04/04/2012 11:59 am ET Updated May 28, 2012

Trayvon Martin's Death, Racial Tensions and Anthropology

By Ashkuff

Many years ago, during my first biological anthropology class, I faced a major revelation: much of what we call "race" is culturally imagined, not biological fact. Of course, that's easily forgotten after tragedies like George Zimmerman's killing of Trayvon Martin. Indeed, I've heard a lot of buzz online that "White Man Kills Unarmed Black Teen." I've seen old racial tensions endure new strains, as the New Black Panthers proclaim that "the white man is a murderer" and place a bounty on Zimmerman. Although I'm not challenging anybody's remorse or outrage, I'd like to respectfully question one of the tragedy's racial tensions.

Under normal circumstances, I doubt that Floridians would all label Zimmerman "white."

Although one probably could, I'd rather not digress into measures like complexion. Let's focus on heritage. Zimmerman's family considers itself multiracial, with mixed a Hispanic and European background. Traditionally speaking, this would make Zimmerman "Mestizo." Although the label is fairly dated, there currently exists less-than-enlightened whites that discriminate against Mestizos (especially Mexican-Americans) rather than identify with them.

Beyond this traditional label, Zimmerman apparently labels himself Hispanic, rather than white. However, the media still seems compelled to force Zimmerman into stranger racial categories. CNN awkwardly describes Zimmerman as "white Hispanic." While it's tempting to interpret this description as biological fact, cultural imagination obviously weighs on its wording. After all, although his mother is white, I've never heard CNN label President Barack Obama "white Black."

As an anthropologist, I'm left with many burning questions. Chiefly, even if someone becomes a social pariah, why force him into awkwardly fit racial categories? Exactly how much good could this really do? How much harm? As usual, more research is required.

Ashkuff is a university-educated and professionally-practicing anthropologist living in Florida. He has worked extensively with UF's Institute of Black Culture, and its Institute of Hispanic and Latino Cultures. Ashkuff also dabbles with the anthropology of violence.