At Facing History, we spend a lot of time thinking about the questions, actions, and choices people worldwide made in the aftermath of violent events throughout history – events ranging from the Armenian Genocide to the Holocaust to the American civil rights movement. This exploration of historical events allows us to both investigate the complexity of the events as well as reflect upon connections to ourselves and today with a grounding of historical understanding.
As Facing History staff, we too wrestle with these issues on an on-going basis. This week, a colleague offered some thoughts on how we as a global community might move forward into dialogue after the Zimmerman trial:
After hearing the verdict earlier this month that Florida neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmeran was found not guilty in the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin, I found myself searching for the right questions to ask in the aftermath of this current-day violence. What I longed for were questions that would help move the dialogue from the simplicity of "blame and shame" and useless labeling to a much more productive place.
The evening after the jury announced its verdict, I had a conversation with my two kids. One of the biggest challenges I faced was trying to get my kids to refrain from demonizing or even focusing on Zimmerman. I pushed them to deal with the complexity of the whole situation, while preserving their right to judge his actions. I was marginally successful. The messages out there are too strong even for a parent to overcome at times. I didn't mind them questioning Zimmerman's choices and motives. But I did not want them to go along with group thinking without grappling with the complexities of the choices that Zimmerman made and the societal context in which he made them. In the end, we didn’t end up talking much about the case or Zimmerman, but about the larger questions of race in America.
Here are a handful of the questions we considered:
- How does one resist acting on stereotypical profiles, of any group, but especially when the stereotypes are so strong? Was Zimmerman profiled as well? If so, by whom?
- What does it take to have a shift in one's thinking about another group of people, especially in the face of long held stereotypes?
- Is there ever any value in labeling? If so when is it helpful?
- Many people say our country has not had an honest dialogue about race. What question should start that dialogue? What would success in the conversation look like?
- There have been some connections made between this incident and the Emmett Till murder. Which connections are relevant? Which are not? Why? How do we avoid facile comparisons or simple parallels while trying to learn from the past? [For more background on the Emmett Till murder, see chapter one of Facing History’s Eyes on the Prize Study Guide]
- For those who feel justice was not served, what role do they think the law played in this decision? What range of choices do they have? Which choices would move us closer to a just society?
- Is justice ever blind or solely objective? If so, under what conditions?
What questions are you asking in the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict? Leave us a comment below.
To help you prepare for questions and conversations that might come up at home or in classrooms:
- See Contracting for a Safe Reflective Classroom for resources on how to create space for nuanced and difficult classroom conversations.
- Review Facing History’s Learn to Listen/Listen to Learn activity, which can be a useful teaching strategy during conversations about difficult topics.
- Check out the DVD Race: The Power of an Illusion, a powerful film that can help students and adults understand race in a more historical context. The DVD is available through the Facing History lending library.
- Watch the short video clip How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We can Do