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.
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.
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.