The murder of an unarmed black teenager has ignited an intense social and political debate throughout the United States of America. George Zimmerman’s acquittal of manslaughter and second degree murder has brought the topic of race back into front page news every single day. We’ve seen a proliferation of news and scholarly articles regarding racism and profiling in America and massive street protests demanding justice for Trayvon. Minorities living in the states, mainly blacks and Hispanics, are more wary than ever about their presence and public behavior. They know that if they walk too slow or too fast, you can get stopped and eventually murdered by a vigilante. The Zimmerman trial confirmed that in America, race will always play a factor in how others perceive you and how it is tied with your social and economic status.
I left America a couple of weeks before the Zimmerman verdict. I was not surprised when the jury found George Zimmerman not guilty because of my experience as a minority in this country. Having read recently Tiffani Drayton’s article on Salon explaining why she left America for her homeland in the Caribbean, I could not help but to relate with her experience as an “exceptional minority” in America. I use the phrase “exceptional minority” because it has been socially established and accepted that blacks and Hispanics are not considered model citizens. Being African American or Hispanic means that you will most likely drop out of high school, become pregnant before 18, become involved in illicit activities and perpetuate crimes. If you are a minority and you do not fit into established stereotype, you are considered to be exceptional. Americans tend to ignore class as a factor in people’s behavior; a teenager who decides to sell illegal drugs as a means to support himself and/or his family does so not because he is African American or Hispanic, but because he is working class and has limited opportunities for advancement. White Americans tend to ignore is the fact that African Americans and Hispanics are the lowest income groups in the country; their opportunities are limited and it is beyond their control.
I came to America with my family as an honor student who always lived in middle class neighborhoods in my home country Puerto Rico (the only country that is legally an American territory). I believed that because my family’s educated background and my white skin, I would never be a victim of racism and profiling. I quickly learned several facts about my new homeland: first, if you have an accent you are constantly mocked; second, if you’re a minority and you exhibit a behavior that is not considered to be common among “your kind” you will get bombarded with ignorant questions, such as “Why are so classy when the other [insert any Hispanic nationality] are so trashy?” or “You know how to use the internet?!”; and lastly, it does not matter how well you behave or how you follow the rules of the establishment, you will always be worth less than whites and will be reminded so every single day.
Being an honor student with no criminal background of Hispanic descent meant I always had to be explaining myself to my peers. Day after day in school, college, and eventually at work, I had to explain that Hispanic is an ethnicity and not a race (and it is still to this day used incorrectly in America), that I went to school in my home country, that I had a normal life, that I’m not particularly impressed by this country, that Puerto Ricans are USA citizens and I’m not here illegally, and that I am the way I am because of my economic background, not because of my skin color.
Despite being a model citizen, I was not immune to racism. Constant jokes regarding my accent and questions implying that I was involved in criminal activity (“You’re Hispanic right? Are you in the cartel?”) still plague me every time I remember my decade in America. It was as if I was constantly being reminded that I am not one of “them”; the white, the Christian, the privileged, the “nice people” who support humanitarian invasions because they are saving the colored people from a charismatic populist leader. I was, as Fanon famously once wrote about the colonized, one of the wretched of the earth.
The Zimmerman verdict revealed that the Jim Crow laws are still haunting us; stand your ground is a privilege for whites and not an American human right. The fact that race is still a discussion proves that equality is nothing but a myth, or a dream that Martin Luther King dreamed. Obama’s election for presidency managed to disguise American race tensions; after all, the white majority didn’t tremble at the idea of having a black presidency. What most Americans fail to recognize is that he is an “exceptional minority”: he has complied with the laws of the imperial white establishment; his comments on the trial (insisting that Americans engage in “soul searching” and explaining how he has also been a victim of profiling) were both predictable and disappointing. He gave a moving public and speech and left the issue to be resolved by NGO’s, athletes, celebrities, churches, etc. While religious organizations and NGO’s have played a crucial and impacting role in advancing the status of minorities in America, government must take action and facilitate these projects. Instead, Obama has continued George Bush’s War on Terror and hasn’t shown disapproval of drones, genetically modified foods, espionage, and America’s support for free trade friendly dictators.
I left America because I grew tired of the Zimmerman’s, of the racist legal system and those who support it, of the racial slurs that were echoed behind my back and those who constantly doubt my reputation because of ethnicity. An underaged, unarmed black or brown teenager should not risk losing his or her life because we have accepted racism as a way of life.
Ana G. Calderon lives in Puerto Rico, where she is a graduate student in history.