Zimmerman, Whiteness and Latinos [Opinion]

PHOTO: WASHINGTON, D.C., JULY 12, 2013: Felicia Brooks, second from left, is comforted by her friend, Niciah Petrovic, while attending a gathering sponsored by the Howard University NAACP chapter, for Trayvon Martin at Howard University.

Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Saturday night bore a particularly saturated darkness, tinged by the news of George Zimmerman's acquittal of all charges in connection to the death of not-yet-man-not-quite-child Trayvon Martin. A range of single-word status updates overtook my various social media feeds before I'd had a chance to read any official (or unofficial) news source. I was not surprised, no, but so deeply saddened, angry, afraid.

There have been a number of moving and important pieces calling on us to contemplate how the result of the case was indeed an example of the law working as it was meant to in a country where black men are always considered suspect how it was in fact Trayvon Martin who ended up on trial, both the night he was pursued and shot and yet again in the theater of the courtroom. We have been challenged to think about the relationship between white supremacy and the law and in particular, given the composition of the jury, the historic complicity of white women with "white supremacist patriarchy."

I must also implore us to use this as an opportunity to speak about the overvaluation of whiteness within the Latino community, over and against blackness, for Zimmerman (of mixed Peruvian and white descent) has shown us the extreme consequence of purchase into this value system.

When, during the trial, both mothers took the stand and claimed to hear their own child call for help shortly before the shot that ended Martin's life, I had to wonder how many Latina mothers watched the trial and saw their children in both Zimmerman and Martin. If this case has shown us the undeniable fact of blackness as a maligned social category, it has also shown us the murky contours and malleability of Latinidad, its liminality and malleability. Latinos challenge simplistic narratives of race and in doing so push us to think about purposeful alliances and the ways these are forged.

Collectively we share a history with other communities of color, a history of dispossession, colonization, segregation, and violence. In the spirit of the mobilizations of the civil rights movements, calling ourselves "Latino" (as opposed to Spanish, as juror B-37 called us, or Hispanic, as Zimmerman called himself) indicates an alliance to build social justice projects around these shared histories despite our very different national, cultural, and even racial compositions.

We must also acknowledge the small ways in which as a community we devalue blackness even while some among us see our own children in pictures of Martin, when we refer to our hair as "pelo malo," for example, or joke about "bettering the family" when we procreate with someone whiter. We must acknowledge the ways we overvalue whiteness when, for example, we declare a grandchild our favorite because of his blue eyes. These small under- and over- valuations are related to the larger problematic prejudices that led to Zimmerman's judgment of Martin as a criminal whose escape, he seemed to believe, it was his civic duty to prevent.

In the mainstream media Zimmerman has been variously referred to as white, Hispanic, and white Hispanic. While his surname seems to permit an easy identification with whiteness, Zimmerman is not a man who could pass. Within the black and white binary that often simplistically frames complicated race relations in the US, Zimmerman has nonetheless been squarely aligned with whiteness by virtue of acting in accordance with dominant social and legal strictures that render blackness a crime.

This case challenges us to think about the contours of our community and the alliances we forge through ideological purchase. Zimmerman has shown us the cost of Hispanic alliance with white supremacy: a black body, a price we should all be unwilling to pay.

Leticia Alvarado is an Assistant Professor in the Department of American Studies at Brown University. Her teaching and research interests include Latino studies, visual culture and aesthetics, critical race theory, and feminist and queer theory.

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