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
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