Officials in 17th-century Puritan Boston coerced Hester Prynne into permanently affixing the stigma of the scarlet letter onto her garments to forever socially castigate her for her so-called “crime” of conceiving a daughter in an adulterous affair. Stigmata include symbols, piercings, or brands used throughout recorded history to mark an outsider, offender, outcast, one who is enslaved, and others.
Though Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter is a work of fiction, members of several minority communities continue to suffer the sting of metaphoric stigmata through their skin color, hair texture, facial features, sex assigned at birth, sexual and gender identities and expressions, religious beliefs and affiliations, countries of origin, linguistic backgrounds, disabilities, ages, and so on.
1999, Amadou Diallo, 23; 2000, Patrick Dorismond, 26; 2003, Ousmane Zongo, 24; 2004, Tim Stansbury, 19; 2006, Sean Bill, 23; 2009, Oscar Grant, 23; 2012, Stephon Watts, 15; 2014, Eric Garner, 43; 2014, Michael Brown, 18.
This list stands as a black or Latino parent’s worst fear. It includes the names of innocent, unarmed black people, primarily boys and men, killed at the hands of police officers for virtually no other reason than the color of their skin.
Many white parents often dread engaging with their children in “the talk,” you know, the one about the so-called “birds and bees.” The trepidation they feel compels them sometimes to put it off as long as possible or never to bring it up at all. While this version of “the talk” may also engender anxiety in black and Latino parents, they must not only broach, but delve deeply into another form of “the talk” with their children, and in particular with their sons, that most white parents never have to consider.
Since the time white people first forcibly kidnapped, enslaved, and transported Africans across the vast oceans to the Americas, some law enforcement officers as well as civilian white residents of the United States routinely profiled and targeted black and Latino boys and men for harassment, arrest, violence, and murder simply for walking down the street or later driving in cars while being black or Latino.
Black and Latino parents from all walks of life throughout the country engage with their sons in what they refer to as “the talk” once their sons reach the age of 13 or 14 instructing them how to respond calmly if ever confronted by police officers. Parents warn youth that if ever approached by police, walk toward them and never run away, keep hands out of your pockets in plain view, don’t raise your voice, always act in a polite manner, and never show anger or use derogatory language. Parents of these young men know full well the stigmata embedded into their sons by a racist society, branding them as criminals and forever signing them onto the endangered species list.
Stigmatized and marginalized groups live with the constant fear of random and unprovoked systematic violence directed against them simply on account of their social identities. The intent of this xenophobic (fear and hatred of anyone of anything seeming “foreign”) violence is to harm, humiliate, and destroy the “Other” for the purpose of maintaining hierarchical power dynamics and accompanying privileges of the dominant group over minority groups.
On February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch leader in Sanford, Florida, shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Martin was walking on the sidewalk talking on a cell phone to his girlfriend and carrying a can of ice tea and a small bag of Skittles when Zimmerman confronted and shot him, and then he claimed self-defense. By most reports, Martin’s “crime” was walking while being black in a predominantly white gated community visiting family and friends. His stigmata included his black skin in tandem with his youth while wearing a “hoody.”
In the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin, 32-year-old Iraqi American Shaima Alawadi appears to have been the victim of a brutal hate-inspired murder in her San Diego home. On March 24, 2012, Alawadi’s oldest daughter, Fatima al-Himidi, found Aalwadi “drowning in her own blood,” beaten with a tire iron. A note near Alawadi bloodied body read, “Go back to your country, you terrorist.”
We witnessed the brutal attacks on Rodney King in Los Angeles, the barbarous slaying of James Byrd, Jr. in Jasper, Texas, the fierce rape and murder of Cherise Iverson, a 7-year-old girl in a Las Vegas casino bathroom, the police chokehold death of 43-year-old Eric Garner, and the recent multiple-bullet police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown. And these are simply just a few of the most visible examples of this form of stigmatized violence.
We must not and cannot dismiss these incidents as simply the actions of a few individuals or “bad cops,” for oppression exists on multiple levels in multiple forms. The killers live in a society that subtly and not-so-subtly promotes intolerance, imposes stigmata, and perpetuates violence. These incidents must be seen as symptoms of larger systemic national problems.
We are living in an environment in which property rights hold precedence over human rights. Metaphorically, oppression operates like a wheel with many spokes. If we work to dismantle only one or a few specific spokes, the wheel will continue to roll over people. Let us, then, also work on dismantling all the many spokes in conquering all the many forms of stigmatized oppression in all their many forms.
In the final analysis, whenever anyone of us is diminished, we are all demeaned, when anyone or any group remains institutionally and socially stigmatized, marginalized, excluded, or disenfranchised, when violence comes down upon any of us, the possibility for authentic community cannot be realized unless and until we become involved, to challenge, to question, and to act in truly transformational ways.