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Trayvon Martin killing raises loaded racial terms

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
March 29, 2012 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says the fact that George Zimmerman is Hispanic doesn't rule out a racial motive in the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
Ruben Navarrette says the fact that George Zimmerman is Hispanic doesn't rule out a racial motive in the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: There is a new term to add to our national lexicon, "white Hispanic"
  • It's a label applied to George Zimmerman, who shot a black teenager, Navarrette says
  • He says anyone, regardless of color, can be a racist whether white, Hispanic or black
  • The media should have thought twice before turning to loaded term, Navarrette says

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN.com contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

San Diego (CNN) -- Over the years, Americans have become familiar with terms such as "white" and "Hispanic" and even -- on government forms -- the more specific "non-Hispanic white." Now, courtesy of the mainstream media, there is a new phrase to add to our national lexicon: "white Hispanic."

I don't like the sound of that. I've written about the thorny subjects of race and ethnicity for nearly a quarter century, and I rarely hear this term. We might have been able to see this coming given that there is no Hispanic race and Hispanics come in all colors.

Still, mark my words. Wherever this road leads, it's not good -- not for Hispanics nor the rest of the country.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

The term -- white Hispanic -- emerged from the controversy over the fatal February 26 shooting of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Because Martin was black, and because it was initially assumed that Zimmerman was white, critics immediately charged that the shooting was racially motivated.

Zimmerman's father, Robert, insisted that this wasn't true. In fact, he said it couldn't be true because his son is Hispanic. We have since learned that Zimmerman's mother is from Peru, and Zimmerman identifies himself as Hispanic.

I'm not about to question how Zimmerman identifies himself. If the experience of having a president with a multiracial background who is nonetheless often referred to as simply black or African-American has taught us anything, it's that people can identify themselves any way they like but that they are often too complicated to be summed up with a label.

George Zimmerman's father speaks out
Trayvon Martin's girlfriend talks
Martin's mother on arrest video
Zimmerman in handcuffs night of shooting

Even so, that Zimmerman's father opted to play the "Hispanic card" to protect his son's reputation is unfortunate. I don't know if he ever described his son as Hispanic or half-Hispanic before the shooting. But it is awfully convenient that he would be so quick to describe him that way now.

It is also absurd. Being Hispanic doesn't mean you can't also be racist. And the same goes for being white, black or any other color. Human nature dictates that we're all a little bigoted and narrow-minded, even if it is against members of our own group. It's easy to believe some stereotypes, or to think of some people as inferior to others. And being the member of a minority group doesn't make you immune to those impulses.

You should hear how some Mexican-Americans talk about Mexican immigrants. It's not pretty, and it's not helpful. And this is from people who are close enough to the subject matter that they should know better.

But what's even more troubling than what Zimmerman's father said is that some in the media seem to be bending over backward to get a particular message across. Rather than just refer to Zimmerman as Hispanic and be done with it, they created the hybrid term white Hispanic.

My more cynical friends insist the strategy here is to preserve, by any means necessary, the narrative of a white racist who gunned down an unarmed black teenager.

I won't go there. I don't think my media colleagues are intentionally trying to divide people and spark racial strife. Instead, I think they were looking for a way to avoid what would have been an embarrassing about-face. They didn't want to stand up and say: "We were wrong. Without having all the facts, we made certain assumptions about the suspect. And now it turns out that it's not simple, that this story is more complicated than we thought and that this suspect is both white and Hispanic." So they turned to the term white Hispanic.

It is also possible that some in the media are afraid to frame the story as Hispanic versus African-American. I understand that. Relations between the nation's largest minority and the group that used to hold that title are tense enough without adding fuel to the fire.

Whatever the reason for using this term, I don't like it. And I don't have any use for it. Are we now going to refer to people as white Hispanics and black Hispanics? Given that my complexion is a shade lighter than brown, should I be referred to as beige Hispanic? Where does this end?

Americans need to discuss race and ethnicity in serious ways. The tragic death of a young person is a serious issue. Everything about this story must be taken seriously. Distorting the language shows we're not serious people.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.

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