By Cindy Gomez-Schempp
The reason no one can have an intelligent conversation about George Zimmerman is because we’re not talking about the right thing. On the one hand, people (mostly people of color) are outraged about the injustice of the “justice” system. On the other hand people are upset that the death of Treyvon Martin is being framed as a murder provoked by racism. Both positions are leaving out one important detail: coconuts.
For those of you who do not understand the term “coconut” here is my standard definition. A person who shills for white supremacy, either intentionally or unintentionally. And, given that definition, most People of Color (PoC) fit that description at some point in their lives. Coconuts go by many names. For Native Americans it’s apple: red on the outside, white in the middle. Blacks use the term Oreo, or Uncle Tom. Incidentally the term Uncle Tom is based on a novel about a real black slave who martyred his life for other black slaves. However, the post civil war novel and movie based on his life were whitewashed and his character instead became that of a most loyal back slave beloved by kindly slave masters. Sadly, today the term is used by whites and Blacks alike referring to the fake character sell-out figure, and forgetting completely about the real man. Uncle Tom, by all rights, should mean brave Black warrior, not traitor.
Similarly Mexicans say: coconut or Malinchista (which stems from the term Malinche, or Malintzin, the Indigenous Mexican woman who married Hernan Cortez and translated for the Spaniards during the conquest. Among the indigenous people, giving their aristocrats in marriage to another tribe was a way of unifying both tribes. Unfortunately for Malintzin, Cortez saw her as just another “gift” from the savages and, after having several children with her, abandoned her to return to Spain and marry a proper Spanish (white) woman. There are no clear records of what happened to La Malinche, as Malintzin is popularly called in modern times, but stories abound that after realizing her role in the death of her own people she killed herself after murdering her Mestizo children. Malinche’s name is now synonymous with race traitor. Despite this, Mexicans frequently identify their entire ethnic group to be “Malinchista”. And they may be right.
The problem with discussing George Zimmerman is that we are not in touch with race traitors, nor do we understand them. Yes. George Zimmerman is a race traitor. But, like Malinche and Uncle Tom, he is misunderstood.
Among PoC, we have to deal with our inner “Malinche” and America needs to acknowledge and understand the race traitors in society and learn to embrace and assist them, if possible. We cannot hate George Zimmerman as PoC because it is our country that produces George Zimmermans, en mass. Don’t hate the player, hate the game. George Zimmerman, like many unsuspecting coconuts out there, is just doing what society has shown him he should do to get ahead in life as a PoC: oppress other PoC. This behavior is not inherent in race traitors, it is learned.
To understand why George Zimmerman is a race traitor, you must first understand the way race traitors are created. It happens much like Kapos happened in concentration camps during the holocaust in the cauldron of extreme conditions of a war, genocide, and a desire to survive. The same thing happened to Mexicans after the conquest when the decimated indigenous survivors were put under the control of a loyal caciques ( tribal leaders or chiefs). To survive, Caciques became fiercely loyal to the Spanish crown and their conquistador handlers; behaving at times even more ruthlessly and with more cruelty toward their own people than their Spanish predecessors. Cacique, which once referred simply to a tribal leader, now means a cruel and oppressive overlord. In America, a free mulatto dubbed the “Black Judas”, wrote a scathing book, The American Negro, which admonished Blacks to seek moral and intellectual instruction from Whites while asserting Blacks to be morally and intellectually inferior. William Hannibal Thomas even lost an arm fighting during the Civil War in the colored infantry after being previously denied entry as a soldier into the Union army because of his race. Black intellectuals of his time like Booker T. Washington and W.E. B. Du Bois were outraged by Thomas during his 15 minutes of fame bashing Blacks. He later became a drifter, working as a janitor and died in relative obscurity in Columbus, OH in 1934.
The point of this recitation of history is this: coconuts are created out of a sense of survival. We have to remember that all through the history of oppression, subjugation and genocide of PoC, there have been two forms of white dominance: Guns and God. Once the former had been wrung, the latter maintained order. And every time in history since the “discovery” and conquest of this continent, where the bible was failing at keeping the masses in check, violent repressions have followed. We must never forget that the rise of the Black Panthers, the Brown Berets, and the American Indian Movement came about because PoC were forced to form ad hoc militias to protect their lives and limbs from racist whites supremacists and the complicit authorities and government. We must always remember one of the main reasons gangs exist was as a way for PoC to defend themselves and their communities from death at the hands of white supremacy. Because without this context, we struggle understand why George Zimmerman felt compelled to become the coconut vigilante watchdog for his neighborhood or why condemning Treyvon for acting like a “wanna-be-thug” is so ridiculous.
The psychological damage of institutional racism and oppression which is at the foundation of this country, is damaging to both whites and PoC, like George Zimmerman. And like him, those who choose to “assimilate” practice the ideology of white supremacy and work to maintain the status quo. And they are rewarded by white society for their efforts, albeit a temporary and fleeting reward. I mean, let’s face it. It’s gotta be nice for white people tired of the cacophony of complaints about the plight of the PoC to have a coconut savior to swoop in and be their human shield. This action by the coconut on behalf of their undeserving hosts is powerful because it does two things: 1) it legitimizes the argument of whites that “this isn’t about race” because a brown person said so and, 2) it shields the white person from having to deal with the fallout from saying or doing unflattering racist things to stop said PoC from speaking out against racism.
For white people in America, George Zimmerman, and those like him are rare gems; special talismans they like to keep close for the right occasion. They are the go-to people when whites need validation for their racist actions, or absolution from them. They are the “black friend” that whites keep claiming to have who said it’s OK for them to say the “N” word. Coconuts are the equivalent of “safe” in tag for white people except better, because you only need to mention them, stand next to them, live next to them, or go to school with them for the safety to work.
And it is easy to spot coconuts. These are the people who readily ignore the subtext of race and oppression in a given situation and actively work to silence PoC who decry racist actions or behaviors, handily labeling them as part of a cult of victimhood. Coconuts in history and in our present society who are adept at disbursing angry PoC demanding justice while reinforcing stereotypes about PoC at the same time are widely praised, given platforms to speak from, and frequently given positions of power from which they can openly oppress other PoC for the whole world to see. You can find the coconuts in every part of the fabric of our society from schools to churches, in politics and entertainment, at work and in the news.
You can’t escape coconuts, because coconuts are everywhere. It is likely that all PoC have at one point in our lives or another, morphed into a coconut to protect our own skin. Maybe you did it when all the white kids were about to beat the crap of the Black kid and you were just glad it wasn’t you. Perhaps it was when you were older and you sat silently in the room while everyone pointed the finger at an innocent PoC. Maybe you did it at work because you didn’t want to be the next one getting “laid off” or “downsized”. Maybe you started doing it because the alternative was too frightening; and then you just kept on doing it. Whatever the reason, if you are a person of color, you’ve likely morphed into a coconut, Jekyll and Hyde style, many times. To admit this may be taboo, but it is a reality of the struggle for PoC in America. It’s a battle many of us learn to fight like a recovering addict, one day at a time.
What people are most confused about when discussing the murder of Treyvon Martin is that they think that there can be no issue of racism in the handling of his death because Zimmerman is not white. That’s not how coconuts work! Coconuts are not genie lamps you can just rub and wish away issues of race. Although, it is understandable that whites and their coconut allies talk this way given that their association to coconuts is usually pretty magical. But, leprechauns and coconuts aside, there is still reality to contend with. Treyvon Martin’s murder was most certainly steeped in racism. How could it not be?
Our entire justice system is corrupted by white supremacy and has been biased in favor of whites since its inception. This is not a theory, it’s a fact. We have more black men in prison, on parole or on probation than we had slaves before the civil war. That’s not an accident. Our “War on Drugs” has really turned out to be a “War on Blacks”. The “education gap” still graduates 80% of whites while leaving behind more than half of the kids of color in America without a high school education. These things don’t happen in a vacuum. And, when we think about them in historical context we can rationally understand the ramifications of generational poverty, oppression, lack of education and opportunity on a whole segment of people. We still see it everyday.
What disembowels PoC emotionally is the moral travesty of acquitting George Zimmerman (essentially rewarding him for his “good coconut” behavior on behalf of white supremacy) while disproportionately and punitively punishing PoC and stigmatizing them as criminal. It kills us when we hear that a white man get no jail time for shooting a PoC in the back three times and killing him, but a black woman gets 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot into a wall to ward off her abusive husband. Or how about the obscenity of criminalizing “work” and putting PoC in jail by the hundreds of thousands each year for coming to this country illegally while a vigilante is acquitted for a real crime. It’s the idea that a 54 year old black man can be convicted of 2nd degree manslaughter for defending himself from a modern day lynch mob of drunken white youth, while the coconuts like Zimmerman are acquitted for hunting down and killing an innocent PoC who looked suspicious.
And as we grapple with the verdict of “Not Guilty”, we also need to learn the lesson of the coconut that Mr. Zimmerman is furnishing us in America today. Rather than simply focusing on our discomfort that racism exists, we need to have a real discussion about its impact in the context of coconut actors. How we deal with Zimmerman and those like him will dictate how future coconuts behave. The fact that whites praise and reward coconuts does not mean that PoC have no influence on the behavior of coconuts. As a society we must learn how to approach and diffuse the coconut who readily harms his race and himself, and exorcise his inner Zimmerman before he/she harms others. PoC and their allies must also identify and and zealously expose (read: shame) coconut behavior so coconuts are not given the impression that their behavior is tolerated. Unless and until we are willing to recognize the coconut and the effect they have on American society we will be doomed to relive our frustrating history and repeat the agonies of racism.
Cindy Gomez-Schempp is the founder of Mexi-Can.org. She is also the Co-founder of PPP, a media justice non-profit. She’s an author, writer, and implements new media/social media outreach and web optimization married with translating and cultural consulting services. Questions and comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
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