Is George Zimmerman white or Hispanic? That depends

For white Hispanics, our privilege can always be undercut. Zimmerman bet on his whiteness -- and now he's entrapped

Published July 16, 2013 11:45AM (EDT)

George Zimmerman
George Zimmerman

In the cascade of social media responses to the verdict in the death of young, black Trayvon Martin, the racial and ethnic identity of assailant George Zimmerman has been as bifurcated as the rage and relief. To those grieving an injustice, Zimmerman was a white man; those who celebrate his acquittal have been quick to point out that Zimmerman is, in fact, not white at all, but Hispanic. How can such a basic fact of a man be so disputed?

The truth is, Zimmerman is both: white and Hispanic, one a racial category and the other a marker of ethnicity, an accusation and an exoneration, respectively, inverted from their usual exculpatory order.  Both are social constructions, but the former relies on skin color and ostensibly biological features, while the latter is a designation based on country of origin. Many Hispanics are dark-skinned, but many are not. It's a confusing identity in a land that has traditionally preferred its divisions to be more clean-cut, and it's one that even we white Hispanics struggle to understand.

I grew up in Cleveland, a town without much of a Hispanic population, and in that black-and-white racial dichotomy I knew myself as white -- part of a white family with a few odd habits, like eating beans and speaking Spanish, but white nonetheless.  When the time came to apply to college I checked the box marked "Hispanic" and my (white) friends laughed, told me I was a "fake Hispanic." It wasn't until I began a pre-frosh program for minority students at the California Institute of Technology (a school not generally known for promoting liberalism, racial awareness or political action of any kind) that I began to locate myself within the matrix of identities possible in contemporary America, and to understand that, while the "white" half of my labeling contained the potential for full membership in the hegemonic class, its follow-up -- my Hispanic status -- threatened to undercut any such privilege, a dirty little secret that could exclude me at the whim of those whose whiteness went unqualified.  I didn't know what any of it meant until I got to California, found a community of the varyingly brown, and recognized that being Hispanic stood, in the minds of many, in opposition to whiteness, although not so oppositional as being black.

The genius of white supremacy is in its elasticity: It can expand to include the not-quite-right, the off-whites, when necessary, and then otherize and eject us when convenient.  When I got into Caltech, my dream school at age 17, those same (white) friends assuaged the pain of their own collegiate rejections by telling me that I had only been accepted because I was Cuban, dismissing the constellation of my 99th percentile academic and extracurricular achievements with a cruelty, and an entitlement, that still stings and infuriates even a dozen years later.

George Zimmerman, neighborhood watchman and wannabe cop, placed a bet on his whiteness; when he shot and killed a young, unarmed black teenager because they always get away, he spoke with an oppressor's voice, and for his service the oppressor's justice absolved him. But Zimmerman, liminal and of questionable loyalty, is not beyond betrayal -- if his victim had been blond and named Travis then Fox News would likely be crowing about immigrant intrusiveness, the dangers of Mexicans with guns, rather than celebrating his right to bear arms. (Zimmerman's mother is from Peru, but somehow the variegated rainbow of Latin identities always seem to collapse into Mexican-ness when under discussion, especially on Fox News.)

The Republican Party parades Marco Rubio not insincerely. The party of white supremacy sees Hispanics as possible constituents not only in a cynical electoral gamble, but because we are, more often than not, Christian and light-skinned enough to pass, just barely qualified to join the extended array of whiteness at its margins. We could never be generals, but they would be happy to have us as their foot soldiers -- and even such limited privilege promises less suffering and scrambling than the alternative, seems less difficult than standing proud and fighting in solidarity.

It is not easy to reject the temptations of white privilege, not for genuine white allies and not for those of us who fit uneasily but usefully into the whole schematic. Regardless of skin color, we are all equally obligated to fight for justice for our oppressed brothers and sisters; this is a human responsibility, and an unconditional one. But those of us on the cusp of whiteness, those of us for whom every racial and ethnic data collection form is a negotiation -- whether deliberating between checking white or Hispanic or any other box, whether on an employment application or at a doctor's office or in the census -- well, we face a particular challenge, blurring carefully constructed categories simply by the fact of our existence. It can be complicated to grapple with and tiresome to explain, but the fullness and contradiction of our blended backgrounds must be not only acknowledged, but honored; by ourselves, first and foremost.

The outcome of George Zimmerman's trial is that he will go free, pardoned by a white supremacist society for acting like a white supremacist. But such a grant is, in fact, a gilded cage, entrapping Zimmerman in whiteness and a privilege that will never allow him to understand and accept the meaning of his own heritage in today's United States. Should he break the implicit contract he has signed with the lightness of his skin -- should he express remorse, or agitate against the justice system that found him not guilty of murder when, by his own proud admission, he stalked, confronted, shot and killed an unarmed 17-year-old -- he will find his privilege revoked, his financial support from strangers cut off, his celebration in conservative corners come to an abrupt end.

Then, he will be called Hispanic on Twitter once more, and it will not be a song of praise.

By Isa Hopkins

Isa Hopkins is an Oakland-based writer and comedian, editor of the online humor magazine Hobo Pancakes, and contributor at Her work has also appeared on The Billfold, Gadling, and RustWire.

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Criminal Justice Editor's Picks George Zimmerman Hispanics Race Trayvon Martin White People