September 26, 2016
By Sara Blanco
"She's basically white."
When someone I know described me this way to a friend, at first I didn't know what to think, but I knew I was angry. Who was she to say who I am? And the more I thought about it, the more frustrated I became.
Let me backtrack and explain. My mom is white, and her ancestors arrived in the United States at various times from various places. None of that has really impacted her experience as a white person who people assume is American based on their first impressions. My dad is Venezuelan, of a mix of racial backgrounds that is pretty common in many parts of Latin America, and he looks it, with medium brown skin and (when he was younger) dark hair. He is fluent in English (and is a far better speller in English than I am), but will always have an accent since he didn't learn the language until his mid-20s.
I consider myself Latina. Boxes often frustrate me because I feel like I am both and neither of my parents' census categories, but I have chosen to self-identify as Latina. Although I am just as fascinated by my mom's background as I am with my dad's, I was born in the United States, have never really lived anywhere else, and my first language is English. On the other hand, I am deeply concerned about losing ties to my father's family and culture and have decided to proactively stand against that loss. I do this by actively affirming that part of who I am. I also know that my name and aspects of my appearance clearly flag me as not definitely white (and maybe not definitely American) to many people, so I want to assert and celebrate being Latina as a bulwark against feeling self-conscious.
Honestly, that should be enough. If I say I'm Latina, that should be it.
But I find myself trying to understand why my identity was so cavalierly tossed aside. So far, I have two main theories. At best, the woman who made the comment completely misunderstands the ethnic category and is making incorrect assumptions based on appearance. At worst, it's a terrible back-handed compliment that suggests that my education and success mean I am not "really" part of an ethnic minority, which highlights how well I've done but dismisses my self-identification and deeply insults my people.
Let's get this first theory straight: "Hispanic" and "Latino" refer to a cultural background, usually meaning recent or not so recent origins in Spanish-speaking parts of the world. Here's what it doesn't mean: any particular appearance. For hundreds of years, Latin America has contained lots of different racial groups and many people have various mixes of those groups in their ancestry. Grouping all these people together is based on their shared language, history and some cultural characteristics. In the United States, the category "Hispanic"/"Latino" can be useful to distinguish the particular experiences of these people within the larger culture of the country.
And while it is not defined by a particular racial group, there are many ways in which being Latino in the United States can be an incredibly racialized experience. Many Latinos in the United States, whatever their specific background, do not look totally European (though some do). Most speak Spanish (or maybe their parents or grandparents do). Depending on where they or their ancestors are from, they may have unique traditions and perspectives. All these factors (and others) easily mark them as "Other" to those who are suspicious of anyone they perceive as an outsider. They don't care that Latino isn't a racial group. So maybe she just thought I seemed a little tan, not truly dark enough or different enough from her to consider anything but white. Not great, but more of a mix up than an insult.
I'd love to assume that this case of mistaken identity was simple ignorance, but interestingly, two different white people independently suggested a more obnoxious explanation. Both my mother and my friend's mother thought maybe I didn't count as Latina to this woman because I seem too educated and too successful to be representative of Hispanic people. I am proud of my hard-earned educational and professional accomplishments. But let me perfectly clear: White people don't own academic excellence and career success. Doing well does not mean "becoming white."
Don't get me wrong: There is such a thing as strategically assimilating or code switching in difficult situations, but that doesn't change who a person is. As my friend's mother bluntly and sardonically concluded when she heard what was said about me: "It's because she's smart." For too many people, "Hispanic" calls up a low-achieving stereotype, and since I don't fit that, they don't see me as really Latina.
But I know that I am a Latina. I know who I come from, and I know who I am. Latinas are still Latinas when they achieve. Latinas are people, with as many combinations of personalities, inclinations, and goals as there are Latinas because each of us is unique. Latinos are underrepresented in leadership and economic success in this country, so when we overcome inequities, please give us credit for getting there.
And don't assume that we get ourselves there because we want to be "basically white." We're there because we have just as much capacity to accomplish as anyone else and so much to contribute.
I am smart. I am knowledgeable and credentialed. I am doing great work. I am an up-and-coming professional with excellent prospects.
I am Latina.
Source: U.S. News & World Report