After the shooting of Trayvon Martin in late February, police identified George Zimmerman as a white man. It’s no surprise that once the press got their hands on the story, the media sunk its teeth in, delighted to make headlines with another narrative on white-on-black crime. Blog posts on major news outlets abounded with titles like “Why white people should care about Trayvon Martin”, “White people, you will never look suspicious like Trayvon Martin!” and “‘I am not Trayvon Martin’: Dismantling white privilege in activism”. YouTube, Facebook and Twitter exploded with emotional responses. People speculated over what exactly happened that night. Were Zimmerman’s motives racial? Did Trayvon assault Zimmerman? Who yelled for help?
A bigger question, however, was put on the backburner — the question of Zimmerman’s ethnicity. Zimmerman’s father is white, but his mother is from Peru. He speaks Spanish. On his voter registration form, he checked off the box labeled “Hispanic”. Recently, the media has attempted to fix this discrepancy by referring to him as “white Hispanic.” The term is clearly only used so the word “white” can continue to be printed in big, bold letters (ever heard of the term multiracial?). The hypocrisy of this is apparent in that the media has almost unanimously decided to refer to President Barack Obama as simply black or African American; despite the fact Obama’s mother is a white, Kansas native. The media defines people based not on who they are but on who they need them to be in order to legitimize their propaganda. After all, if we have a black president, then racism between black and whites (therefore, all racism) has disappeared.
Though Zimmerman’s racial ambiguity has thrown a major wildcard into a case that yearns to perpetuate the all-too-familiar white/black hierarchy, probing it would require us to ask too many questions that could only lead to even more ambiguous answers.
America needs Zimmerman to be white so we won’t dare to redefine what racism means. The media needs Zimmerman to be white so we will isolate racism as white-on-black or black-on-white crime and not as something that is also very prevalent in other ethnic communities. Racism also overlaps with various types of discrimination based on gender, sexual identity, socioeconomic status and other factors that cannot be boiled down to an obvious difference in skin color. The media focuses so heavily on the black-white dynamic so it looks like racial tensions (and prejudice in general) in America are being addressed, when really a massive segment of it continues to be ignored.
People are constantly asking, what if Trayvon was white? What if Zimmerman was black? Would we still have witnessed the death of an innocent teenager? The situation leaves us with more questions than answers on how far the U.S. has come with race relations and the treatment of multiracial citizens.
Yet, one thing is for certain; if Trayvon was a different race, the story would have been told differently because it would not fit the media’s narrative of race relations. Zimmerman was reported to be white because of prejudicial assumptions, the media’s simplification of race and a near-automatic decision of Zimmerman’s guilt. In order for race relations in America to truly improve, it is important for the media to address all cases of discrimination, even if doing so forces us to ask ourselves some very controversial questions.
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