This post is the first in a three-part series on the George Zimmerman trial.This is really a post about race. From the beginning, the death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent trial of George Zimmerman was about race. Had Martin and Zimmerman both been black (or white Hispanics) no one outside of Florida would ever have heard about the case. At NBC, the today show edited the 911 call made by Zimmerman to make it look like he was profiling Martin because of his race. In the edited audio, Zimmerman tells the 911 operator:
Zimmerman: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good … he looks black.”
Zimmerman: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.”911 Operator: “OK, and this guy — is he black, white or Hispanic?”Zimmerman: “He looks black.,”
Zimmerman only brought up Martin’s race when prompted by the dispatcher. Whether Martin was targeted or profiled because he was black, only Zimmerman knows. By selectively editing the 911 call, NBC news did much to make this look like a racial issue.
Further clouding the issue is the characterization of George Zimmerman as a white Hispanic. The two terms don’t really go together, white speaks to race and Hispanic speaks to origin.
Race in America is complicated. The picture above is me and my four sons. By background, my father was from Jamaica. His father was from mainland China and his mother was Jamaican quite possibly by way of Africa. Racially he appeared to be black with a hint of Asian features. My mother is from Guam, Guam is a Pacific island in the Micronesian chain. So racially, I am of mixed race, African (not African-American), Jamaican, and Chamorro (the name for people from Guam). But it gets more complicated than that.
The Census Bureau defines Hispanic as:
… Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.
By that definition, I am Hispanic too! Guam was colonized and held by Spain until the Spanish-American War. Guam’s culture has been heavily influenced by Spain, the language (Chamorro) has strong Spanish/Latin influences. The dress, culture and religion have all been shaped by Spanish rule. My mother even has a Hispanic maiden name — Cruz. Yes, I am the guy that gets to check almost all of the boxes on the forms. (In reality, I never check any of the race/ethnicity boxes!)
Race in America is confusing. When my father came to this country as a young college student in the late 1950′s the DOT had no idea what to put on his Driver’s License, there was no check box for Jamaican, so they chose Caucasian. My father was a professor at UNI and I remember another professor saying in the press that he was the only black faculty member. I guess he was … since my dad was Caucasian!
My kids have is even worse than I do since I married a white girl. We are a mixed marriage, still relatively uncommon in Iowa. Coincidentally, my neighbors have a mixed marriage too — one Norwegian and one Swede — at least that passes for a mixed marriage in Minnesota where they’re from
My wife is of German/Polish/Scottish/Irish descent. Predominantly German with names like Schuler, Miller and Krause. So my kids are a little bit of everything. If you take a close look at the picture you will see that my boys and I run the gamut from dark dark brown/black to white with me being a bit brown in the middle. My son Jonathan, the whitest of the boys, is in the Army and his drill sergeant looked at his name tag and said”
Chung, are you adopted?
Last year I played in a ping pong (we call it table tennis because we’re Asian) tournament with three of my sons. Two of the boys won medals and when the tournament director paged us, all four of us went to the registration table. She looked at us and said, “Chung? Are you all related?”
In my own family it is also complicated. These are pictures of me and my brothers. (I am the good looking rather mysterious guys in the shades.) We also run the gamut. I am the lightest skinned of my brothers. Brian (in the middle) is the darkest and James (on the right) is in between. I recall an incident a few year ago when I was at the gym and I asked someone whether my brother (Brian) was riding an exercise bike. The person I asked said no, the only person in the room is African-American. Of course it was my brother Brian. One day Brian asked me whether African-Americans greeted me on the street. I said no, I wasn’t quite sure what he was talking about. He told me that since he looks black he is randomly greeted by other black people based on the color of his skin. (Sort of like the secret handshake of motorcyclists.)
This whole race thing is confusing. In addition, race and the perception of race is in my opinion also a matter of self-identification and cultural upbringing. While my parents were brown (mom) and black (dad), I grew up in Cedar Falls, Iowa. My parents were university professors and we grew up in a middle class neighborhood surrounded by families of educated professionals. Our neighborhood was probably as racially and ethnically diverse as any in a community like Cedar Falls. We had three black families (if you count us) all college educated professionals and an Indian family. I went to Price Lab School, a laboratory school connected with the UNI College of Education. In order to provide a more racially integrated environment, black students (they weren’t — or is it we weren’t — African-American in those days) were bussed in from Waterloo.
Growing up, I never really thought about race. But I thought of myself and my family as being just like my friends and their families, all of whom were white. If pressed, I would probably have thought of myself as white — after all, my father’s driver’s license said Caucasian. When I was in high school, my dad’s cousin came to live with us for a while when she attended college. She is from Jamaica and related to my father on his mother’s side of the family. She is Jamaican African with out any Chinese background. On day I was at a friend’s house and his mom (a white non-Hispanic) said,
David, who was that black girl over at your house the other day?
It took me a minute. Black girl? What black girl? Then it hit me, she was talking about my cousin. I guess she was black. I told his mom, “Oh, you must mean my cousin Sharon from Jamaica!”
His mom then reassured me that,
We never thought of you as being black.
Fortunately I was raised in a time when young people were to be respectful of their elders and I did not make a sarcastic comeback like, “That’s OK, I never thought of you as being white”, or “Hmm … neither did I”
In defense of my friend’s mother, she is a sweet lady and treated all of her son’s friends like her own children regardless of race. She was however, a product of the times and circumstances in which she grew up. I share this not to criticize her but rather to share that until I was in high school I really had never bothered to consider my own racial identity.
When my eldest son was born I filled out the demographic information on his birth certificate. In the race section i listed all of the various races that applied (sort of all of the above). After we left the hospital, the form was returned to me, I had forgotten to sign it or something. I took a look and they had replaced my son’s rich heritage with the single word: CHINESE. I signed the form but before returning it,
… in an act of civil disobedience, I took a bottle of white out (yes, it really is called white out!), removed the word Chinese form the race box and replaced it with the single word … HUMAN. To this day I am certain that my son is the only official HUMAN born in the state of Iowa.
Personally, I do not think that the Zimmerman/Martin case was about race.
If race is the lens through which we must view everything in our society, then I don’t know how to view the results of this case because.
I am a white Hispanic (at least a light brown one) — I am George Zimmerman
I am African-American (well African-Jamaican) — I am Trayvon Martin
At the end of the day I am not George Zimmerman and I am not Trayvon Martin. Those racial and ethnic characteristics describe me but in a fundamental way — they do not define me. In the next two posts in this series, I will share my thoughts on the actual case and its outcome. Stay tuned, I think both my liberal and conservative friends will be surprised.