The upcoming census has us all talking about racial identity as well as cultural identity. As far as the United States Census is concerned, their statistics are based on self-identification. You are Hispanic or Latino if you identify as Latino. You are not if you say you are not. There is a legal definition of “Hispanic” or “Latino” in the United States, however, as of 1976. According to this law, this group is described as “Americans who identify themselves as being of Spanish-speaking background and trace their origin or descent from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central and South America and other Spanish-speaking countries.” By this definition, Spaniards qualify but Brazilian, Portuguese, and Filipino persons would not qualify because they are not of a Spanish-speaking background.
Beyond this, however, is the racial identity question and that’s a bit of a quagmire. “Ethnicity” connotes shared cultural, linguistic, or religious traits, while “race” connotes shared biological (genetic or phenotypic) traits. For example, I am racially mixed, predominantly white, but I am ethnically Latino. I have an adopted aunt who is racially black and white, but ethnically Jewish.
Statistically, Latinos interpret race differently. According to a 2004 study completed by the Pew Hispanic Center:
For Latinos the concept of race appears to extend beyond biology, ancestral origins or a history of grievance in this country. The differences in characteristics and attitudes between those Hispanics who call themselves white and those who identify as some other race, suggests they experience racial identity as a measure of belonging: Feeling white seems to be a reflection of success and a sense of inclusion. The fact that changeable characteristics such as income help determine racial identification among Latinos, versus permanent markers such as skin color, does not necessarily mean that the color lines in American society are fading. On the contrary, these findings show that color has a broader meaning. The Latino experience demonstrates that whiteness remains an important measure of belonging, stature and acceptance. And, Hispanic views of race also show that half of this ever larger segment of the U.S. population is feeling left out.
Statistically, “SOR [Some other race] Hispanics are less educated, less likely to be citizens, poorer, less likely to speak English exclusively and are less often intermarried with non-Hispanic whites.” That isn’t saying that “brown” Latinos are racially inferior or more prone to low-achievement. It’s saying that people who struggle are more likely to identify themselves as “brown.” I think that is a real problem of perception.
To me, this suggests that we are addressing the wrong issues. Part of this movement of Latino unity should, in my opinion, be an emphasis on breaking down the barriers of racial identity, not just celebrating the commonality of ethnicity. We have to make diversity itself something to celebrate. This movement should not be about homogenizing all Latinos, to categorize us under a single racial banner. It should be about equalizing racial identity so that at any given time, no matter how you racially identify yourself, you identify with people who are successful and you feel as if you are an insider, not relegated to the margins. It’s bad enough that we have history working against us; we don’t need the added pressure of fighting against our own community to fuel the flames.
Being successful doesn’t make you white. Being poor doesn’t make you “other.” It is this idea that makes exposure to and increased media attention on black, indigenous, and mixed race Latinos enjoying success in everyday living, and in non-stereotypical roles, extremely important. Make it a point in your daily life to take notice of any Latino doing positive things, to point them out to your children, and learn to equate deeds with success, and not race. White should not be a unit of measure of success, just as “Some Other Race” should not be a measure of marginalization. As of 2008, there were 46,943,613 self-reported Hispanics in the United States, comprising 15.4% of the total national population. That’s a lot of people. Let’s create a policy of inclusion in our daily lives and relegate marginalization to the past.
by Melissa Garcia Logan