George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. There is no disputing that and whether he did so in self-defense as he claims or as some sort of macho vigilante act will soon be decided by the jury.
We know that this case has racial overtones although it was not prosecuted as a hate crime.
Young African-American men like Martin are wrongfully viewed by many as criminal suspects because of how they look or dress. Wearing a hoodie made Martin a suspect walking through Zimmerman’s neighborhood.
But how Zimmerman identifies racially or ethnically is far more complex. He is half Hispanic and half white. His mother is of Peruvian heritage. Some media have dubbed Zimmerman as a “white Hispanic.”
That label has confused some. Who is a white Hispanic?
There are no longer racial purity tests in this country to prove who we are racially or ethnically.
The U.S. Census Bureau allows us to self-identify and the U.S. government came up with the Hispanic label in 1980. In the 1970 census one could only select an origin such as “Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, and Other Spanish.” Before that the government did not count Hispanics in a systematic way, according to Pew Research.
Today, the U.S. Census Bureau defines Hispanic as an ethnicity and Hispanics also can select their race on the census forms. The choices for race are: “White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.” In 2000, the Census also added “Some Other Race.”
More than half of the Hispanics in the United States identified themselves as white, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Around 37 percent, including myself, selected some other race. Most who select “other” feel that none of the choices describes who we are.
To be blunt, Zimmerman’s skin tone is the same as mine, a medium brown.
But I would not personally identify as white. My heritage is 100 percent Mexican. My maternal great-grandfather left Mexico for Texas in 1890 and my paternal grandparents migrated from Mexico in the 1920s.
Both my parents were born in 1937 in Texas and their birth certificates say white. Hispanic wasn’t a choice available on birth records back then.
But we never identified as white growing up and we couldn’t ever pass for white people. The world has always viewed us as Mexican or Hispanic. People have assumed I’m not American because of my name or my appearance. I was born in Chicago.
Only once was I called a “white girl.” I was on a reporting assignment on the West Side of Chicago and I walked by a group of young African-American men on a street corner.
As I passed them I heard someone shout, “Hey white girl.”
I turned around to look for the white girl and I didn’t see one. Then I realized that they were talking to me. I was stunned that they saw me as white.
Then a beer bottle crashed a few feet away from me. They were angry at me “the white girl” walking through their neighborhood.
Could this be how Zimmerman saw Martin? He saw a young black man in his neighborhood where he felt he didn’t belong and began to follow him. It made him angry and he went after him.
Still there is no excuse for his stalking and shooting Martin. He could have just waited for the police to arrive instead of taking matters into his own hands.
Perhaps Zimmerman sees himself as more white than Hispanic. Maybe his own confusion about his identity created racial prejudices. We cannot know what motivated him. But certainly race and ethnicity played a role in him mistakenly viewing Martin as a criminal suspect.
All we can do now is hope that there will be justice for Martin.