The writer Joyce Carol Oates took to Twitter last week to vent her rage at the outcome of the Zimmerman trial.
She raged against the injustice of a system that allows a white and armed man to stalk and confront a black teenager simply for walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood wearing a hoodie and talking on a cell phone. Their encounter ended with an all-too-familiar tableau: a young black man dead of a gun shot. The white man walked.
“Some ‘whites’ may celebrate a victory in the (unwarranted) Zimmerman acquittal, but everyone loses in a case like this. Eventually, in ways unknown to us, some ‘whites’ will pay a high price for society’s failure to assure justice for all. There is always payback — if but random,” she wrote in one of her many tweets since a jury of six women (five white and one of Dominican origin) found George Zimmerman not guilty of killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
People engaged, as they always do, on Twitter, and some disagreed vehemently. But one simply wrote: “Zimmerman is not white.”
That gave me pause. For if Zimmerman is not white, exactly what color is he?
He is half Hispanic, of course. His mother is Peruvian; his father descends from German immigrants.
But ethnicity does not convey race. Except, it seems, when it comes to Hispanics.
It is no wonder that’s the case. Some Hispanics, too, are confused about their muddled identity.
In 1976, for the first and only time in the nation’s history, Congress passed a law requiring that federal government agencies collect data on an ethnic, not a racial, group: Hispanics. In the almost four decades since, the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” have been used to label Americans or immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries. Yet, no one seems to agree on what is the proper way to address Hispanics, let alone themselves.
In a survey conducted last year by the Pew Hispanic Center, only 24 percent of Hispanic adults said they most often identified with “Hispanic” or “Latino,” 51 percent said they identified themselves most often by their or their family’s country of origin, and 21 percent said they preferred the term “American” to identify themselves.
When asked what term they preferred, 51 percent had no preference, 33 percent preferred Hispanic and 14 percent preferred Latino. The majority, 69 percent, thought Latinos don’t share a common culture.
In terms of race, 36 percent identified as white and 10 percent as black, Asian or mixed race. The rest seemed confused: 25 percent used ethnicity as race, and 26 said “some other race.”
The results of the U.S. Census are even more mystifying: The majority of those who self-identified as Hispanic, 53 percent, said they were white and 3 percent said they were black; 37 percent said they belonged to “some other race.”
In a black and white world, Hispanics seem to have been left out of the conversation, which makes the racial dichotomy disturbingly reductive.
Like many around the world, I believe the Zimmerman trial was undeniably about race, even if the very mention of that word was not allowed in court. What was missing in the conversation was that the black and white construct is not uniquely American. It is possible to be both Hispanic and biased.
To ignore that glaring reality is to continue to dehumanize Hispanic immigration and to see Hispanics as a problematic monolith, a group of brown-skinned people who speak only Spanish, don’t care about this country and want nothing more than to send money to their families in Mexico or Cuba.
It would be a mistake to ignore how profoundly racist Hispanics can be. In some places in Latin America there are multiple words to denote skin color. The lighter the color, the easier life gets. In his terrific book Coal to Cream: A Black Man’s Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race (Free Press, 1999), the journalist Eugene Robinson, after working in South America, concluded that in Latin America race does not matter; color does.
That quickly changes with migration. To the racial baggage that foreign-born Hispanics carry from their home countries, we must add the lessons learned in the United States — both good and bad, as many Hispanics begin to internalize acceptable codes of conduct and speech regarding race.
Almost 15 years ago, I spent months chronicling the lives of two Cuban rafters who were best friends on the island and had grown apart in Miami, in no small part, because one is black and the other is white. The color of their skin determined where they lived, where they worked, what restaurants they went to, and even what sports they played — the white one played soccer with other Latinos; the black one played basketball.
It is true that, as many have said before me, this country needs to have a conversation about race. All I’m asking is that Hispanics don’t get left out of that conversation as they have so far. Brown is a color, not a race, but it would be good to remember that there are many shades of white and many shades of black. Somewhere in that spectrum of the human race, we must include Hispanics.