Everybody agrees that Trayvon Martin was black; but we can’t seem to decide whether George Zimmerman is white.  But, even in our purportedly “post-racial” society, Mr. Zimmerman’s racial identity seems to matter a great deal to many.  For example, the fine folks over at Fox News vociferously insist that Mr. Zimmerman is not white but Hispanic.  Like many others who believe Mr. Zimmerman “not guilty,” these people seem to think that Zimmerman’s purported Latino-ness means this case can’t be about race. (Quite the ironically self-defeating confession coming from the mouths of speakers who typically espouse colorblindness…)

Some even seem to believe this is part of a larger conspiracy by delusional blacks to manufacture evidence of a racism that just doesn’t exist.  For example, Fox News contributor Bernard Goldberg fumes,

“I guarantee you that if George Zimmerman did something good—if he finished first in his high school graduating class when he was younger—they wouldn’t refer to him as a white Hispanic, he’d just be a Hispanic…He’s only a ‘white Hispanic’ because they need the word ‘white’ to further the story line, which is, White, probably racist vigilante shoots an unarmed black kid.”*

Jonah Goldberg, a writer at the National Review, arguably the country’s most popular politically conservative magazine, sarcastically agrees, explaining,

“[calling Mr. Zimmerman ‘white’] is the way the blame for Martin’s death belongs squarely at the feet of ‘the system.’  And ‘the system’ is a white thing, don’t you know?”

These thinkers seem to believe that, like George Zimmerman’s whiteness, racism exists only as a phantom of the liberal mind.  Racism comes into being only when race-baiting liberals inject it into otherwise racially-neutral situations.  The “problem” of “race” would be fixed if we all just stopped talking about it.

The mistaken belief that whiteness and Hispanicness cannot exist within the same human body also animates these pro-Zimmerman protestations. In their minds, one is either white or Hispanic; one cannot be both. But, “Hispanic,” as any diligent census worker knows, designates not a racial identity but an ethnic one.  This term serves to group all Latin American-descended persons together in one coherent (and countable) but decidedly non-racial group.  Contrary to widespread stereotype, “Latin Americans,” like “Hispanics” come in all colors.  

For example, Gilmore Girls actress Alexis Bledel, Avatar protagonist Zoe Saldana, major league baseball star José Contreras, and rapper Pitbull all count as “Hispanics.”

Yet U.S.-Americans of all backgrounds feel a strong need to racialize Hispanicness.  We seem to want to make “hispanicness” refer only to those who “look” phenotypically “mestizo.”  Despite the clarifications of Census technicians, we seem to possess a deep need for “Hispanic” to operate as a racial category.  We cannot stand the lack of phenotypical clarity.  We cannot let “black,” “brown,” and “white” bodies occupy the same social identity.  To this end, many whites want to apply the “one drop” rule to the bodies of Hispanic-Americans.  On a story posted to Fox News commentator Greta Van about Mr. Zimmerman’s racial identity, numerous commenters spouted some version of the following,

“George Zimmerman is as Hispanic as Barak (sic) Obama is Black, they both have white blood in them.  I get so tired of the double standard and why does the main stream (sic) media love to run white people down and try to ruin their characters???”

Another states it even more plainly: “Obama is as much a White-African American as Zimmerman is a White Hispanic.”

Our structural processes reinforce and help to produce this collective need to racialize “Hispanicness.”  For example, so-called Black Hispanics experience higher levels of segregation from non-Hispanic whites than white Hispanics do.[1]  This skin color differential holds even among Latinos sharing an ancestral nation of origin: while Puerto Ricans bearing black skin experience levels of racial segregation that approximate those endured by non-Hispanic African-Americans, “white Puerto Ricans achieve rates of spatial assimilation that are comparable with those found among other ethnic groups.”[2]  

But interestingly, though many insist that Mr. Zimmerman’s birth to a Peruvian-born mother disqualifies him for whiteness, they still place him above the blackness that Mr. Martin represents.  In this same online forum, a commenter named “Josie” describes Mr. Zimmerman as a “human being who was violently being beaten down by 17 yo who was taller, more athletic, faster & on top of him, making it impossible to retreat!  RACE DOESN’T MATTER WHEN YOU ARE IN FEAR FOR YOUR LIFE OR SAFETY!”

In Josie’s eyes, only Mr. Martin’s race matters and only Mr. Zimmerman exists as a human being.  A woman operating under the appellation, “momsense1,” speaks this ideology of conditional pro-Latinoness explicitly: “Whatever he [Mr. Zimmerman] is—he’s not a ghetto rat.” 

Others also believe Mr. Zimmerman’s racial identity matters much less than Mr. Martin’s.  As another respondent named Barry, fumes,

“I am certain that…Zimmerman’s rights were violated as White/Hispanic. Had Zimmerman been black this never would have happened, meaning if he were black, Martin would never have turned on Zimmerman, attacked Zimmerman, started pounding Zimmerman’s head into the concrete and since Zimmerman (as a black man) would never have felt threatened and feared for his life he would not have felt compelled to defend himself resulting in the shooting death of Martin.”

The imagined menace of the un-disciplined black body brings otherwise isolated Anglo whites and Hispanics together.  Although “whiteness” and “Hispanicness” remain separated by a slash, they operate in allegiance, standing united in self-defensive violence against the black male body.

Just as many whites seem aligned with Mr. Zimmerman, a Hispanic, against Mr. Martin, so  Hispanics seem more closely aligned with whites than blacks in their perception of this case.  According to a 2012 poll, “more than 90 percent of blacks perceived that race played a role in the shooting, compared with 68 percent of whites and 74 percent of Hispanics.”  And, while “eighty-one percent of blacks said they believed Zimmerman would have been immediately arrested had Trayvon been white,” only 40 percent of whites and 51 percent of Hispanics agreed.

But does it even matter whether George Zimmerman is white or Hispanic? Rather than asking whether “Hispanics” can be “racist,” I’d rather examine whether they can cooperate in white supremacy. 

Just as many U.S.-Americans lack awareness of Latin America’s racial diversity, they similarly hold no understanding of this region’s white supremacist formation.  Our last president seemed to not even know that Brazil, the epicenter of the transatlantic slave trade, “had black people too.”  But the very processes that make Latin America racially diverse are the same ones that have imbued it with white supremacy.

Like the United States, the countries that comprise Latin America were founded by European powers hell-bent on imperial conquest.  As in the United States, these countries (mostly Spain and Portugal but also the Netherlands and even England and France) committed both to displacing, killing, exploiting, and subordinating the indigenous people they encountered and forcefully importing Africans to serve as their slaves.  Despite unfolding somewhat differently in each country, this history resulted in the common creation of both race and racial hierarchy throughout the Americas. European imperial power would arrange their colonies according to white supremacist principles—white bodies stood at the top while black and brown bodies jockeyed for space at the bottom.  And, in every case, white supremacy survived colonial independence, remaining in operation still to this day.

Anglo and Iberian white supremacies do contain important differences.  For example, Spanish and Portuguese overlords tended to have sex with the women of color they oppressed much more openly than their British counterparts did.  Nonetheless, this “race-mixing” would not make Latin American countries necessarily less white supremacist.  In addition to differentiating (and often elevating) partially white-blooded mestizos above indigenous people, in many countries, mestizaje has also functioned to obscure the African roots of Latin American countries and cultures. 

Thus, when people emigrate from Latin America to the United States, they do not arrive as racial innocents.   And, like European immigrants, Latin American immigrants also experience the white supremacist pressures of the residence in the United States.

Thus, neither Mr. Zimmerman’s purported non-whiteness nor his mother’s status as immigrant makes him immune to the pull of white supremacy.  In fact, throughout our nation’s history, immigrants have always tried to claim belonging by differentiating themselves from the African-Americans who were here first.  This remains true today: contemporary immigrants receive a hefty incentive to argue their Americanness by disparaging the bodies of blacks.  In turn, displays of anti-blackness can also make Anglo whites side with those whom they might otherwise see as racially or nationally suspicious.

Exhibiting this mentality, a commenter at Greta’s site demonstrates shouts, “George Zimmerman IS NOT WHITE—HE IS NOT SPANISH—HE IS AN AMERICAN…If Zimmerman is other than American WHAT THE HELL IS OUR SO CALLED PRESIDENT A KENAN (sic) AFRICAN AMERICAN???”  If the children of African immigrants count as “Americans,” then the children of Latin American immigrants do too.  This is like when an older sibling says to her mother, “if you let my little brother stay out past midnight, then surely you have to let me stay out at least as late.”

Whites also tend to prefer Hispanics as marriage partners.  Whites marry across ethnic and racial lines less often than Latina/os, Asian-Americans or African-Americans do.  But when they do, they marry Hispanics much more frequently than they inter-mix with blacks. Though nearly approximate in size–Latina/os comprise 16.7 percent of the U.S. population and African-Americans 13.1 percent–non-Hispanic whites are nearly three times as likely to marry a Latino/a person as an African-American one.

Of course, this affinity only goes so far.  Under other conditions, many of these whites would not treat Mr. Zimmerman so nicely.  For example, what if George’s name were Jorge?  What if, rather than killing a black teenager, he became famous for sitting in an Arizona prison after being arrested for “looking like an undocumented immigrant?”  What if he sang the national anthem before a major sporting event?  Would he look “American” to them then?  I doubt it.  Most likely, Misters O’Reilly and Hannity (themselves the culmination of over 150 years of Irish anti-blackness) would see him as an enemy and not an ally.  But in placing his body so decisively against the body of a black person and being persecuted, er, I mean prosecuted for it, George Zimmerman appears aligned with whiteness and its supremacist designs.  Though the majority of pro-Zimmerman Anglo whites deny that he is white, in killing a black adolescent, he counts one of them.  And like them, he suffers victimization by reverse racism.

In fact, the killing of Trayvon Martin by a “Hispanic” person verifies pre-existing anti-black biases in a way that his killing by a white person would not have.  Because Mr. Zimmerman identifies as a “Hispanic,” he accords claims about the criminal character of black masculinity added objectivity. Even Hispanics, themselves people of color, recognize the predatory savagery of black men.  It’s not just us who feel this way about black people, whites can say, everyone does!  It must, therefore, be true!  George Zimmerman makes a certain brand of white person feel like they were right about black men all along.

This same process of anti-black Americanization also ensures that not everyone who is excluded from or at the margins of whiteness today will remain there tomorrow.  Although far from arbitrary, whiteness has changed.  It will most likely change again. For example, most Anglo whites do not (yet) want Hispanics who look like Mr. Zimmerman to count as “white.”  But they may in the future.  Despite this, both those seeking a way into whiteness and those already bunkered down within it possess a hefty incentive for denying the flexibility and adaptivity of whiteness.  To this end, we instead label “whiteness” and “hispanicness” as fixed points in an unchanging sky.

We do not want to think about the fact that before the U.S. Census invented the category of “Hispanic,” Mexican-Americans were counted alternately as Mexican (1930) and as “white.”  We do not want to think about the way that American countries like the United States, Brazil, and Argentina embarked upon policies of blanqueamiento, intentionally recruiting immigrants from Europe in order to increase the size of their countries’ white population.  We don’t want to contemplate the implications of our counting certain people as Hispanics only after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 opened our country’s borders to immigrants from Latin America (and Asia and Africa) for the first time in history. We don’t want to think about the way that impoverished Irish immigrants rioted mercilessly against blacks in the 1830s, 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s.

We want to believe that whiteness instead exists as a type of inevitable aspect of human existence, like something found and not made. But if we admit that whiteness shape shifts, we must then confess our responsibility for it.  And if we admit that whiteness changes only to keep certain bodies on top and others on the bottom, then we concede our complicity in the cruelest violence.  More than anything, we want to be white inconsequentially.

But national reaction to Rachel Jeantel, the teenaged girl to whom Mr. Martin was speaking on cellphone when he died, best evidences the consequences of whiteness and answers the question of whether race matters.  Like Mr. Zimmerman, her mother arrived to the United States as an immigrant from another part of the Americas.  Like Mr. Zimmerman, she speaks both U.S.-American English and her mother tongue, Haitian Creole.  Like Mr. Zimmerman, Ms. Jeantel even speaks Spanish.

But race causes us to see Mr. Zimmerman and Ms. Jeantel’s immigrant ancestries quite differently. Though Haiti was colonized by France, Ms. Jeantel is not considered Francophonish in the way that those descended from residents of countries colonized by Spain are considered Hispanic. Her ability to speak three languages renders her not impressive but linguistically suspicious.  (White kids who speak three languages are called ‘Ivy-Leaguers;” in contrast, Latino children who speak two are considered unassimilated.)

This occurs, because, unlike Mr. Zimmerman, Rachel Jeantel bears a body we all agree is black.  She is also a female.  To on-looking whites, she also comports her body in a so-called “black way.”  She does not look or act or speak as many whites would prefer her to.  While Mr. Zimmerman seems to embody law and order, Ms. Jeantel signifies decay and disorder.  For example, in response to her testimony, more than white person tweeted that she represents everything that is wrong with Florida’s school system.  On the widely-watched Megyn Kelly show, one guest quipped, “I don’t think [Jeantel] came across as brutally honest; I think she comes across as brutally ignorant.”  Unlike Mr. Zimmerman, who embodies the gun-toting bravado of the Wild (White) West, Ms. Jeantel embodies blackness; she therefore receives no benefit of the doubt.  Mr. Zimmerman makes sense; Mr. Jeantel must be explained.

So is George Zimmerman white?  No.  Maybe.  Sometimes.  It depends who’s looking.  And who’s standing next to him.

Does it matter?  Yes, absolutely.  But not as much as Mr. Martin’s and Ms. Jeantel’s blackness does.

[1] Massey and Denton, American Apartheid, 114.

[2] Ibid., 151.

* Thanks to Chauncey Devega for inspiring me to use internet comments as a window into the mind of white supremacy.

8 thoughts

  1. I don’t think it should matter whether Zimmerman is white or not, but it seems to. And the reason I think it does matter is that no one particularly wants to acknowledge that racism is not the sole province of whites, that in fact anyone from any group can be racist, and that nearly all groups have dominant attitudes that are racist towards at least one group–and frequently one group they are racist against is blacks. Having racist attitudes is not about being at the top of the hierarchy or having the biggest share of the socio-political pile. It seems to be about being human. It’s just that being at the top means that that universal human proclivity has deadlier consequences than they do if you are at the bottom.

    I think that is something most of us desperately attempt to not know. On the one hand, we don’t want to know, because saying we all do it seems to excuse it–although it doesn’t need to be seen in that light. And, on the other, it means the enemy is less clearly defined. And yet I can tell you, having spent years teaching Hispanic children, that Hispanics have some of the most virulently racist attitudes of any group of people anywhere. If my students suddenly ran the system, it would not be one whit fairer than it is now. I don’t say that to put them down. It’s just that racism really is not a white problem. It is all of our problems. But it causes the most harm from those with the most power.

    1. I think that part of the reason that it “matters” whether or not Zimmerman is white is because of the way the media has portrayed the story. When it first broke out, the (liberal) media portrayed it as “white man shoots black boy.” Then, when it came out that he was Hispanic, the (conservative) media jumped all over that as though it somehow excuses the whole thing–that Hispanics cannot be racist (as the original post refuted).

      The newest thing that I’ve seen paraded around in comments is that Zimmerman is black! He has a black great-grandfather! (The whole thing strikes me too much like the “one drop of black blood makes you black” idea for comfort.)

      All of that is irrelevant. Anyone can be racist.

  2. My name is Lisa. I am in my twenties. I am white. I am an artist. I am a feminist. I belong to a Christian Mennonite Church. And I am, among other things, a racist.

    I have and will continue to benefit from the privileges afforded to me because of the color of my skin. In other words, I, daily, benefit from the structures of white supremacy. Many of these privileges are so woven into my every day context that I do yet see all the ways in which I engage in racist postures. That’s why I am still a racist.

    While there may be greater and lesser degrees of racism in all persons, racism tramples upon an entire group of persons and turns them into ‘things;’ often this is done through trivializing, or romanticizing, the experiences of a Person of Colour. Whites colonized. Whites trampled. And now, whites dominate. While I have experienced some hardships, a have lived into the realities of being a woman in a sexist world, I have and never will experience collective and systemic racism.

    There is a grave difference between individual suffering and collective oppression. White supremacy is, among other postures, a theological stance that tangibly assumes whites to be superior to Persons of Colour. White supremacy is a collective effort to dismiss, suppress and eventually destroy any other group that does not fit the white way(s) of doing life.

    It is not up to a Person of Colour to point out the White’s privileges or implicit racism and white supremacy; too often, when this effort is made, it is met with the rolling of eyes and dismissive comments (if not another lynching tree!). White’s who are attentive to the structures that privilege their narratives will name and oppose the racial inequities that keep economic and judicial control in the hands of the whites.

    Trayvon Martin’s murder was tried by a jury of six women; five of them were white, one of them was Hispanic (… white?). In a case that had the entire country talking about race, it is astounding that the jury was full of the race that dominates the U.S. political landscape.

    I don’t know where, when, or how justice will take place for Treyvon Martin.

    Let’s talk about it in church. Having conversations about racism in our churches is sure to be an uncomfortable for many; especially in congregations who, like me, benefit from the colour hating systems. How to create a space in which such open and honest dialogue takes place is a whole other pathway of imaginings.

    The Body of Christ welcomes us to live into the particulars of our bodies; she does not homogenize the colours. The Peace of Christ invites all Bodies to name the violences – be it racism, sexism, ageism, ableism… – and overturn their tables through loving and passionate non-violent resistance.

  3. I have a lot of questions here:

    “Another states it even more plainly: “Obama is as much a White-African American as Zimmerman is a White Hispanic.” ”

    Why is this problematic? Do you believe that Obama cannot be considered ‘white African American’ in any way similar to how Zimmerman is described as ‘white Hispanic’?

    Now, of course, the term ‘white African American’ is not used in any descriptive way like ‘white hispanic’ is used. That is, blacks, virtually all upper class, who are more assimilated into white culture and thus benefit from white privilege, or more appropriately, ‘white mercy’ (and not even then sometimes). Such a term was not even considered. But is it invalid?

    You are right in that many who defend Zimmerman may be the same people who, normally suspicious of his white credentials, insist he isn’t white in order to handwave away the idea that there were racial motivations in this case.

    But isn’t Obama considered black because he identifies as a black man? Some would argue that it’s even more objective than that, because he is more phenotypically black looking (But isn’t that true of Zimmerman? I would bet most whites do not consider him or most other ‘white hispanics’ ‘white’.)
    And most certainly, Obama “could have been Trayvon” in his younger days. But he entered into white culture to advance his career and thus benefited from white privilege in many more ways as a political leader than Zimmerman benefits from white privilege.

    If Zimmerman identifies as Hispanic, aren’t we obliged to respect it in the same way we respect Obama? Why not?

    Is Zimmerman being shoehorned into a class of white identity that he may not necessarily deserve, since many of ‘his fellow whites’ would otherwise reject him?

    Is it proper to read things like “Trayvon IS black… [but?] Zimmerman [merely?] identifies as Hispanic” and conclude it as right and accurate? Isn’t that essentialist?

  4. What I’m most interested in concerning Zimmerman is what he identified himself as *before* this whole thing happened and the media (and lawyers) got involved.

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