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Zimmerman's Racial Realities, Beyond Black and White

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The last couple of days have been emotional to say the least. The George Zimmerman trial and verdict speak volumes to how deep anti-black racism in Florida and our country really is. While not a surprise to many (given countless examples of killings of black men with impunity over the last years), the Zimmerman verdict still shakes us to the core. Another unarmed, young black male is dead, and our so-called justice system has made the killer out to be the victim. The take home message is clear: the black male is always the aggressor, the suspect, and not to be trusted. Even if he was killed.

The racial realities of this case were not discussed in the courtroom in the last weeks. Many insisted that this trial should be about the law, not about race, as if not talking about race directly somehow makes racism magically disappear. Zimmerman's history of racist attitudes and actions was not discussed. Nor was his father's recent book that claims that African American groups like the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the United Negro College Fund are the "true racists" in the United States.

When the racial dynamics of this case have been discussed explicitly, it has generally been assumed that George Zimmerman is white. An article posing the hypothetical scenario of a "race reversal" between Zimmerman and Martin was circulating widely last week with an image of Zimmerman as black and Martin as white. While the article brings up many powerful points about racial double standards, it oversimplifies the racial dynamics in this case and in our country in general. Why is it so hard for advocates of racial justice (and the media) to come to terms with the reality that George Zimmerman is mixed race and Latino? Let's be real, when you look at a photo of Zimmerman, does he really look like a white man to you?

Indeed, George Zimmerman's mother is Peruvian and his father is white. Does this reality make it any less likely that Zimmerman's suspicion of Travyon Martin and eventual shooting and killing of him had something to do with anti-black racism? Can Latinos perpetuate anti-black racism? What about other immigrant communities? Where do mixed race people fit in?

Answering these questions requires a lot more nuance than generally exists in discussions of racism in the United States, even in progressive, social justice-oriented circles. Our knee-jerk reaction to this horrific incident of racial profiling and racist violence are indicative of how this country remains stuck in an outdated, black-white racial paradigm.

As the child of Sikh immigrants from India, I have never fit into the black-white duality of race relations. Of course, I have experienced my fair share of racism due to my brown skin, turban, and beard and thus identify as a person of color. At the same time, I, and many other South Asian Americans, have grown up with subtle and not so subtle messages of anti-black racism from our families and communities at large. While on the one hand I have learned through Sikhism that all people are equal regardless of their race, caste, or gender, I simultaneously learn that we should not socialize with black people and certainly not date them. I learn they are not to be trusted, that I should keep my distance. I learn that they are unattractive and that I most certainly want to keep my (brown) skin as wheatish and fair and lovely as possible or else I might be called kala (meaning black, which my grandfather used to jokingly call me, as I was the darkest in my family). I recall a family member bluntly telling me when I was a kid, "You can marry whoever you want when you grow up as long as she is not black."

As Vijay Prashad states in Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting, "Since blackness is reviled in the United States, why would an immigrant, of whatever skin color, want to associate with those who are racially oppressed, particularly when the transit into the United States promises the dream of gold and glory? The immigrant seeks a form of vertical assimilation, to climb from the lowest, darkest echelon on the stepladder of tyranny into the brightness of whiteness."

We Asian, Latino/a, Middle Eastern, and even African immigrants have long worked hard to distance ourselves from the lowest of the low, the Black American. What better way to aspire towards whiteness than through anti-black racism? Of course, in doing so we simultaneously perpetuate the subjugation of our own communities, but we can make small, and sometimes large, steps up the ladder towards whiteness through our efforts. Case in point: George Zimmerman is a free man today.

Racism is messy. While some want to characterize everything as black and white, others, as I mentioned previously, mystify the brutal realities of white supremacy through post-racial rhetoric. This is even more dangerous. In post-racial America, we easily come to the conclusion that if Zimmerman is Latino, then this case has nothing to do with racism. Perhaps this is why many progressive activists and commentators have characterized Zimmerman as a white man. Because it's easier. It seems more simple. The general public will more readily see the injustice of anti-black racism in the killing of Trayvon Martin if George Zimmerman is white. But it's not the reality of the situation. Racism has infected all of us, not just white folks.

To really understand racism in the United States, we have to understand power. Racism is not just about attitudes; it is a system of oppression. What this means is that white people receive unearned privileges and advantaged simply because of the color of skin, while people of color are systematically disadvantaged and marginalized. That does not make the experiences of all people of color alike, nor does it mean that people of color cannot perpetuate racism, as in the case of George Zimmerman. In fact, we are often rewarded for doing so.

Coming to terms with the fact that George Zimmerman is not simply a white man does not delegitimize the righteous rage we feel about the killing of Trayvon Martin. It does not undermine our argument that what happened last February had everything to do with racial profiling and the stereotype that young black men are inherently suspicious. But it does complicate an outdated black and white dichotomous way of thinking about race in the United States. We need a different approach if we truly intend to uproot racism from all levels of our society, our minds, and our hearts.