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on racism and the Trayvon Martin shooting

Over the last several months I've been meeting regularly once a week with this woman - as far as I can tell, a very nice person, though I don't know her well - and we often make small talk to pass the time. Lately we've been talking about the Trayvon Martin case, because she happens to be Jewish and with a name like Zimmerman she was afraid (a) that the killer was Jewish, and (b) that there would be an anti-Semitic backlash because of it. What really has fascinated me is this comment she made, that George Zimmerman is hispanic and so he can't be racist toward a black teenager.

I found this interesting on several levels. First there's this idea that "hispanic" necessarily means non-white. Check out this picture of George Zimmerman:

If I saw a man of this skin tone walking down a Florida street, I would naturally assume he was caucasian. I'm German-American on my mum's side, Scotch-American on my dad's, and my face isn't far from that hue especially if I've been out in the sun. But more generally, of course, hispanic as non-European is a fairly recent thing. I remember learning in American history about the caste system that cropped up in Latin history, ranging from Spanish-born peninsulares, to the mestizos (Spanish/Native American) and mulattoes (Spanish/African), and of course the pure Native American, African, and other non-European group. The point being, what an American calls Hispanic would probably have some degree of European, Native American and African blood - not unlike their brethren on the other side of the Rio Grande, where the European stock was more likely to be from northern European, but European nonetheless.

The whole concept of "white" or caucasian is also troubling in and of itself. Once upon a time (and not so long ago!) Irish-Americans were seen as not as "white" as their English brethren. So were Italians, Greeks, and other people from southern rather than north-western Europe. And Jews; as late as the 60s, you couldn't get country club membership if you were Jewish. So this idea that white = European-descended (as if there was even a definite idea of what "European" meant!) doesn't jive with history. No, I think when people talk about someone being white, they have in mind a standard I read in an editorial a few weeks ago, I believe (though I could be wrong) by Leonard Pitts. He basically said that white meant being given the benefit of the doubt. If you're trying to jump-start a Corvette late at night, white means the cops are likely to assume you're the owner and having mechanical problems, rather than trying to steal it. And in a confrontation with a dead + unarmed teenager, white means the cops will be more likely to trust you that you really were under attack. In that sense, George Zimmerman definitely is "white," even if he's also Hispanic.

I also find it fascinating (and a bit disturbing) to see people arguing that ethnic minorities can't be racist. Of course Afro-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and all the rest can be racist. What if it had been Geraldo Rivera rather than Ann Coulter who had said in defense of Herman Cain, "Our blacks are better than their blacks" - would that have made it any less racist? Or if it was an Afro-American beat cop who, after being exposed to so many crimes committed by "urban youths" naturally assumed a young black man hotwiring a car was stealing it rather than trying to repair his own ride.

I was reminded all of this on reading Toure's latest editorial on racism. The piece is well-done and balanced IMO; the comments are frustratingly myopic, and almost amusing in their assumption that a discussion of racism must be a discussion of white racism. He does mention one white woman he met, and then he later gives the example of how Barack Obama's, Oprah Winfrey's, etc. popularity doesn't mean we're not racist - but the basic points apply to all kinds of racism, and there's nothing in the piece that wouldn't condemn black hatred of whites as much as it would white hatred of blacks.

I wish I had something substantive to add to the conversation. I don't. The best I can do is take it all in with awareness, and try to avoid these same thought patterns in myself.



( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 20th, 2012 03:08 pm (UTC)
The truth is that you cannot judge an ethnic group by name OR appearance.

Who would guess that my fair-skinned blue-eyed husband has a substantial amount of Native American blood?

As for names-- I noted that on Dancing with the Stars this year, we have a person from Cuba named William Levy. His partner Cheryl Burke also considers herself Hispanic-- I believe her mother is Mexican.

And yes, it is ridiculous to think that other ethnic groups besides "white" can't be racist. Of course they can. At one point in time another "race" meant no more than the people the next village over.

Apr. 20th, 2012 03:32 pm (UTC)
I also find it fascinating (and a bit disturbing) to see people arguing that ethnic minorities can't be racist.

I think "racism" in this context is a Eurocentric issue, i.e. it implies discrimination by "white" people against those who are not "white" (by ethnicity rather than by appearance). Because it's construed as a white-on-minority problem, the default assumption is that minorities can't possibly be racist. Also, at least in the US context, I think racism is considered a legal construct rather than a social one, and its history is very much rooted in suppression of minorities in favor of the white majority. But yes, as a minority, I can vouch for the fact that most minority groups are as ethnocentric and prejudiced as anyone else.

I also think that "racism" at least in the United States only seems to invite scrutiny when it involves African-Americans or those of Hispanic/Latino origin. Racism against Asian Americans, for example, usually understated and less invidious, invites little scrutiny, even though it's just as damaging.

I highly recommend Frank Wu's Yellow, which describes the different "racism" paradigms that non-black and non-Hispanic minorities encounter in the US.
Apr. 20th, 2012 05:56 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the suggestion, Roh. I am very interested in this topic, and with summer coming I have the time for some reading. I'll have to check it out.
Apr. 20th, 2012 04:54 pm (UTC)
I also find the idea that non-white people can't possibly be racist to be frustrating--where would one get an idea like that? In addition to being false, as you point out, it presents a falsely binary and flat view of race as "white" and "everyone else." (This is also why I sort of dislike the term "person of color," and also because it implies that caucasian people have no skin pigment--I say this as a mixed-race person.)

It also ignores the idea of racism within different ethnic groups. A friend, who is African-American, was recently talking about the divisions within the black community, which persist to this day and consist of lighter-skinned blacks discriminating against darker-skinned blacks.

(Or, as they say in Avenue Q, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist. ;) )
Apr. 20th, 2012 05:47 pm (UTC)
Mkay, you've made my afternoon with that song. It's hilarious and thought-provoking, in the best way. Also reminded me to listen to Randy Newman's "Rednecks" - perfect combo for a Friday afternoon.

Race is one of those interesting issues that make me think, and as someone who's thoroughly white, middle-class and Protestant it's very useful for me to hear how others have been affected by it. Thanks for your thoughts.
Apr. 20th, 2012 07:03 pm (UTC)
Caucasian people are, in point of fact, pinkish yellow. ;)

(Only joking. It's a line from a sarcastic essay on race a friend once wrote!)
Apr. 21st, 2012 03:33 pm (UTC)

(The language we Americans use to talk about race and color is so interesting and fraught. When I was teaching English in the Czech Republic, it was sort of a trip explaining why it's okay to refer to African-Americans and Caucasian Americans as "black" and "white," but why it's offensive to refer to Asian-Americans as "yellow" and American Indians as "red." Or why "people of color" is okay, but "colored people" is now considered offensive. Semantically it's pretty much the same, but historically some of the words are so loaded!)
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )



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