CNN is trying its hand at anthropology.
In a case that highlights continuing confusion over how to define Latino ethnicity, the television news network has set off a controversy over its continued use of the term “white Hispanic” to describe George Zimmerman, the man whose killing of unarmed, black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin set off a national debate about the persistence and nature of racism.
It’s an issue that’s simmered for as long as the Trayvon Martin case has been in the national spotlight. It reemerged on Thursday, when conservative news site Breitbart took CNN to task over its terminology.
By labeling Zimmerman a "white Hispanic," they serve their obvious political bias, but also they cynically serve their financial interests by keeping the race angle as part of the story's subtext.
Interestingly, CNN never referred to their former host, Rick Sanchez, as a "white Hispanic." Wonder why.
The rightwingers at Breitbart aren’t the only ones irritated with the term. Latino Rebels also slammed the label in a series of tweets.
And CNN columnist Ruben Navarrette also railed against describing Zimmerman as a “white Hispanic” last year, back when more media outlets were still using it.
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.
The media didn’t coin the term “white Hispanic.” It’s been around for quite a long time -- it just usually isn’t used to describe people like Zimmerman.
In the words of Teresa Puente, writing for Chicago Now, “To be blunt, Zimmerman's skin tone is the same as mine, a medium brown.”
The confusion over Zimmerman’s race and CNN’s clumsy terminology owes to the continued misunderstanding of Latino ethnicity. It has baffled the Census Bureau. It has tripped up the FBI. And now it has much of the media grasping for the proper way to describe the man being tried for what many view as killing in which racial prejudice may have played a role.
But it’s really not that hard. Latinos are a multi-racial ethnicity. What we have in common is Latin American or Hispanic birth or heritage. We can be white, black, mestizo, mulato, or indigenous and still count as Latino. In fact, people of Middle Eastern or Asian descent can count as Latino if they set down roots in the region! (We submit Shakira and Alberto Fujimori as exhibits A and B.) Confusing? It shouldn’t be. Just remember the “of Latin American or Hispanic birth or heritage” part.
The term “white Hispanic” refers to someone who is phenotypically white (of European blood), but is of Latin American or heritage. There’s lots of people who fit the description out there. Take, for example, Ted Cruz, who is super white, but Latino nonetheless:
Zimmerman is probably not one of them. Race is not a science. In fact, there’s no genetic foundation for it at all. It’s a social convention.
But within the context of that social convention, white refers to skin color. Zimmerman, like most Latinos, is likely of racially mixed heritage -- what in most Latin American countries would be described as “mestizo.”
The United States, with its comparatively rigid ideas about race and refusal to acknowledge racial mixing, does not have a word in popular use to describe it. (That’s also probably the reason why 18 million Latinos selected the “some other race” category on their Census form.) So it’s not surprising that CNN’s attempt to describe a non-white person as a “white Hispanic” grates on the ears of practically everyone across the political spectrum.
Curious about all the different types of Latinos out there? Check out images of the Latino racial mosaic in the slideshow below.