On Trayvon Martin

by Charisse Burden

Ph.D. candidate, African American Studies, UC Berkeley

I’m sure hundreds, if not thousands, of blogs will weigh in on the Trayvon Martin case. There are many ways to approach, discuss, and analyze it, most of which are probably relevant and interesting. I want to think about Trayvon Martin in relationship to Jean Baudrillard’s theory of hyperreality. Essentially, he posits that in a highly mediated society (specifically with television as the medium) what is represented–the image–becomes more “real” than reality itself because it dictates how we understand the world. This simulated reality, or fiction, becomes blended with physical reality so that it becomes indistinguishable in our consciousness.

So how does this relate to the Trayvon Martin case, a real case with material realities? First, there are the images of Trayvon Martin that have been circulated and appropriated. On a variety of social media platforms, people expressed their solidarity with Martin by taking pictures of themselves in black hoodies with the caption “I am Trayvon Martin.” In other words, the totality of Trayvon Martin’s being–his reality–was conflated into this one culminating moment that now defines who he is.

There is then the characterization of Trayvon Martin as a child and innocent victim. Though he was victimized by George Zimmerman in this particular case, the infantilization of Martin to reify his innocence harkens back to the characterization of Black men in general as never being able to achieve manhood. It also erases his entire history so that all we “know” about Trayvon Martin is that he was a young boy, in a hoodie, with Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea, that was gunned down. Because the case was highly mediated, we feel like we know Martin and his family intimately, and Black people especially feel like his “reality” is related to or indicative of our own. But the fact is, we don’t know Trayvon Martin. We know very little about his past and who he was as a person. We don’t know what actually transpired between he and Zimmerman, and we don’t know how he would have represented himself in this matter. What we have is a highly mediated image that we have appropriated as reality.

Then there is George Zimmerman. His representation conflates law, image, and race in particular ways.  We are all familiar with how important image is for a defendant in the court of law. Many a defendant has morphed his/her image to “play to the jury,” dressing and comporting in seemingly innocent ways in order to control perception. In Zimmerman’s case, he grew out his hair, gained weight, and maintained a meek and humble demeanor throughout the trial. This is a far cry from the abrasive, caustic man who followed a young boy against the advice of police and gunned him down.

When the case first gained steam, Zimmerman was proud of his vigilante justice, positioning himself as an attentive and strong neighborhood watchman bent on protecting himself and by extension the community. On trial, however, his image became one of a victim fearing for his life. Finally, Zimmerman has been discussed, condemned, and analyzed as a white man even though he is not racially white. This very well may be because in America, race is primarily legible in terms of Black against white; the case made much more sense in that framework. The hyperreality of American racial politics subsumed Zimmerman’s physical identity into a representation of who many of us imagined him to be.

What the Trayvon Martin case, and other highly publicized cases, show us is that how we understand things, how we see the world, is really just a representation of what actually is. And we accept this. It makes life easier when reality is represented by a few images and debates that essentially mould how and what we think. This is what gives us a feeling of intimacy with celebrities we don’t really know or solidarity with victims we’ve never really seen. This is what allows people to become heartbroken or outraged or incensed or overjoyed by events that have no real impact on their lives. This is why the media is so easily able to define what the issues are and mask the structural features of these seemingly disparate incidents. Perhaps this, more than anything is the defining distinction between the current and previous generation.

That many have drawn parallels between Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin both distorts reality and makes it racially legible. That we must draw on the past as a representation of the present further elucidates the contingent and slippery nature of what is real, and how it is fundamentally related to what we imagine. The question then becomes, whose reality is being represented, and is this an acceptable substitute for what really is?