In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, I’ve been thinking about a not-so-simple question: Is George Zimmerman white?
I mean, so much of the analysis of this trial is being driven by race. Some of this is justified; because I am white I an allowed to do things Trayvon could never do even in my neighborhood, because I have white skin and dress in semi-professional clothes. And while the trial isn’t just about race, I think we’d be foolish to dismiss it entirely. The assumption is that George Zimmerman is white, Trayvon Martin is black, and that drove a lot of the conflict.
But is he? George Zimmerman has a white father but a Peruvian mother. Come to it, his white blood isn’t so white either, from a historical perspective. I’m fairly sure his father was ethnically Jewish (though there seems to be some disagreement on this point), and as Jon Stewart brilliantly argued, Jews weren’t always considered part of the great white majority.
Or consider the case of Nikki Haley, the Tea Party politician who replaced Mark Sanford as governor of South Carolina. Is she white? Her given name is Nimrata Randhawa, her parents are Sikh immigrants from the Punjab, India. That’s other enough to get a SC state senator to label her as a raghead – but she looks white. The Wikipedia photo makes her seem comparable to, say, Courtney Cox in appearance. I mention her because back during her election, I heard the GOP tout her as a minority candidate, and when I first saw her I was surprised by how little she looked like one. Her family does have darker skin tone, and I’m sure that if her family observed Sikh rituals growing up, including the turbans, that might have stood out like a sore thumb growing up in Orangeburg, SC. But in other ways she resembles the white majority. She converted to Christianity (the Methodist church) when she married her husband. Both of them worked in the “family business” – and we’re not talking mom and pop here – before getting established on their own. And as for Gov. Haley, well, she just looks like a southern white woman. Her name sounds white, even. If I hadn’t been told I would never have guessed she was ethnically Indian.
Saying all of this makes it sound like I’m suggesting a racial purity test for anyone in the news. Nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t care one whit whether Gov. Haley is Sikh Indian or Nordic caucasian or, for that matter, from the far side of Jupiter. And with Mr. Zimmerman, I only care because the perception matters. But what stories like these drive home for me is that race is complicated, and that what counts as white shifts over time. In fact, I think that the defining characteristic of “white” isn’t so much bloodline or skin tone as it is the fundamental assumption that you are like those in power. In a sense, the Cosbys are probably whiter than George Zimmerman, or me for that matter. Nikki Haley might give them a run for their money, though.
At the end of the day, white is about being assumed to be normal. It’s the same privilege that gets taxi cabs to stop in front of me in my neighborhood even when I’m not hailing them, that gets me waited on first at the store counter and prompts the bus driver to wave me through when I forget my fare-card at home. I am presumed to belong in ways my darker-skinned neighbors just aren’t. George Zimmerman looked at a black teenager making his way through his (their) neighborhood and was able to say “These assholes always get away.” (The language is bad, but it was what Zimmerman told the 911 operator, and I won’t censor it.) He was able to make this assessment based solely on Trayvon’s physical characteristics – that “those people” (meaning not him) were always committing in crimes and never being punished. He was a neighborhood watch captain, a figure of justice and authority. And in perhaps one of the most telling factors of the case, when he invoked Stand Your Ground, the police didn’t arrest him. He was one of us, not one of them, and so could be trusted and related to at that level.
So is Zimmerman white? He may not be caucasian, but honestly, I’m not sure it gets much whiter than that.