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In Trayvon Martin Case, Who's Considered White?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, Bishop T.D. Jakes has some 30,000 members of his church in Dallas. Millions more follow him through his best-selling books. He has a new book out. It's about forgiveness. We'll talk with him about it in a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk more about a story that has people talking all over the country, the death of Trayvon Martin. It's been more than a month since the unarmed Florida teen was shot and killed by a self-appointed neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman.

And while that tragic episode has sparked many emotional conversations about gun laws, about vigilante-ism, among other things, it's mainly sparked conversations about race, including discussions about why and how people are described racially in this country.

Here's one example of that kind of conversation. In an email we got from a listener named Harlan McKenna(ph) in Silver Spring, Maryland - and I'm quoting in part - please stop saying that George Zimmerman is white. Today you said he's white of Hispanic descent. He's mixed race, just like Obama. When did you ever refer to Obama as white of African descent? This is infuriating and irresponsible. I can only conclude that you think the story of white man murders black teen is more volatile than Latino man kills black teen.

We thought that question - who exactly is white and why are some people described as white or black or brown deserved an answer. So we decided to call Jean Halley to find out. She's a sociologist from Wagner College in New York. She's also one of the co-authors of the textbook "Seeing White: An Introduction to White Privilege and Race."

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

JEAN HALLEY: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Well, what about that? Why is George Zimmerman - we don't know how he describes himself. I mean, we know that his father sent a letter to the Orlando Sentinel which described him as being part of a multiracial family, but we don't know any more details than that. So why is George Zimmerman described as white?

HALLEY: I guess I'd like to start with noting that race is not a biological reality. It's a social reality. We really understand that now. I think that in the past the myth was this is something rooted in our genes, and now we understand that race is something rooted in our cultures.

Whiteness is something that's a negative. It means not being of color. There's really almost no other definition for it. It's been something, you know, that's shifted. Different people have been included in whiteness over the years and ultimately the only thing that's the real component of whiteness is having privilege. It's racial privilege, so I don't think there is racial privilege without whiteness in the United States, and there's not whiteness without racial privilege.

But who has been included in being white has shifted and changed, so you know, in the potato famine years in the mid-1800s, my family came - Irish Catholics from Ireland - and we weren't white. In fact, you know, Irish Catholics and African-Americans commonly lived together and had families together and were even compared to one another.

And now, over, you know, a good century, Irish people worked hard to differentiate themselves from African-Americans and to become white, so I don't check Irish on the census. I check white and...

MARTIN: But what about this sort of basic question of - that this listener asks, which is we don't refer to Obama as white of African descent, but we do refer to George Zimmerman as white of Hispanic descent. And in fact, the Census Bureau, which is tasked with describing these issues in an official way, says Hispanics can be of either race.

HALLEY: Right.

MARTIN: Or of any race. So why is that?

HALLEY: Well, because I think Hispanics often are of European descent and they often have skin that appears European, so race is something that's imposed on us sociologically, but it's also something we push back as people and decide for ourselves, and Latinos and Hispanics, much like the Irish 100 years ago, have - not all of them, but some have decided to affiliate with whiteness. And it's also been imposed on them because their skin color is white. They've been understood as white. Whereas African-Americans have always been excluded from whiteness. I think it's a special kind of oppression in the United States.

MARTIN: Dating to what? Dating to the fact that slave status was passed on by the enslaved status of either parent or particularly the mother?

HALLEY: Exactly. Slave status was passed on by the mother, but I think that the way what I would call oppression and racism works in the United States is very much present. It's not just about a history of slavery, but of course that history holds us tightly still, so that, for example, in the United States many states defined race by what was called the one drop of blood rule. And this rule essentially meant that many states, you know, made into law that if you have any known African ancestry, that makes a person black. One drop of black blood makes you black, whereas whiteness was understood to be a purity, an absence of blackness, and as late as 1970, places like Louisiana made into law that if you have one-32nd African ancestry or more, you are legally black.

MARTIN: We are asking the question who is white in the wake of Trayvon Martin's death and questions about how the shooter, George Zimmerman, has been variously described. Our guest is Jean Halley. She's a sociologist and one of the co-authors of "Seeing White."

There are people - you know, you kind of alluded to this - who don't embrace whatever race or ethnicity has been given to them, if I can use that term. For example, a recent survey by the Pew Hispanic Center shows that many Hispanic people don't think that that label fits them. Fifty-one percent of respondents said that they most often self-identify by their family's country of origin as opposed to being called Hispanic or Latino. What do you think that's about?

HALLEY: Society's mandate, how we decide and who qualifies for one race and people push back, but it's also about location. So in Argentina, if you're an Argentinean living in Buenos Aires, people in Guatemala would understand that you're white if your skin color is white, whereas when you come and immigrate to the United States, instead of white, you're Latino. So I think it has to do with the ways in which race has been formed in particular social contexts, and those contexts change.

Like early on in U.S. history, around 1900, really only Anglo-Saxon, so a particular ethnic group from Great Britain - those were the people defined in the United States as white, and then over the century - you know, the centuries - people have expanded who's included in that category.

MARTIN: Is this unique to the United States? I mean, would George Zimmerman be considered white in Latin America? I don't know what country his family traces its origins to other than the United States and I don't know anything about that. They've not yet talked about this, but is this true, say, in Mexico or in, you know, Argentina or in Ecuador?

HALLEY: I think it depends on the place, so I think it's a mix of stories or histories that happen in that place, so you know, there's - white people in Latin America have a piece of their heritage as of being European-American, so when Europeans colonized the Americas, they interacted with indigenous people and they also brought in slave people from the west coast of Africa.

MARTIN: OK. Finally, before we let you go, you've said elsewhere that you believe that white privilege is the main issue in the Trayvon Martin death. How so?

HALLEY: Well, on the one side I think the Trayvon Martin death is a profound example of racism in a very racist country, the United States, and I think that's what his death was. I think on the other side of racism, there's always privilege for white people.

And so, for example, in my case, I have the privilege of not having to be afraid for my child. My boy - like Trayvon, my boy walks around in a hoodie. He carries candy. He goes in any number of neighborhoods in New York City. Our neighborhood is predominantly African-American. He feels perfectly safe. He can walk around in affluent white neighborhoods and feel perfectly safe. It's never occurred to me to worry about what he wears or that he's in danger in any of those neighborhoods.

Not only do I not have to worry about it, I don't even have to know that it's an issue for someone else, and that's white privilege.

MARTIN: Jean Halley is a sociologist at Wagner College in New York. She's one of the co-authors of "Seeing White: An Introduction to White Privilege and Race." It's an interdisciplinary textbook. She joined us from our bureau in New York.

Jean Halley, thanks so much for speaking with us.

HALLEY: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.