As the wake of the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial stretches from weeks into months, I have been immersing myself in the coverage and the commentary. Like so many others, I feel wrung out by the racial injustice that I see in the whole thing. I have been consuming as much of the media coverage as I can, trying to make sense of it all. And I had to write something. It took awhile to figure out what I wanted to say.
In doing so, I’ve observed the outpouring of support for Trayvon Martin, and much of that support is framed in rhetoric of, “I am not Trayvon Martin.” From Bob Seay’s viral Facebook status to the “We Are Not Trayvon Martin” Tumblr, it seems that many are stepping forward to express their awareness of their white privilege in stark contrast to Trayvon’s fate. Meanwhile, a large portion of the coverage from the pro-Zimmerman lobby seems to push the idea that Zimmerman’s motivations in pursuing Trayvon could not have been even subconsciously racial, because Zimmerman is Hispanic (or Latino, because in mainstream America, the two terms are interchangeable, although they do have different meanings). Eventually, a previously little-known term came into common usage to describe Zimmerman’s ethnicity: “white Hispanic.”
For the purposes of its usage in the Zimmerman case, “white Hispanic” apparently refers to a person who has one white parent and one Hispanic parent. Never mind that this is not the technical meaning of the term; it was coined to refer to a person who has white skin and is ethnically Hispanic, since there are people in the world who are white and are descended from a group who speaks Spanish as their primary language. Never mind that this term highlights how fundamentally flawed, how ridiculously superficial, our understanding of race is in America, and how pure, unconditional whiteness is regarded not as a mere shade of flesh, but as an exclusive club to which a group must earn membership over time (after all, generations ago, Irish people were not wholly considered “white” in America).
I am not Trayvon Martin. I am George Zimmerman.
I don’t carry a gun, I’ve never been a member of any neighborhood watches, and I’ve never wanted to be a cop. But I am “white Hispanic.” Like George Zimmerman, my mom is Latina and my dad is white. I have my dad’s white skin…and his very white surname. (Or at least, I did until I got married and tacked my husband’s decidedly more “ethnic” surname onto the end of my name. Now people say to me, “Nicole Hunter Mostafa. Mostafa…where have I heard that before? Oh, I know! The Lion King! Mostafa, Mostafa, Mostafa!” To which I must reply, “No…that’s Mufasa.”)
For me, growing up in an all-white part of the country, when I did identify as Hispanic, it felt more like a party trick than anything else (“I’m half-Mexican.” “No way! I never would have guessed!”), because it felt awkward to acknowledge I was anything other than white, anything other than what everyone else was. Once, in elementary school, we were filling out the identification form on the covers of our exam booklets in preparation for the annual state-mandated tests. One bubble that we had to fill in was, of course, that infamous race identification.
“Fill in the circle next to the word ‘White, Not Hispanic,’” my teacher instructed the entire class.
I was a great reader at that age, and I had seen my mom filling out forms that asked about race before. I had seen her choose “Hispanic.” If my mom was that, shouldn’t I be that, too? Or at least, you know, part that? Choosing “White, Not Hispanic” felt like a lie. I raised my hand. My teacher responded, “Yes, Nicole?”
I said, “My mom is Hispanic. So what do I choose?”
Exasperated, my teacher replied, “Nicole Hunter, you know very well that you’re white.” That was my first indication that it weirded people out if I, an English-speaking white girl with ruddy cheeks, freckles on her nose, and a Scottish surname, identified as Hispanic at all. From that point on, it has always felt like I should just fill in the “White, Not Hispanic” bubble and shut up about it, because as it turns out, a white girl identifying as (at least half) Hispanic makes people really uncomfortable and/or suspicious, like I’m obviously just trying to get attention.
Nevertheless, ignoring that part of me felt like something of a betrayal to my mom, despite the fact that she’s apparently not readily identifiable to others as Latina–although given her dark skin, she is obviously “something” (the implication always being “not wholly American,” although she, along with generations of her family before her, was born and raised in the United States). She’s been asked if she’s Filipina, Indian, Italian, Greek, and Arabic—no one thinks to identify her as Latina because, apparently, that’s only an option for loud, brash women with big butts, heavy Spanish accents, too much makeup, and long acrylic nails. She is not stereotypically Latina enough to remind white acquaintances that if they’re going to make racist jokes, they should probably refrain from making them in front of her. When she once expressed offense at a racist joke about Mexicans, the person who told it attempted to smooth things over by assuring her, “I don’t think of you like that!”
Nowadays, how I fill in bubbles to describe my race often depends on how I feel that day. If we’re going to break it down into precise fractions, I’m more “Hispanic” than “White, Not Hispanic.” (Although nowadays the identification has broadened to “Hispanic or Latino” and “White, Not Hispanic or Latino.”) Some days I think, “Screw it, I’m ‘Hispanic or Latino’; that’s just a fact.” Other days, I feel like, “Who are you kidding? Look in the mirror; you’re white.” And on particularly rebellious days, I’ll choose “Two or more races,” even though I know that bubble, in a subtly sinister way, refers to ancestries more like President Obama’s than mine. Or sometimes, if it’s an option, I’ll choose “I prefer not to disclose.”
Those race bubbles are so dirty. They come with the implication that we should all fit neatly into one, as well as certain sly qualifications as to what exactly they mean. Who is excluded and who is included? It’s so tricky, even when a person is, technically, only one race. When Mr. Mostafa was trying to fill out his census form in 2010, he asked me which bubble he should fill in for his race. Arabic wasn’t an option. I said, “Well, I guess, technically…you’re Asian.” He responded worriedly, “Yes…but I don’t think that’s what they mean by ‘Asian’…is it? I mean, a Japanese guy isn’t going to get held for eight hours at customs in the airport.”
When I fill out job applications, I’m always torn about how to self-identify; even though there’s always a disclaimer that answers to that question have “absolutely no bearing on hiring decisions,” I still find myself wondering if how I answer that question will make a difference in whether or not I get an email back. Will they prefer to hire a “Hispanic or Latino” candidate because it will boost their “minority hiring” numbers? Will they prefer a “White, Not Hispanic or Latino” hire because of racist inclinations? Will they automatically discard my application if “I prefer not to disclose,” thinking that I’m shady or evasive?
It always feels like people think I’m trying to fool them or make them feel awkward when I identify as even partly Hispanic or Latina. If I had been the “white Hispanic” who shot Trayvon Martin, I wonder if the narrative would have played out on less blurry racial lines, since I look so completely white. Would anyone have thought to say, “It can’t be about race—she’s Hispanic”? I can’t help but think that no one would have. But because Zimmerman is a little bit brown, he got to be at least a little bit Hispanic in the court of public opinion.
As a “white Hispanic,” I wonder how often George Zimmerman identified himself as Hispanic, or even “white Hispanic,” before that night that Trayvon Martin walked to the 7-11 to buy Skittles. Records show that Zimmerman identified himself as Hispanic when he registered to vote. I find myself wondering, on the day he registered, was he having a “Hispanic day”? Did he feel like filling in that bubble was a betrayal of his dad? Did he ever fill in the “White, Not Hispanic or Latino” bubble, only to feel guilty about it?
Zimmerman’s defenders want to call him Hispanic. His detractors want to call him white. If my brother, who is more darkly complected than I am, had been the one who shot Trayvon Martin, I have no doubt that questions about his race would have arisen just as they did for George Zimmerman, even though my brother is even less willing to identify as “Hispanic or Latino” than I am—and those questions about race, ironically, would have arisen to prove this wasn’t about race.
Meanwhile, President Obama is, technically, just as white as George Zimmerman. Let that sink in for a minute. If you paid any attention in American History class in high school, you’ve heard of the “one-drop rule”—the idea that anyone who had any black ancestry was regarded as totally, completely black, as though their bloodline was now somehow tainted. Sadly, we’re obviously still in that era; President Obama had one white parent and one black parent, but the shade of his skin means that anything he says about race is regarded as “race baiting” and “stirring the pot.”
Even as I am frustrated by my perpetual inability to fit neatly into a race bubble, I know that in some horrible way, I am lucky. I can choose to embrace–or at least acknowledge–my Hispanic half (to the eyerolls of people who wish I’d just shut up and be white) while still reaping the benefits of white privilege, just like George Zimmerman. I can be half something and half something else. President Obama can’t. No matter how close, how connected he was to his white mother who gave birth to him, he can’t choose white for one race bubble and black for the next, depending on how he feels that day. He could get away with being black or “two or more races,” but certainly not white. And had Trayvon Martin had a white parent, he wouldn’t have had that luxury, either.
The whole thing—the Zimmerman case, my experiences—just goes to show how messy an issue race still is in America, and how ridiculously superficial and fluid racial identification is. From my vantage point, if we’re going to talk about “playing the race card” instead of actually attempting to tackle the strong undercurrent of racism that runs just beneath the surface of American society, we need to acknowledge that it’s not necessarily President Obama who is holding the deck. And Trayvon Martin was just holding Skittles.