George Zimmerman, Giselle Stern and Latin America

Negrito, a popular snack found on the shelves of any grocery store or supermarket in Mexico.

George Zimmerman has a Latin American mother with light brown skin and a white, U.S. – born father.

I have a Latin American mother with light brown skin and a white, U.S. – born father.

Both George Zimmerman and myself have legal names in the U.S. that belie the full backstory of our blood ties.

While my legal name is Giselle Stern Hernández in Mexico, my legal name in the United States is Giselle Stern.

Between our skin tones and bone structure, we can “pass” for other things besides Latino/Latina. Depending on hair styles, clothes, makeup, jewelry, or the context of the moment that we’re in, we can be pegged for such nationalities as Mexican to Italian to Greek to Israeli. (Yes, I’ve been identified by others in all of those ways.)

This choice that George and I have to amplify or to tamp down a part of our identity is a powerful privilege chip that many people living in the United States don’t have to cash in.

Trayvon Martin didn’t have that privilege.

My friend Mr. Vulcan also doesn’t have that privilege. He was born and raised in the States, right here in California. Yet, he likes to tell the story of walking up to Customer Service at our local Home Depot. As he approached the counter, the Home Depot employee started waving their arms, saying, “Let me go get someone who speaks Spanish.”

My husband will also not have that privilege, once he arrives to the U.S.

But back to me and George. In more than one interview, the Zimmerman family asserted that they didn’t want to bring up the fact that George was mixed race and half-Latino for the following reason:

The defendant’s brother, Robert Zimmerman Jr., told Fox News Latino the family chose not to publicly identify with their Hispanic roots since the fatal shooting in order to emphasize self-defense – not race – as the central issue in the case.

“Our family very deliberately left the injection of another racial element off the table,” said Robert Zimmerman Jr., explaining the family decision was made by a concerted push by the brothers’ Peruvian mother. “Any color or race is capable of racism so claiming to be ‘not white’ and therefore ‘not culpable’ is a moot point.”

My head exploded when I read that. The simple fact of that deliberate choice, particularly in the U.S., reeks of tremendous race and class privilege.

But the fact that the decision was made by “a concerted push” by their “Peruvian mother” doesn’t surprise me one bit.

Jorge Ramos from his Univision show, Al Punto, conducted an interview with Gladys Zimmerman and Robert Zimmerman, mother and brother of George Zimmerman. At  the 7:15 point in the video, Mr. Ramos asks Ms. Zimmerman directly in Spanish about the fact that both of her sons have visited Peru on more than one occasion. He then follows it up by talking about the discrimination that exists in Latin America, “not only against indigenous groups, but also towards people who have darker skin.”

When Mr. Ramos specifically asks her about this discrimination in Latin America, Ms. Zimmerman gives an answer that does not directly acknowledge anything of what Mr. Ramos just said. And then she states, “My sons don’t see skin color…I don’t see skin color.”

I cannot speak about Peru. But I can speak about Mexico. And Jorge Ramos knew exactly what he was talking about when he asked that question.

From my very first days in Mexico, through all of my ten years there, when I told people that I was from New York, I’d get asked some version of the following:

1. Were you afraid to live in New York with all of the black people?

2. Wasn’t New York unsafe, with all of the black people who live there?

3. New York must have been very scary/dirty/loud with all of the black people in it, right?

I’d love to tell you that this was only once in a rare while. This was all the time. Across class lines and city/pueblo lines. These questions came from Mexicans who had been undocumented in the States and Mexicans with papers who went for the weekend to Texas to do some shopping.

These questions have come from people in my own family.

The only thing that ever came a close second to the fear of blacks were the homophobic comments about, “all of the gays that lived in New York,” as well as anti-semitic comments about, “all of the Jews that were there as well.”

And while I’ve been filled with a rage and a sadness and a feeling of, “I knew it,” since George Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict this past Sunday, I also feel like I’ve been carrying a dirty secret.

Because I’m absolutely, 100% sure that if you live in Latin America, you can’t miss, you cannot truly fail to notice the tremendous value placed on light skin.

You can be poor, but you better not be black. Because then it’s game over.

When my friend A Tall Drink of Water married her husband, the chatter that swirled around her from other Mexicans was that she’d be, “bettering the race,” when she got pregnant.

Do I even need to tell you that she has white skin, blue eyes and blonde hair?

Do I even need to tell you that her husband is like my husband, with dark skin, dark brown eyes and black hair?

And blacks in the U.S.? Demonized to within an inch of their lives by the majority of  Latin America.

So within my rage and sadness about the George Zimmerman verdict is my rage and sadness about the refusal of many of both of my people, North American and Latin American alike, the stubborn refusal of many of them to recognize that not only do we have a profound race problem, but that the roots of that same racism run as far back as to the conquests and colonizers of both countries.

So I’m definitely not going to play along with the whole, “I am Trayvon Martin” campaign. Please.

Because the reality is that on paper, I have more in common with George Zimmerman than most people care to admit.

And if I were to have murdered Trayvon Martin in Mexico?

I’m pretty sure that I would’ve walked free there as well.

15 thoughts on “George Zimmerman, Giselle Stern and Latin America

  1. Thanks for responding to my comments Corin and taking the time to type out so many thoughtful paragraphs. I get what you and Giselle are saying, I really do, but at the same time, assuming the thesis is valid and I’m not convinced that it is, I have a big problem with this kind of thinking. As an exercise in history and human behavior in the setting of adult academia it’s fine I suppose, but not to get dispersed to the population at large in various ‘age appropriate’ forms, which believe me it does. I think it can be very damaging and counterproductive to younger minds, especially.

    Why damaging? Because I know first hand how kids start out being completely nonjudgmental about race, skin color or ethnicity. My 1st or perhaps 2nd grade son used to comment on a black guy who used to walk around the neighborhood a lot. “Look Mommy, that guy’s hat is cool.” To him he wasn’t black, he was just a guy with a cool hat. But guess what happened a few years later after he started watching certain TV programs and cartoons that sent the same general message you’re sending: “Hey kid, listen up. There’s two worlds out there. There’s the black world, and there’s the white world, and white people just don’t get us.” Suddenly that guy walking was the black guy, not just the guy with the hat. My son felt guilty for something he, his parents, his grandparents or even their grandparents didn’t do; his innocent blank slate in terms of racial judgment scrawled with confusing and accusatory messages. My heart sank. Not that I’m opposed to knowing history both good and bad, but when ‘bash mobs’ and spontaneous black gang attacks on whites are the result of the verdict of a case having nothing to do with race, there’s obviously something wrong with the appropriateness and accuracy of the message that’s being sent out. In fact if Sanford is the new Selma as we’ve been led to believe, to me it’s an indication that certain folks are having a very hard time finding examples of actual racism anymore.

    Why counterproductive? Because the takeaway by minorities is that they’re victims, they have a big fat excuse for whatever’s wrong in their lives, and worst of all now they’ve got generalized anger eating away at their hearts where none otherwise might have been. The takeaway by whites is that they’re guilty of something, they owe a debt for something they didn’t do and would never do, it doesn’t matter what they do they’re still culpable and will always be in debt to minorities. If they see color they’re racist. Being colorblind is apparently also racist. They just can’t win, and so thus THEY become frustrated and angry. They assume all minorities look upon with them with disdain, and tend to draw back and not engage where they might have otherwise. White employers might tend not to hire minorities, because they’re afraid of the attitudes that might get displayed to customers, and they think they probably secretly hate them.

    I know it’s unrealistic to think that my son could remain so innocent forever, but at the same time I feel much of society is working counter to the vast majority of us who think race shouldn’t matter, character should. They simply refuse to ever let us get beyond race, but instead they find fascination, and in many cases profit, in endlessly stirring the pot. My thesis is that the MLK dream of colorblindness, not expired notions of ‘white supremacy’, is the proper path to be on, and as Jesse Jackson once temporarily put forth: “We the people cannot move forward by looking backward. We must forgive each other, redeem each other and move on to a brighter tomorrow.”

    I don’t see how someone steeped in this kind of thinking could ever hope to serve on a jury and render a just verdict based not on his/her own perceived guilt or victimhood, or what happened in Peru, but on the facts of the case. The former is what happened with O.J. Thankfully it didn’t happen with Zimmerman, although one juror nearly succumbed to her ‘feelings’.

    Giselle’s article, which implies that Zimmerman’s mom’s heritage should instruct us on his racial outlook, is I think also counterproductive in the same vein. It ignores his real-world interactions with black people, nullifies his individuality, and essentially profiles him just as unfairly as he’s accused of doing so toward Martin. This the guy who mentored black kids, dated black girls, petitioned to get the son of the same white cop who arrested him disciplined for abusing a black homeless guy. He had a black business partner. His neighborhood was multi-racial. He offered sanctuary to a black neighbor who had been victimized by a burglar. His 911 call history suggests a nearly even balance between white and black. His scrutiny of people was always based on behavior, not race.

    Here’s the ‘feeling’ I’ve gotten from what he and his brother have said, more importantly what Zimmerman’s actually done, regarding race and how they were raised. Zimmerman’s upbringing was such that even if his mom did have some remnants of racial bias via her Peruvian roots, she and her husband made probably a better effort than I did at raising their son to be concerned with content of character over color.

    Now I know that’s hard to square with the fact that he did shoot a young black man, but that’s where feelings have to take a back seat to the very real and binding legal concepts of self defense and self preservation, something ironically that blacks take advantage of in greater percentages than whites in Florida via ‘stand your ground’ laws. He shot him, but he didn’t murder him. Two very different things.

    Thanks again for responding Corin. I’m sorry Giselle for being a little snarky earlier and I’m sure you’re a nice person. I simply disagree with associating historical/geographical racial behavior patterns with the Zimmerman/Martin case, and I was trying to understand why you would be doing such a thing because I don’t think it’s intellectually valid. By the standard you’ve advanced, no black person can ever be found legitimately guilty and no hispanic or white person can ever be found legitimately innocent.

    This is justice by feeling, and not by the preponderance of the evidence. I don’t think this is how we want our court system to operate.

  2. Pingback: Zimmerman and The Invention of the White Race | Moorbey'z Blog

  3. Natalie,

    If you really don’t think George Zimmerman is racist and that the murder of Trayvon Martin had nothing to do with the color of his skin, and you’re not just being some troll hiding behind a screen name somewhere, then I have a song for you. It should hit pretty close to home.

    HEATHER

  4. Perhaps it slipped your mind, but you still didn’t answer my question. You implicitly answer it, but you appear reluctant to out and out answer it.

    Beyond feelings, what exactly is your actual evidence for disagreeing with my contention that GZ “has nothing whatsoever against blacks”, and believing that TM would be alive today would that he was white?

    You are aware I assume that he made just about as many calls to 911 with concerns about white folks too, right? And a couple hispanics?

    • Hi Natalie,

      Giselle did answer your question, and although she is perfectly capable of answering it again, I think the problem is actually that you are not listening, so I wanted to see whether I could help you out…

      1. Some background on race, white privilege, and the Zimmerman trial: the privilege of being able to think that “colourblindness” is possible is an example of white privilege — of how people who have been socialized in a context in which their whiteness is both “the norm” and “the apex” can pretend as though race doesn’t matter (and, as a result, never have own up to their privilege or their implicit biases). There are many different ways in which people are racialized, but they all nevertheless serve to (re)enforce a racist system that seeks to preserve white supremacy — my supremacy (and, I’m guessing, yours. Does that make you uncomfortable? Good. It should). When someone who benefits from such a system insists that the Zimmerman’s acquittal “is not about race” because his assumptions, those of the jury, etc.. were not “racist,” that person is (re-)asserting their “supremacy” by subjecting the “validity” of the experience of being racialized to their recognition and “approval” — the recognition and approval of a person who is not subjected to the same racializing experiences (but benefits from them) and who is speaking from an (often wilfully) naïve position made possible by privilege.

      So, of course “it’s about race”; it’s about the unjust, painful, and dangerous ways in which black men and boys are racialized and about the privileges that others derive from the racialization of black men and boys.

      2. Whiteness = racist: as a white (anglo) US American, my privilege means that I have done and said a lot of racist things — whether or not I “mean to”/see it/enjoy it doesn’t matter all that much. This is not an excuse but the disturbing truth about how whiteness works; it makes those who inhabit it unsee, unhear, and unrecognize “Otherness.” Again, unseeing, unhearing, and unrecognizing serve to reassert white supremacy and preserve white privilege; this is the stuff of everyday racism. Racism is so much more insidious than “nice white folks” want to believe, so many react by saying “that’s not racist,” “I’m not racist,” etc… — which is frankly a racist act (back at square one). Now, there are a lot of blurry lines in terms of “who counts” — who inhabits whiteness and when — and that’s because race isn’t a “real thing” (although it has very real material, social, psychological impacts); it exists because it was made to exist for the purposes of maintaining whiteness in a “superior” position. It reshuffles (historically, geographically, etc…) to achieve those ends, so it doesn’t always look the same everywhere (Mexico, Brazil, the US, etc…) and all of the time (1900, 1968, 2013, etc…).

      People who inhabit whiteness and therefore benefit can pretend to ignore this fact or can undertake a process of recognizing privilege, offering solidarity, and working to undermine the systemic injustice and violence that rewards wilful ignorance with privilege. If such a system is indefensible, why act like it is invisible?!

      3. Zimmerman and whiteness: race is also produced relationally — for instance, between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman didn’t need to have a WASPy background for his acquittal to be an acquittal of whiteness — and an indictment of (Trayvon’s) blackness (which is pretty incredible because Trayvon Martin wasn’t on trial)!

      The often-expressed belief that “it couldn’t have been about race because George Zimmerman is also a person of colour” does a lot of racist “heavy lifting:” first, it negates race (to deny the systemic character of racism); second, it invokes race (to excuse white supremacist assumptions); third, it homogenizes all racial “Others” (to re-centre whiteness); and lastly, it reifies race by giving it conceptual integrity and rationality (rather than recognizing that it is a socially constructed concept and is contradictory, uneven, intersectional, and relational).

      4. Back to your “question:” One thing I think I understand Giselle to be saying is that her experiences, informed as they are by her own background, have given her certain insights into the Zimmerman case and how whiteness/blackness/etc… intersect with racial politics in Latin America as well as with Latin American heritage in the US. I’m not as well positioned as Giselle to speak to this subject , so it’s important that I listen and try to learn a little something. If you’re not especially knowledgeable, you might want to do the same.

      5. Further reading: assuming you are actually interested in learning more and not just posing rhetorical questions, I would recommend that you do some reading on “colour-blind racism”, implicit bias, white privilege, and the history of the concept of race. Once you commit yourself to listening and learning, seek out voices of colour in print, on blogs, on TV, etc… and practice seeing, hearing, and recognizing. If you’re interested in racism and racialization in Latin American countries/cultures (and how it is similar to and differs from US American racism), there is also a lot of excellent reading out there. It’s also worth reading some of the “ethnic studies” work that has been done around latin@ (broadly speaking) identities in the US. I’d be happy to share favourite readings on any of these topics.

      6. I just want to add that using such a demanding and entitled tone is unnecessary and pretty rude; Giselle is being super nice to you. In fact, Giselle is super nice in general! She is someone I love and deeply admire — and if you listen to what she has to say without your hackles up, I’m guessing that you will come to a similar conclusion.

  5. So I guess that means you’re racist against blacks too, Giselle. Because this whole Latin American connection is being used to support the notion that George Zimmerman was a racist profiler. In Peru they don’t like blacks much, ergo that means George must not either. Is that a line of thinking you support?

    • Nicole,

      The George Zimmerman case revealed fault lines and cracks that go beyond the Untied States. My line of thinking is that there’s a deep racism that exists in Latin America against blacks that is not often discussed publicly. That was my point. And if you took the time to read my previous posts, you’d see that yes, I grapple with my own racist tendencies on a daily basis. Thanks, Giselle

      • But you’re not really answering my question Giselle, not that you’re obligated to. Do you support the notion (not necessarily explicitly advanced by you but surely by lots of others) that the Peruvian heritage of GZ’s mother is a valid indicator that GZ is racist against blacks?

        Because there’s nothing beyond all this abstract theorizing in terms of real-life tangible evidence to indicate that. In fact GZ has demonstrated by his deeds that he has nothing whatsoever against blacks, or any particular race, other than their illegal, or potentially illegal, behavior.

        It’s interesting to learn that Latin America is so down on black people, something I honestly didn’t know, but I don’t see how it’s fruitful to implicitly or explicitly project that attitude on GZ, and I certainly don’t see how his case has somehow “revealed” this. It hasn’t. You have, but this case hasn’t.

      • Natalie,

        I feel that you and I have different views on George Zimmerman and the fact that you feel that he, “Has nothing whatsoever against blacks…”

        I feel that if Trayvon Martin were white he would have a much better chance of being alive today and not have been murdered by George Zimmerman.

        Since you were not aware of the fact of how racist Latin Americans are towards blacks, I’d encourage you to do some listening and research before you continue with this subject.

        Thanks,
        Giselle

    • Michelle,

      Thank you so much for posting. Over the years I’ve found that the only way for me to create safe space, space where we can dialogue or sit in sacred silence, the only way I know how to do that is by telling on myself first and creating a bit of that space. Your comments are much appreciated-this was a tough one to write. I was thinking of Max Regan’s words this morning – “What you’re writing must scare the shit out of you.” Love, Giselle

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