Reflections on Race, Privilege, and the Zimmerman Verdict

by Kenny Steven Fuentes

When I was approximately 13 years old, I was enrolled in my second year at a private boys school in Massachusetts. My mother and father, long split by that point, had both emigrated from Guatemala. I was the first generation Guatemalan-American kid who grew up sharing a bed with my mother in a crowded attic. My classmates came from the cream of the eastern Massachusetts crop. Many were the children of Ivy Leaguers, and even the “jocks” were taking advanced classes and pursuing multitudes of extra-curricular activities. This was an opportunity to rise above the expectations of most children from my background. Despite a rocky academic start, I slowly caught up and developed a reputation for outspokenness and an earnest desire to do better.

Before I had begun to develop my vision of the world, I knew that members of my family (including one of my biological parents) had come to the United States without documentation. They’d trekked across deserts under cloak of darkness, endured beatings by young men who preyed on migrants crossing through border towns, and established new lives in neighborhoods like Quincy, Chelsea, and East Boston, MA. I’d not yet learned the extent of the American funded civil wars, coups, and death squads in Latin America. But I understood that the choice to come to America had not been made lightly.

One day, I found myself in a discussion with a fellow classmate regarding immigration. I can’t recall the particulars, but I never forgot one key sentence:

“You’re just biased because you’re Mexican.”

I suppose I can’t fault the boy for his words since we had barely began adolescence. I’ve grown up since then, and learned more about the world. I do not believe that he intended ill will, nor do I believe that he was a hateful to the core, white power racist. I don’t remember how I felt in that moment, or how I reacted. But those words have never left me. Today, that moment represents my earliest memory on the receiving end of white privilege.

The past few weeks have brought on a flood of emotion, guilt, and anger that I wasn’t fully aware of. The wave of support, solidarity, and action from people of all kinds of backgrounds brought me great joy. But the specter of power and privilege reared its ugly head at the same time. The 48 hours after the Zimmerman trial brought privilege out of the woodwork. Rationalization is a dangerous tool, and useful to hide behind.

This is not to say that everyone who rationalizes the verdict is complicit in a system of privilege denial. But any form of rationalization that denies the limits of one’s experience reinforces privilege. This is true across the board, whether we’re talking a wealthy white man denying the existence of racial profiling, or the form of denial that legitimizes preemptive violence against any population in the name of “security”. At home, or abroad, we adopt the language of colonialism.

First of all, we need to acknowledge that we all view the world through the lens of our experience and narratives. The lens of a white cismale is not the same lens of a disabled black woman is not same as the lens of a Native American adopted by Jewish parents. My stance on immigration is formed by memories: Sleeping in the same bed as my mother until I was 10. Having to lie about my address in order to secure placement at a safer, better funded public school. Tearfully saying goodbye to my step-father as he was forced out of the country, leaving behind a job and a new family, in order to await processing after marrying my mother (Note: My step-father was allowed to return just after a year, and is now a citizen and a small business owner. You may cancel the sad string quartet).

I won’t pretend to know the experiences that shaped my classmate’s lens, but the power imbalance was clear. To be white (especially male) in America is the “default” position. His identity didn’t disqualify him from expressing his opinion, but mine did. I am not considered an “American” by default. In this moment, I was considered “Mexican”. Never mind that I was born in Boston, couldn’t speak Spanish, and adopted The Simpsons as my dominant cultural touchstone. For all my privilege, I will never be fully accepted into American society no matter what I do. It doesn’t matter that I have European blood, because I’ve been tainted by “Mayan”. The burden of proof will always be on me.

For the most part, I’ve benefited from my racial ambiguity. No one is quite sure what I am, and I’m light enough to get by. I was trained to speak the language of the intelligentsia, and I’m considered “non-threatening”. Yet, as I got older, I found my social circle becoming increasingly white and middle/upper-class. At a certain point, I subconsciously started to believe that I’d been accepted into “the club”. I worked hard, and got good grades. I did everything that I was supposed to do and bought into the American dream. At various point during my younger years, I received variations of the following “compliment”:

I always forget that you’re not white.

This sentence serves as a reminder of my place in a white supremacist system. It is rarely intended with malice, but that’s the very point. No amount of rationalization or debate will change how I feel when I receive those words. Worse is the realization that I accepted this “compliment” as validation during my younger years. I have been socialized and trained to look at the world through white eyes, despite my brown background and childhood. In my own way, I am complicit in this white supremacist system.

But even then, I cannot give white people all the blame. Internalized racism is quite common among all races, and people of Latino heritage are no exception. The very first moment I laid eyes on George Zimmerman, I looked at a man who could have been my uncle. Once again, white perspectives struggled to understand how a brown man could be racist again a black man. I shook my head in frustration. Anyone from a Latino background will tell you that some of the most casual, open racists we’ve ever known came from our own families. There’s much to say on this topic, but The Outside Agitator put it far better than I ever could.

The Zimmerman trial looks very differently depending on which end of the power imbalance you grew up on. I am racially ambiguous. I’ve never been stopped and frisked, but I’ve been searched on the subway four times since moving to New York City only 10 months ago. I am a tan, bearded, individual Latino male trained to speak the language of white, male privilege. I have seen the way people with power talk about people without power. I will never experience, and will never fully understand, the average day of a young, black man in America. Therefore, as I tread into these emotionally powerful waters, I shall tread carefully and do my best to check privilege at the door.

To best honest, I really wasn’t interested in the trial itself. I found the media coverage sensationalist at best, and outright racist at worst. I couldn’t bear gluing myself to the minute-by-minute coverage, and frankly, I have no interest in legal analysis. Law has a place in a functioning, healthy society. A set of procedures and rules for governance codified via the consent of the population is a good thing. But this relies on the premise that our law is designed to protect all, equally. When the full power of the law is applied to protect property, the wealthy, but falls short at protecting the rights and livelihood of working class people, brown people, immigrants, etc, I cease to consider the rule of law legitimate.

On the other hand, had Zimmerman been found guilty on all charges, nothing would have changed on a larger scale. Young black and latino males would continue to get stopped and frisked in New York City. Corporations would continue to make a fortune incarcerating young people of color. The penalties for crack-cocaine would still be harsher than the penalties for more expensive narcotics popular in affluent, white circles. Young people of color across the country would look at the first black President and ask “what have we accomplished and for what?”

Down in Florida, an organization known as The Dream Defenders are occupying Governor Rick Scott’s office in order to demand a special session to address laws such as “Stand Your Ground” and “Zero Tolerance” policies that have disproportionately targeted black and brown youth. They have now entered their third week of action, and only time will tell what comes of it. But history has shown us that systems never reform from above. The path towards social change is littered with injustice, and the bodies strewn along the sidewalk. But even when scores of individual actions of injustice go unpunished, sometimes we are galvanized to action.

Let us never forget the victories of 1964 and ’65. For that generation of change, we recall the image of Emmet Till’s open casket. We mourn the loss of four young black girls in an Alabama Church Bombing, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair. We look for inspiration in acts of solidarity, when a young black men and two young white men were murdered for their defiance to power, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner.

These are just some of the names of inspiration, for they remind us of the victories not yet won. We are one year, five years, maybe fifteen years away from these victories. But the scent of change is in the air.

Speaking of change, I will close by doing something uncharacteristic: Praising Barack Obama.

I stand by my assertion that nothing will come about policy-wise unless backed up by grass roots mobilization and tireless effort that elected officials love to take credit for. (The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts are not victories for Lyndon Johnson, they are victories for every skull cracked, ever black body lynched, every lonely night that activists felt hopeless and isolated.) But Obama did a major service by helping to bring painful conversations out into the open.

There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear. The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.

That pretty much sums it up. These are experience that many of us will never fully understand because they are not part of our narrative. These are also words that I never expected to hear from an American President. So now we have a choice: Continue to deny the brutality of our racist system, or work to change it in whatever ways we can. Not everyone is able or willing to commit acts of civil disobedience. But maybe we can start off with a little solidarity.

The ball is in our court.