-fun” response.

That kind of defensiveness is a symptom of the very attitude that stifles productive conversation about race for the other, noncostumed 364 days out of the year, says David J. Leonard, associate professor in and chair of the department of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University, Pullam. “It just reflects how we talk about race in contemporary society,” he says. “It reflects the overall belief that race doesn’t matter, or that it only matters when people of color — who are accused of being overly sensitive, or ‘playing the race card’ — bring it up.”

Adding more from her interview with Dr. Leonard:

The important question, … Leonard says, is, “Why are ‘the other’ and ‘the exotic’ such sources of enjoyment and pleasure” that they’ve become Halloween staples? “What does it tell us,” he asks, “that amid all these scary things of ghosts and witches, we also have all these racialized costumes?” Plus, Leonard says, these choices “normalize whiteness” as the soccer mom or businessman in everyday clothes, thereby reinforcing inaccurate ideas about totally distinct racial and cultural communities.

… The “culture” costumes “tend to refer to very one-dimensional caricatures that are not at all authentic,” says Leslie Picca Houts, associate professor at the University of Dayton.

When it comes down to it, if you find yourself in a conversation with someone who just doesn’t get why they shouldn’t wear a certain costume, ask them, “Why would you be willing to even potentially offend even a few people just to wear a certain costume that some people would find racist?”

On Not Being Defensive

In an Open Letter to the Evangelical Church, Asian American evangelicals say that racism must stop. They lay out some examples in recent years of particularly offensive and publicized racial stereotyping of Asian cultures, and add 

“Although it is beyond unfortunate that these incidents happened at all, in many cases the reactions from the parties responsible towards the Asian Americans who have challenged them have been even worse than the initial stereotyping and ignorance.”

And so, after being explicitly told that the reactions toward those who challenge racism have been more damaging than the original racism, what response did these leaders receive? Anne Joh, one of the signers, describes at’s Room For Debate, that 

In yet another sign of callousness, Asian-Americans were initially told, in effect, to “get over it.” Instead, it is U.S. white Christians who must “get over” their whiteness and their failure to see the already changed face of Christian faith.

I am no stranger to defensiveness; I am a white, male, straight, cisgendered, educated, middle-class liberal, after all. But those who receive privilege must learn to receive criticism without immediately going into self-protection mode. When someone calls us out on something racist or otherwise oppressive, the first thing we must do is listen, assuming for a moment that the person is right. Even if we really don’t think so, we can at least engage it as a thought experiment. Clearly, someone else has been hurt; whether or not we are personally to blame is way less important than the other person’s injury. What would you call someone who, after being involved in a traffic accident where another person was injured, stands around describing all the reasons he is not to blame and explaining that the injured party really isn’t hurt all that bad? This term applies to us, every time we respond defensively when someone has the grace to trust us enough to say that we have hurt them.