When I first learned of the Trayvon Martin case, and saw George Zimmerman’s mug shot, it never crossed my mind that I was looking at a “white” man. I saw a face like my own staring back at me: Latino, of mixed heritage, just light enough to pass as white to someone who hasn’t spend a lifetime surrounded by mixed friends and family. What seemed obvious to me was perplexingly absent from the initial coverage characterizing Zimmerman simply as a bigoted white man. The reality was clearly more complicated.
Then, another, more troubling trend emerged: the backlash (mostly by white right-wing pundits) claiming that, because Zimmerman had some sort of Latino heritage, the attack wasn’t racist. As the story has developed, a clearer picture of Zimmerman has formed: he speaks Spanish and English, and has a white American father and a Peruvian mother. Apparently, having one minority parent absolves the child from any potential charges of prejudice. (At least, if you ask the Zimmerman family.)
Is “Latino” a Race?
The media coverage has made it clear that, as a society, we still aren’t clear on how to describe mixed-race individuals – especially Latinos. I’ve seen Zimmerman described as “white and Hispanic” (presumably a nod to his parents), “Latino,” “white Hispanic,” and some even stranger terminology. Some even contest a description of Zimmerman as anything but white, saying, “Hispanic is not a race.”
This is true, technically speaking. There are white people in Latin America – the descendants of the original European colonists from Spain and Portugal. There are some descendants of black slaves, especially in the Caribbean. There are also many, many people descended from the local indigenous cultures. When the US was settled, my European ancestors drove the natives from their land, leaving the many cultures they encountered devastated and dwindling. In Latin America, my ancestors were not necessarily better people. Colonization was still a brutal process that left many dead and attempted to destroy the local culture, religion, and customs.
But in Latin America, the natives weren’t driven from their homes. They were converted to Christianity, taught Spanish, and integrated into the society of the colonizers. The Spanish men married native women and had mixed children. In many countries, a complex hierarchy of racial categories rose up in response, with the first-generation Spanish emigrants on top, creoles (Spaniards born in America) below that, mestizos (those of mixed heritage) in the middle, and the natives and blacks at the bottom. Generations of intermarriage and racial mixing have made Latino identity complicated. Within Latin America, there is pervasive racism against blacks, natives, and mestizos with less European blood.
But most people in Latin America are anything but “white.” Racial relations south of the border tend to be messy and complicated due to the level of racial mixing. And because of the racial caste system in Mexico and elsewhere, most of the poor and disenfranchised have mostly-native backgrounds. These are the people desperate to immigrate to America for better opportunities. Most Latinos in the US cannot be accurately described as “white,” although most of us do have a healthy amount of European ancestry.
So: are Latinos a race, an ethnicity, or a culture? I’d argue a little of all three. Many Latinos who have been in the country for several generations don’t speak Spanish or have a meaningful connection to Latin American culture. But many of these people have visible and obvious indigenous heritage – short stature, brown skin, straight dark hair, brown eyes. Categorically declaring these people “white” – as many people and organizations, including the US government, do – does a disservice to them, effectively erasing the racism based on physical appearance that many Latinos face in the US. Even those of mixed heritage, those who may not appear on first glance to be obviously Latino, like George Zimmerman.
Where do Latinos fit in Discussions of Racism?
Attempts to force Zimmerman into a “black versus white” model of racism are bound to fail. As a light-skinned Latino (and especially one without an obviously Hispanic last name), does Zimmerman experience privilege? Of course. If he had darker skin, an obvious Spanish accent, or did not have one white parent, I’m certain he would not have been allowed to walk free after Trayvon Martin’s death.
But I can tell you from personal experience: being able to “pass” as white doesn’t mean you aren’t subject to racist attitudes and discrimination. And the fact that Zimmerman’s victim was black is significant. If a light-skinned, English-speaking, mixed-race Latino man with one immigrant parent had killed a blonde-haired, blue-eyed teenager under the same circumstances, I suspect the outcome would have been very different.
But that wouldn’t have happened. A white teenager walking home isn’t automatically “suspicious.” Black men and boys are.
In Arizona, Zimmerman would have been the “suspicious” one. Border vigilantes in the state have repeatedly shown they have no respect for human life — indeed, that they barely believe undocumented immigrants (or anyone they suspect might be one) to be human at all. In a state with a massive illegal immigration problem and draconian, racist, anti-Latino laws, anyone who looks vaguely Hispanic can be racially profiled and targeted by the police without any evidence of a crime. Plenty of American citizens across the US have found themselves deported to Mexico by overzealous immigration officials. Unusually tan skin and dark hair, or even a Spanish last name, are enough to incriminate you. Arguing that Latinos are “white” and that these laws don’t constitute racial profiling is disingenuous and ignores the reality that most Latinos are mixed-race.
Racism Among Minority Groups
So much of the media coverage and right wing response to Zimmerman seems to assume that Latinos can’t be racist. Of course they can be. African-Americans can be racist, too. It’s not uncommon for members of one minority group to be prejudiced against other minorities. Being Black or Latino doesn’t change anything about the messages we receive, growing up in a racist society.
And for someone like Zimmerman, raised by a white father in a society which devalues black life and concerns, racist attitudes are not surprising. For those of us who can “pass” as white, finding a place to fit in can be challenging and depressing. Being only “half” Latino, Zimmerman might not have fit in with the local Latino population. Being only “half” white, he may have felt a need to prove himself by being harsher against black men and boys he saw as potential troublemakers.
Some people react to the prejudice by fighting it, even prejudice against groups to which they don’t belong. Others react to it by turning the tables — working to focus the vitriol of others to different minority groups. This is an especially difficult problem to navigate when you don’t belong exclusively to one well-defined racial or ethnic category, because there’s often less of a support network in place for dealing with issues of race.
George Zimmerman’s Racism
I strongly believe that Zimmerman was motivated by Trayvon Martin’s race when he stalked and murdered him for doing nothing more than walking home from the store. Arguments by his family that his close relationships with people of other races prove he’s not capable of prejudice are meaningless.
It’s easy to say “I have plenty of black friends.” But actions speak louder than words: when someone kills a person without provocation, in cold blood, after being told to stand down by police, on no other basis than their victim’s skin color, doesn’t that send a strong message about how they perceive the value of black life?
If that doesn’t qualify as “racism,” I don’t know what does. If George Zimmerman’s actions don’t show him to be a racist, then I don’t think anyone could qualify for the label.
When I look at George Zimmerman, I see a man of mixed race, a mestizo — not a white man. And I see someone familiar. Someone who could be my brother, my uncle, my cousin. And that, to me, makes his actions all the more inexcusable. Growing up in the murky divide between Latino and “white,” never quite one or the other, sometimes experiencing the benefit of passing and other times facing racist attitudes and discrimination…well, to be honest, it makes you resentful.
For me, my experiences have shown me how I could always be treated, if the world were fair. And I decided that everyone should be able to live free of racism all the time — not just some of the time, if you could pass well enough. In a fair world, in a just world, there should be no need to “pass” at all. And this has led me to a passion for social justice and anti-racist work. It seems that, despite undoubtedly facing discrimination as the child of a mixed-race marriage, Zimmerman learned the opposite lesson. For him, the most important thing was keeping people of other races in their place, no matter the cost.
Knowing that Zimmerman has been on the receiving end of the same suspicions and stereotypes he leveled against Martin is disturbing. I would have hoped someone who’d experienced what it’s like to live as a minority in America would have more empathy for others, and be able to give the benefit of the doubt. Instead, Zimmerman preferred to succumb to damaging stereotypes, and it cost the life of an innocent teen boy.
Photo credit: DonkeyHotey via Flickr