I am not outraged (as some have responded here) that President Obama addressed the nation after the verdict in the Zimmerman trial. He absolutely needed to say something. He cannot pretend that he’s not African-American nor can he pretend that the experience of Trayvon Martin did not resonate with him. The notion that he cannot comment is asking Obama to not be human. We should welcome that the President, who comes from a different background from every other president in history, can offer the country a keen insight into what it is like to grow up as a black man in America.
That said, President Obama spoke of some scenarios I’ve heard before:
“And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.”
I understand what he was trying to say. It is hard to be a black man in America. I am not trying to dismiss this very real and difficult struggle. I know there are people that immediately think the worst when a black man enters a store or is driving through a certain neighborhood. Racial profiling certainly happens. But, as a woman hearing this part of his speech, I cannot help but to see it in a different context.
In the United States, 1 in 5 women are raped. That statistic is staggering. Of the women who have never been raped, 1 in 20 of them report being the victim of sexual violence (unwanted sexual contact or harassment). It is obvious how important it is for women to be on their guard.
In college I was in a small group that was discussing the issue of violence against women. I talked about how often I walked around campus late at night by myself. If I saw a man coming toward me, it didn’t matter if he was black or white, a big and tall athlete or a short and scrawny guy, if I didn’t know him, I would walk to the other side of the quad or change my direction so that our paths would not cross.
One of the guys in my small group was a football player. He was probably over 6’5” and at least 300 pounds. He said that he completely agreed that when women are alone they have every right to be scared of any man they come across. He knew he himself was a pretty imposing figure and he didn’t take offense if someone saw him and put up their guard. He said sometimes, especially late at night when he was walking back to his dorm, he would whistle a tune so that the girls he passed maybe wouldn’t be as worried. “Because you can’t be too scared of a man whistling some Garth Brooks,” he would say.
When talking with a self-defense instructor recently, she said the most important lesson she tries to impart to women is to trust their instincts. Your body will naturally alert you when you feel in danger. Women should not worry about offending others. If you are alone on an elevator and a man gets on and you feel concerned, get off. Who cares if the man is offended? There should be no question, if you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, remove yourself from the situation. Out of all the times that I have reacted to some sense of danger, I’m sure most of those times I would have been fine but I’m not going to chance it. When 20% of women will be raped in their lifetime, women do not have the luxury of being politically correct when making decisions about their safety.
President Obama and I are each coming to this scenario from our lived experiences. Racism is still a reality in our country. Violence against women is far too common. We must do what the President did and talk about it. Discuss it. Bring it to the forefront at the national level, at the classroom level, at the dinner table level. If we avoid talking about these issues because they are “not appropriate” to talk about then there is no chance of changing them.
Violence — all kinds — thrives on silence. We cannot be silent.