Is George Zimmerman white, Latino or mixed race? Depends on who you ask.

By Associated Press [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.It’s been nearly two weeks since the George Zimmerman verdict was handed down, and the conversations in my Facebook feed have shifted from outrage and sorrow to more nuanced discussions of the state of race in the U.S.

Many of these conversations have focused on Zimmerman’s racial identity and, more recently, the identity of the lone “non-black” juror.

Zimmerman’s mixed ethnicity has stirred up conversation about how much his race “counts”: To what extent does he identify as Latino, and does it make a difference in how he saw himself and how he saw Trayvon Martin?

These questions keep bringing me back to an earlier post here on the Seattle Globalist, a post which resulted in a whole host of passionate, and sometimes angry, comments.

In the post, Maggie Thorpe reflected on a series of paintings by Laura Kina included in the Under My Skin exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum. In response to paintings of Kina’s racially mixed family, Ms. Thorpe recalled her own struggles to find a cultural identity.

"1969, 2010, " Archival pigment print by Canh Nguyen. Part of the Under My Skin Exhibit at Wing Luke.

“1969, 2010, ” Archival pigment print by Canh Nguyen. Part of the Under My Skin Exhibit at Wing Luke.

The primary point of contention for readers was her conclusion that she could choose her own identity, “like everyone els[e].” While I do want to address her assertion, I also want to explore this association between mixed-race and the ability to choose a racial identity.

The popular representation of mixed race people in the U.S. often follows this same logic. Mixed race people are frequently imagined to be a sign of racial progress and endowed with an ability to simply choose their racial identity.

Yet, they are just as bound by the strictures of racial categories as people who are thought to be monoracial. As the news commentary surrounding Zimmerman’s race shows, Zimmerman cannot escape race. Depending on the particular politics of each media outlet, Zimmerman shifted from white to Latino to mixed race to white Hispanic. His racial flexibility did not allow him to choose his racial identity. Instead, it made his body a nearly-blank screen so that other interested parties could project their own agendas onto him.

"Lamentation 10 (Burning Times)," Gauche on Lokta paper by Tatiana Garmendia. Part of the Under My Skin exhibit at Wing Luke.

“Lamentation 10 (Burning Times),” Gauche on Lokta paper by Tatiana Garmendia. Part of the Under My Skin exhibit at Wing Luke.

The illusion that we can choose our own racial identities is, as several of the commentators pointed out, a privilege primarily accorded to white people in the U.S. The sociologist linked in the post, Mary Waters, does not argue that “as more and more Americans are mixed race, they have options in choosing how they identify.” Instead, her book Ethnic Options argues that the ability to choose an ethnic identity is not an option open to people of color.

To push that argument even further, while white people may be able to choose to embrace or reject an ethnic identity, they do not have the choice to opt out of white privilege. Ms. Thorpe described a work of art by Naima Lowe included in the exhibit which asks “When did you choose to be white?” Ms. Thorpe writes “For me personally, the answer is that I did not.” But this is precisely the point, people do not actually have that choice.

While we may not be able to choose the privileges or disadvantages assigned to us by race, we do have the choice in how we respond. My hope is that Ms. Thorpe, and indeed all of us, will continue to participate in this often painful conversation about race  to understand the ways in which we are both shaped by race and how we can work to transform its meaning.

LeiLani Nishime is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Washington. She was born in Los Angeles where she first began her long-term, love/hate, relationship with popular culture. She writes about multiracial Asian Americans, science fiction, and comics and is the co-editor of East Main Street: Asian American Popular Culture. You can find more of her academic writing here

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for writing this very thoughtful and astute response to Maggie Thorpe’s article, and for articulating some very complex ideas about race and identity in popular culture.

    I wanted to add that I am one of the artists featured in the Under My Skin exhibition, and Thorpe referenced my piece in her article. Without using my name directly (is that a blessing or an insult, I’m not entirely sure) Maggie says:

    “Another part of the exhibit reaches out to the so-called ‘default category.’

    On a white wall in the exhibit is a simple piece of paper with questions aimed at white people. One of the questions posed is: “When did you choose to be white?’

    For me personally, the answer is that I did not.”

    This is a complete misrepresentation of my piece, which is actually a series of 40 white cards on the wall asking a series of questions about whiteness. None of them say “When did you choose to be white?” The closest approximation may be the question “When did you realize that you were white?”

    The piece is designed to do two things, primarily: 1) Ask white folks (and everyone else) to consider their relationship to being racially marked and 2) Ask everyone to consider how it is that we have come to consider whiteness as a neutral signifier in the U.S.

    My work never asks about the choice to be white, though it does imply another kind of choice in relation to whiteness. Based on feedback I’ve received about the piece, it seems to ask white folks to consider their choice to be accountable to their white privilege. It seems to me that Maggie Thorpe has decided to distance herself from that responsibility.

  2. Latino it’s not a race, if you got a black latino he is black and a blonde latino is white, if he is mixed his mestizo etc… saying Latino is a race its like saying Gringo or Canadian is a race

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