I’m here to explain why George Zimmerman is white.
This seems necessary given the confusion and anger with which some readers responded to my use of that word last week in this space to describe the man who shot an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin to death last month in Sanford, Fla. One person wrote: “Mr. Zimmerman was Hispanic not White plez do your homework before writing your column!!!!”
But it is they who are wrong. There are two reasons. The short one is this:
“Hispanic” is not a race, but an ethnicity. As the U.S. Census Bureau puts it in its 2010 Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin, “People who identify their origin as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be any race.”
The long reason begins with an understanding that the word in question — race — is a term both meaningful and yet, profoundly meaningless. It is meaningful in the sense that it provides a tool for tribalism and a means by which to organize our biases, fears, observations, social challenges and sundry cultural products. It is meaningless in the sense that, well . . . it has no meaning, that there exists no definition of “black” or “white” that carries any degree of scientific precision.
We are taught to believe the opposite, that “black” and “white” are self-evident and immutable. But I invite you to look up Walter White, the blond, blue-eyed “Negro” who once led the NAACP, or Gregory Howard Williams, the university president who didn’t even know he was black until he was 10 years old. Dig up the old Jet magazine story about a woman who gave birth to twins — one “black,” one “white.” And then think again. Race is a fraud, a cruel and stupid fraud.
The people who came here from Europe did not automatically consider themselves “white.” They identified as Irish, Hungarian, Italian, Jewish, Armenian. As David R. Roediger observes in his book, Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White, they were emphatically taught that “white” was the identity that conferred status and privilege and that it was defined by distance from, and antipathy toward, black. They were advised to avoid being friendly with blacks or else put their whiteness at risk.
Nor did Africans kidnapped into slavery think of themselves as “black.” They were Mandinkan, Fulani, Mende, Songhay, Wolof. “Black” was something imposed upon them as justification for slavery and other means of exploitation. As one historian puts it: Africans did not become slaves because they were black. They became black because they were enslaved.
Well into the 20th century, America recognized dozens of “races.” In that America, people we now regard as white — the Irishman, Conan O’Brien; the Armenian, Andre Agassi; the Jew, Jerry Seinfeld — could not have taken for granted that they would be seen that way. People like this had to become white, had to earn whiteness, a feat African Americans have found impossible to duplicate, no matter how many harsh chemicals they use on their hair and skin.
White, then, is not simply color, but privilege — not necessarily in the sense of wealth, but rather in the sense of having one’s personhood and individuality respected, a privilege so basic I doubt it registers with many whites as privilege at all. We’re talking about the privilege of being seen, of having your worth presumed, of receiving the benefit of the doubt and some human compassion, of being treated as if you matter.
Consider that, then consider the fair-skinned Hispanic man, George Zimmerman, who evidently stalked and killed an unarmed kid he wrongly thought was up to no good, yet was not arrested, nor even initially investigated. He said it was self-defense. Police took him at his word and sent him on his way.
Folks, that’s not just white. It’s blinding.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.