As best I can remember, it started in high school. Being told I don’t exist, or at least that my understanding of myself either wasn’t possible or wasn’t allowed. The form looked something like this:
RACE (choose one)
- Caucasian (non-Hispanic)
- African American
- Asian American/Pacific Islander
- Native American
I sat in my desk, puzzled. I had no idea what I was supposed to check. I approached the teacher and asked him what he thought I was supposed to check. He advised me to pick whichever option seemed right to me. The other kids in my predominantly white class didn’t seem to be having this problem. They were already filling out other sections of the form. I returned to my desk, still puzzled. I am white, I thought, looking at my absurdly pasty skin. But I am hispanic, I argued with myself. OK, but I’m not Latino, I countered. Yes, but the form means Hispanic and/or Latino. I cannot check “non-Hispanic,” that definitely wouldn’t be true. I checked “Hispanic/Latino.” I would not deny that dimension of my identity.
Obviously there were other problems with this form. There was, for example, no multiracial option to speak of. But the problem for me was that it confused race and ethnicity, requiring me to choose between being white or being hispanic. The form told me that I don’t exist, or at least that my understanding of myself either wasn’t possible or wasn’t allowed.
Hispanic is not a race. Hispanic people come in all human colors. The t-shirt I acquired at a hispanic multicultural festival in college, however simplistic, attempted to illustrate this: a black person, a yellow person, a white person, and a red person leaping into a bowl with the caption “Diverse ingredients make the best salsa.” We are descended from peoples of many nations and cultures from every populated continent. Many of us are multiracial.
Some of us are white. In 2010, the majority of American hispanics (53%) identified themselves as white to the U.S. Census Bureau (see Table 2 here). I am a white hispanic woman, even when forms don’t allow it. I’ve got the knapsack to prove it. But despite the high profiles of people such as Cameron Diaz, Martin Sheen, and Alexis Bledel, it seems that a lot of Americans still haven’t caught on. They think of “hispanic” as a race, a race that excludes us from being white and receiving white privilege.
So the denial of my existence continues. Almost a month after Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, I started seeing claims here and there that the media had “invented” the concept of a “white hispanic.”
“He’s only a ‘white Hispanic’,” said Bernard Goldberg, “because they need the word ‘white’ to further the storyline, which is ‘white, probably racist vigilante shoots unarmed black kid.’”
“The media then created a special rubric ‘white Hispanic,’” wrote Victor Davis Hanson, “when its narrative of white-on-black crime was endangered by new information that Mr. Zimmerman had a Latino mother, although it normally does not use such terminology for others of mixed ancestry — Barack Obama himself being a good example.”
A Real Clear Politics headline explicitly shouted, “The Media’s Latest Invention: ‘White Hispanic.’”
At least some of the sources of this narrative got the timeline right, as Hanson did, even if they got many other things wrong. Others, such as Goldberg, didn’t even seem to get the timeline correct. Here’s what really happened, chronologically speaking:
- The initial police report on February 26 identified Trayvon Martin’s shooter, George Michael Zimmerman, as a white male. This was the basis of the earlier media identification of George Zimmerman as a white male.
- On March 15, the Orlando Sentinel published a letter by Robert Zimmerman, the father of the shooter, which claimed: “George is a Spanish speaking minority with many black family members and friends. He would be the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever.” This letter led many news outlets to update their previous use of “white” to “white hispanic.”
Looking at the chronology, it’s clear that the media didn’t add “white” to “hispanic” in order to fabricate a “white-on-black crime” story. George Zimmerman was already identified by police as a white man who shot an unarmed black teenager, and reporters later modified Zimmerman’s race with his ethnicity to accommodate his father’s elaboration.
Comments like Hanson’s frustrated me in more than one way. “White hispanic” is not some novel invention of the media. It’s me. Being hispanic doesn’t mean I’m not white and don’t receive white privilege. For the love of God, quit telling me I don’t exist!
But I am also pissed off that Hanson, among others, adopted Robert Zimmerman’s flawed reasoning. The shooter’s father has suggested that hispanics cannot participate in white privilege, are somehow immune to the prevailing racial prejudices of our culture, and cannot act on those prejudices in ways detrimental to people of color. In reality, however, we can and we often do. Because I do exist, I know this from personal experience, and I have something to say. Those of us who are white are often the recipients of white privilege, whether we want it or not, even if some of us contend with other prejudices and discrimination against us on the basis of ethnicity. Everyone imbibes the prevailing racial prejudices and stereotypes of our culture, even if we harbor other racial prejudices, even if we dislike and resist the prevailing prejudices, even if we have family members and friends mitigating their influence on our thinking and acting. Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s “doll tests” illustrated that even black people can internalize anti-black prejudices to their own detriment. Hispanic people like me and George Zimmerman are not any more immune.
When people raise the issue of Zimmerman being a “white Hispanic,” to me that does not erase the fact that an African American male was targeted and killed. You could be a Latino or white or Asian and still wrongly target an African American male. That’s the issue that we’re looking at…. Whether you’re a black or white Latino, indigenous or mestizo, once you step into the U.S., you begin to get racialized by the way the U.S. defines whiteness because of the way in which the country operates. Even a white Latino at some point gets racialized in the United States, some also get privileges because of the way they look. There is a dominant race framework that everyone is fitting into, that society is defining. That’s the world that we live in. I have a son who has a black mother and a Latino father. And culturally he may be raised with the traditions of Louisiana, Costa Rica and Mexico, but at the end of the day, he’s not gonna be judged by those cultural traditions, he’s going to be judged by what he looks like. (Alberto Retana)