Johnson and Okun: After Trayvon, two choices

August 4, 2013 

The great philosopher Plato suggested that death offers an opportunity for transformation.

In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s unjust killing, our country is attempting to figure out how to understand his death and the unjust nature of the verdict.

Trayvon wasn’t the first young black man to die for simply being black; there have been too many others lost to lynching, torture and beatings, and the middle passage.

Each time a life is senselessly lost, we have two choices – we can continue to seek justifications that leave our deep racial divide intact or we can seize an opportunity for a different discussion, a deeper understanding of our shared history, a transformation.

We are taught in our culture that racism is about our personal beliefs and acts, about whether or not we like each other across our skin color. We engage in heated discussions about whether one or another of us is or is not racist as if these arguments get to the heart of the matter.

Racism is so much more than what you and I believe; racism is about how those beliefs turn into institutional and cultural norms that allow a state’s legal system to condone a young black man’s senseless killing while at the very same time sentencing Marissa Alexander, a young black woman, to 20 years for firing a warning shot to ward off a threatening husband.

Like fish in water, we are swimming in a sea of racism that we are trained not to see. Racism is such a taboo topic that the jurors in Trayvon Martin’s case can claim, without any sense of irony, that race had nothing to do with their verdict.

Our collective silence about the power of racism is killing not just the memory of Trayvon Martin, but all of us; it causes a dis-ease in our bodies, minds, and spirits, whatever our race.

People of color are carrying both the burden of our own contemporary traumas as well as our ancestors’ cultural trauma. We are also carrying the anticipation of future traumas. Waiting for the next Trayvon Martin is like holding our breath. If we aren’t breathing, we aren’t alive.

White people are carrying our fear that accounting for what has happened in the past, acknowledging our historic and contemporary role in racism, our privilege, means an admission that we are “bad.” We defend and deny until we run out of breath. If we aren’t breathing, we aren’t alive.

If we are to ever get well, we all need to breathe.

Dismantling Racism Works is a training collaborative that provides a space for all of us to take a much-needed breath while we develop a shared language, a shared analysis, and a shared understanding of how we got here and what we can do about it. We believe in our collective possibility to build the kind of accountability and love that we all need to avoid future Trayvon Martins.

Acknowledging the power of racism in our lives can be very challenging; it requires patience, grace, intentionality and an ability to sit with our emotions. At dRworks, we facilitate the difficult and liberating discussions about the impact of racism on us as people of color and white people. We work to build a collective vision of a world full of love and justice.

As you are looking for something to do in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin, consider attending our next public training on Oct. 4-5 – find out more at our website In addition to our group, Organizing Against Racism also coordinates race equity trainings. This can be one way of honoring Trayvon Martin’s death, as Plato suggests, to transform ourselves and our world.

Michelle Johnson lives in Carrboro, where she serves on the Board of Aldermen. Tema Okun lives in Durham.

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