So this piece from the Chronicle is the kind of condescending critique of sentimental pop progressivism that got me into my chosen line of academic work, which is, I guess, the embarrassingly immanent critique-and-defense of sentimental pop progressivism.
I have friends who are huge fans of Tenured Radical and I appreciate some of what she says here— especially when she writes that we should think carefully about whether “we” “are” in fact George Zimmerman. My own neighborhood watch email list does in fact regularly interpellate all of us as George Zimmermans, encouraging us to engage in racial profiling or simply assuming that we will, and there was recently some Trayvon-inspired talk-back on the list about just this from (among others) an African American woman who rightly felt compelled to resist.
But much of Tenured Radical’s critique assumes that the political performance of sentimental identification requires and proves an obliviousness about the limits of such identification: that if you put on a hoodie you must believe that there are no meaningful differences between you and Trayvon, and you must not be thinking critically about race. For some people this may be true. But as it happens the most common version of the internet hoodie meme I saw was primarily a performance of dis-identification calling critical attention to racism and racial difference: white people in hoodies saying not “I am Trayvon” but “Do I look suspicious to you?” For white people, the implied answer is no, because hoodie or no hoodie I am still white; I am not Trayvon. The point for these people was NOT “it was me” or even “it could have been me”; the point was that it couldn’t have been.
Meanwhile, for many of the black men in hoodies posing the same question, the point was that it indeed could have been them— and that, again, is an expression of their critical awareness of race and racism. The young black man on my facebook feed who changed his middle name to Trayvon Martin was not denying the specificity of Trayvon’s individual irreplaceable personhood. He was expressing his awareness of the fact that according to the trigger-happy logic of racist violence, he is indistinguishable from Trayvon, and that is the problem.