Editor’s note: Susan Bodnar is a clinical psychologist who works with people from diverse backgrounds and teaches at Columbia University’s Teachers College and at The Stephen Mitchell Center for Relational Studies. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, two children and all of their pets.
By Susan Bodnar, Special to CNN
(CNN) – When I learned of the news that a young black male, Trayvon Martin, had been shot and killed, it knocked the tears out of me.
Could this have happened to my child? One of his friends?
Martin was like many of our adolescent children – a little bit confused about his identity, and perhaps acted out as most teenagers do.
Instead let’s discuss how a white Hispanic man came to view an unarmed black teenager as dangerous, and explore racism’s lingering vestiges after the death of Trayvon Martin.
We are still learning the exact circumstances that preceded George Zimmerman firing his gun at Trayvon Martin.
We do know that Martin would still be alive if Zimmerman had followed the police dispatcher’s instructions not to pursue the teenager.
But it should not stop us from examining race’s role in this tragedy.
Sanford, Florida, the city where Martin was shot, reflects how history and perceptions of race can fuel circumstance.
Maybe the population grew too quickly, or the recession fell too hard.
Whatever the reason, recent events began to expose fractures within Sanford.
There was a series of burglaries by young black men, and residents feared for their safety.
Zimmerman led a neighborhood watch association, and repeatedly contacted police authorities about black men.
In addition to this recent crime, other incidents exacerbated tensions between Sanford’s black and white communities.
In 2010, the white son of a police lieutenant attacked a homeless black man, the violence captured on video.
Police Chief Brian Tooley resigned over the incident and Bill Lee took over , with a focus on mending tensions between police and the black community.
The relationship between increased crime and a police department that is not trusted by many of Sanford’s black citizens should not be ignored.
Ordinary citizens take their cues from how civic authority conducts itself.
When police use racial profiling to prevent crimes and do not prosecute crimes against black Americans, they establish a tolerance for inequality.
These perceptions can destroy another person’s life, even if they don’t lead to murder.
That is why exploring the role of race is important.
White Americans still hold a good deal of the social and economic power in this country.
With entitlement comes the responsibility to acknowledge racism’s continued reach, despite civil rights legislation and the election of Barack Obama.
A frank and open dialogue about race, especially in a society where nonwhite newborns now outnumber white births, benefits all of us, not just people of color.
Have I ever been surprised upon meeting wealthy black Americans with happy childhoods?
Have I ever assumed that black Americans would have liberal politics because of their story?
Have any black Americans been surprised when learning about the tough economic battles and ensuing psychological scars faced by members of my family?
As my cheeks burned a mighty red, I have looked into the eyes of black Americans and acknowledged racial bias, saying I’m sorry and asking how to be different.
Some of my best white friends have allowed me to appear as the lone racist in a group when I have tried to discuss our shared racism.
But talking about prejudice can elicit shared humanity from those who wear different costumes of origin.
I understand the anxiety about losing deep attachments to a familiar and beloved culture. Sharing power with people of other races might alter how we know ourselves.
Despite this, many have found the willpower to see a real person behind skin color’s veil.
Think before reacting. Reflect and assess when encountering difference.
Thinking and reflecting can counteract the damage of bias, and a more complex understanding of inequality can emerge.
It will not bring Trayvon Martin back to life, and it will not heal those who loved him.
But we can uplift his memory by confronting our own bias and impacting our own friends and family.
Let Trayvon Martin’s life be this gift.
The opinions expressed are solely those of Susan Bodnar.