Latina Lista: News from the Latinx perspective > General > For Latinos “being white” is more of a state of mind than skin tone

For Latinos “being white” is more of a state of mind than skin tone

LatinaLista — An interesting study was published on how Latino immigrants see themselves. According to the researchers, many immigrants are pushing the envelope to be seen as “white” regardless of how dark their skin color.


Authors of the study, published in the June edition of the American Sociological Review journal, found that the darker the skin of the Latino immigrant, the more discrimination that immigrant faced which even manifested itself in a wage difference between himself and lighter-skinned Latinos.

They attribute this discrimination towards dark-skinned Latino immigrants into them wanting to be seen as “white.”

In the 2000 Census, about 50 percent of those who marked Hispanic or Latino as their ethnicity chose “some other race” as their racial category. That has been interpreted by many researchers as them attempting to assert an alternative Latino racial identity, she said.

However, in the New Immigrant Survey used in this study, participants were not given the option of choosing “some other race.”

As a result, in the New Immigrant Survey, more than three-quarters of respondents (79 percent) identified themselves as white, regardless of their skin color.

“This shows that Latino immigrants do recognize the advantages of a white racial identity. Most are attempting to push the boundaries of whiteness to include them, even if their skin color is darker,” Frank said.

I beg to differ.

These researchers, and others, who claim dark-skinned Latino immigrants are aspiring to be white though their skin tone is clearly on the other side of the color spectrum do not understand the complexity of what it means, and what it has always meant to be Latino or Hispanic or Puerto Rican or Cuban-American or Mexican-American or fill in the ethnic blank.

When it comes to the U.S. Latino population, skin tone is secondary to mindset.

Though racial discrimination still runs rampant in most Spanish-speaking countries and even among some U.S. Latino populations who adhere to an old-world view of elitism as was practiced by their parents and abuelos back in the “old country,” the truth is most U.S. Latinos, especially in the Southwest, don’t see skin color.

And the reason is simple.

Within Latino families, there can exist a variety of different skin tones. From the very fair-skinned to the very dark, families are comprised of members who may not even look like they’re related but they all share the same blood and family history.

Since many “Latinos” can trace their family tree back to the intermarriage, or raping, of indigenous ancestors by Spanish conquistadores, as well as, the intermarriage of other ethnicities throughout the generations, it’s not uncommon for one family to have several members who have no physical similarities to other family members.

The notion that there is a specific “look” for a Latino or a Latina is what serves to frustrate and anger many in the Latino community when it comes to racial labeling, a.k.a. profiling. The fact that dark-skinned family members would identify with the “white” label as their lighter skinned siblings versus choosing a “black” label is no surprise in Latino families.

Unless a family was Afro-Latino, choosing the “black” descriptor normally wouldn’t even enter someone’s mind — and the state of mind has everything to do with how Latinos see themselves, and sometimes how other Latinos identify each other.

The study’s researchers feel that discrimination plays a huge part in whether or not Latinos feel “white” or not. While discrimination certainly does impact and serves as a reminder that the social order is not equal, I would argue that it has less of an impact on a person’s sense of “whiteness” unless the person’s own family treated them differently.

In Latino families, it’s not uncommon for terms of endearment or family nicknames to include references to race. Light-skinned family members are almost always referred to as guera or guero but the most important thing is that everyone, regardless of color, is equal in the family and skin color is irrelevant.

Among some young people, as a way to bring their peers down if they don’t think they’re being true to their Latino heritage, one of the more insulting names to call each other is “Oreo.”

It means that a person, though obviously Latino, acts more Anglo than Latino. While it’s meant to be derogatory, it underscores that subtle fact that “being white” really has nothing to do with skin tone but state of mind.

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  • E Lister
    June 1, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    Who cares what any of these “Anglos” think of our whiteness or lack thereof. What counts is what each and everyone of us think of ourselves!

  • Nicki
    June 1, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    “….. though their skin tone is clearly on the other side of the color spectrum.”
    No, not so clearly. I am Cuban, and my heritige goes back to Spain. I’m caucasian, as white as a WASP. Your propensity to lump us all into one color category is an obvious ploy to stereotype us for the purpose of political exploitation. Many Cuban Americans hate this intensely and view it as an insult. I suggest that you refrain from speaking as though you speak for all of us, because you clearly don’t.

  • Wired Latinos
    June 1, 2010 at 9:23 pm

    Marisa —
    I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with this posting. In my family of 14 children, color mattered. The lighter you were, the more beautiful you were considered. I married an “Americano” with blue eyes. My mother was dying for my children to be light skinned with blue eyes. Thankfully, my children are dark and beautiful (like me — dark part).
    I don’t think my family is unique. These ideas of describing people as “blanca/blanco” o “bien morena/o” come from Mexico and Latin America itself. Look at the novelas. Most novelas have light skinned heroes and heroines. The dark ones are the sidekicks, the servants or the nannies.
    If you ever take a trip to Mexico, you will see that poor people are dark and short and the more successful are lighter and somewhat taller.
    We are not color blind — it is a nice notion, but the human discrimination is deeply programmed and rooted through generations. We cannot deny that it still exists.
    Of course, I don’t have the answers, but those are my two cents from personal experience and observation.

  • Marisa Treviño
    June 3, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    Hi WL, I’ve been waiting for someone to provide the other perspective. While what you say is definitely true, and the telenovelas bear that out, it’s also from our own unique personal experiences. In my own family, we had the rainbow and thankfully, we never were made to see the ones who were guera/o as being better than those who were moreno/a.

  • Marisa Treviño
    June 3, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    Ay, Nicki. I share your heritage – the Spanish – and I’m not lumping us all into one color category. As I told WL, we each have our own unique experiences that will influence how we learn to see one another. Yet, my argument had to do with why dark-skinned Latinos would identify more with being “white” than any other race.

  • maryelizabeth
    June 3, 2010 at 11:20 pm

    Growing up Italian, my mom was brainwashed that if your skin was darker you just were beneath the whiter skinned person. In my school Italian was the darkest shade of skin in the school. There was not any latinas, and no blacks that I grew up with. The minority was Italian, and Jewish. I remember doing anything to straighten my Italian curly hair out. I wanted to be blonde with blue eyes, and remember putting bleach, and dyes in my hair, only to end up with it brassy looking, and fried looking from the chemicals. When I went to school, it was another story. I was not white, and Anglo. I was not Irish. I was Italian, Catholic, and that was not white enough in my school. I really do not think my mother wanted to make me feel like less, it is just that she grew up to believe that she was less. She grew up on a farm, and was forced to drop out of school to work to feed the family. My mom was quite brillant, but back then you had to go to work to support the family. I really can relate to this article. I never could understand why people think being Italian is white. I was happy to see celebrity’s like Jennifer Lopez, and Maddonna out there. I think watching them feel confortable in their own skin, helped alot of us identify with ours, and feel confortable as well. Madonna is this tiny little thing…part french, and Italian (only 5’4′), and Jennifer Lopez..I loved because she made me feel proud of my curves. Curves were in after Lopez!! These days, I have my hair black, and enjoy having brown eyes, and curves. It’s a wonderful feeling to be proud of your own skin!!

  • Pepito
    June 4, 2010 at 12:38 am

    Everyone(including you) thinks all Spaniards are blond and blue eyed.
    I don’t know if you have ever been to Spain but Spaniards come in all colors and shapes – very similar to what you would find in Latin America.
    Remember that the Moors (People from the northwest corner of Africa including both Arabs and the original natives)invaded and occupied Spain for nearly 800 years. The rest is history for you know what happens to the women when a foreign Army occupies and conquers a nation.
    Personally, I did not think much of the many Spaniards I met. They are the arm pit of Western Europe in terms of class, culture, and common decency.

  • Alessandra
    June 4, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    This is interesting because, even though I am not Latino, Italian-Americans have a similar situation.
    In my own family and my extended family, including in-laws, we have many of Italian/Sicilian descent. Quite a few of us are very dark–almost black eyes, dark brown/black hair, olive skin with Arabic-type features–much darker than some Latinos I’ve seen. And they get even darker in the summer with their tans. However, some are light-skinned with light brown/blond hair and blue eyes.
    People tend to think of Italians as being dark, but I think that is probably because many of the immigrants who came here were from Sicily and Southern Italy where the people tend to be darker. Italy like every other land in history experienced invasions, which influenced the genetics.
    But in Italy the complexions range from light to dark, as well as eye color and hair which can be light or dark. I always kind of bristle when someone says that a person “doesn’t look Italian.” It’s annoying, but then I realize that the person just doesn’t understand that there isn’t just “one” look.
    From what I have been told, the Northerners often looked down upon the Southerners as the North was richer and more industrialized and the South poorer and more agricultural. Some tried to carry that attitude here, too, I guess. But that’s pretty much gone now at my generation. Plus, by my generation, we intermarry with other ethnic groups.

  • Freddie Salas
    June 5, 2010 at 11:27 pm

    for your information, it’s the Afro-American who act white that are called Oreos. Latinos are called Coconuts, i.e. brown on the outside, white on the inside.

  • Pepito
    June 6, 2010 at 12:23 am

    The reason most Americans of Mexican heritage identify themselves as being white is because the U.S. has very strict rules about who can identify themselves as Native American and being Mexica (the name by which the Aztecs identified themselves) is not one of them. Since a Mexican is a mixed race of native American and White Spanish European – this leaves us only one option left – White.

  • Marisa Treviño
    June 9, 2010 at 8:53 am

    Freddie and Matt, Can’t believe I wrote oreo. I knew what I was thinking 🙂
    Thanks for pointing out the mistake.

  • maryelizabeth
    June 9, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    Alessandra, I totally can relate to your thinking with the Italian thing. Many of my Aunt’s and Uncle’s are blonde with blue eyes on my mom’s side. Mom had black curly hair, and hazel eye’s, and my eyes came out overhaul a honey golden brown. Under the sun if you look at my eyes close up, there are streak’s of green, yellow, and orange in my eyes. My skin is pretty fair, but I tan fast. I am pretty dark already this summer….and if you looked at me now you wouldn’t put me in the white category. However in the wintertime, you might think I look Greek. People do “stereotype” Italian with being dark, and it is true that we do range from light skinned, blonde, blue eyed to dark eyed. My sister, and her husband (both dark hair, with brown eyes) have two son’s that are blonde, blonde, with blue, blue eyes. In the school I went to,…back in the 70s (Italian was the minority). One of the girls I grew up with, and walked home from school with everyday was Irish Catholic, and she frequent’s on FOX news, and has a serious anti-minority tone to her words. I never saw this in her when I was a child, and didn’t see her for years, so hearing it really disturbs me. Hearing it on national TV disturbs me, but it makes me identify more clearly with what I was surrounded by growing up in a pretty dominant white town in the suburbs. Sometimes I wish my family stayed in Brooklyn. Around eight years ago, I had this little group of girlfriends that I use to hang out with on the weekends in New York City. I had the time of my life, partying with them. One of them grew up in Brooklyn, and the other one grew up on Staten Island NY. I remember one night I told them I wish I knew them all my life, because I totally felt like I fit in with them. I think growing up with them would have been a happy experience for me. I can understand why it’s difficult for people to mix it up with diversity some times. Diversity can be a painful experience, but then what is more fun then the diversity I shared with these friends in all the great places we hung out at in NYC.

  • Vittoria
    June 10, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    Why don’t we all just STOP saying we are “White” and “Black” ’cause in reality no one is Black or White… You’re not the color of a White Crayon you’re not the color of a Black Crayon no one is anything in a crayon box! When your teacher asks you to paint a picture of yourself your don’t pull out White or Black paint for yourself?? No! I’m Italian, African-American, Portuguese, French, Irish, and Spaniard! I have nice Olive skin!

  • maryelizabeth
    June 12, 2010 at 12:26 am

    It would be wonderful Vittoria, if we didn’t have to pull the white, or black crayon out of the crayon box, but many of us have been brainwashed growing up. It’s just not a perfect world, and children are conditioned to identify with a crayon in that box. Recently that mayor in Arizona made a huge deal about the dark skinned kid on the mural which probably made lots of kids feel bad. Growing up most of us were given Barbie dolls with blonde hair, blue eyes, tiny..tiny waist’s, with abnormal proportioned chests and hips made by the mattel Co. Little girls are conditioned that this is what you are suppose to look like. I work in the Cosmetic industry, and some women are addicted to tucking, and pulling their faces so tight that they do not even look like themselves anymore….and they change the shape of their nose just to fit in. They liposuck themselves to death, and starve themselves. Darker woman want white foundation, and white woman want to burn their skin in the sun. I try to encourage woman to love who they are and be proud of your ethnic backgroud…and why not identify with your crayon and enjoy it. I like that box of crayons that crayola makes (the giant box with every color under the sun)…..there are so many colors in that box!! What a melting pot!!! 🙂

  • ghawk
    June 14, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    It might be of some interest to the readers of this board to check out some of the “African American” (hate the term)literature of a hundred years ago. There is nothing here that hasn’t been debated in the past. The fact is that the term “black” does not refer to color but to ethnicity. There are “black” people who appear white as snow and are members of known “black” families. There is no such thing as an American of African descent (what the term “black” really refers to) who is entirely of African descent and black family photos can look very similar to Latino family photos. The difference is that the history has been lost to many younger Americans who have no memory of when non whites were called “colored” which connoted an adulterated genome; this was displaced by Negro which, was displaced for the political need to accept our African origins by “black”. This term was even embraced by the white-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde-haired “Negroes”–oxymoronic as it was. Now we have “African Americans” (whose ancestors predate any other hyphenated ethnics by a couple of hundred years and are also substantially of American Indian (now “Native American”) ancestry. Question: When does a family immigrating from the Carribean (say Trinidad) become “African American?”
    This is all to say that there is minimal if any genetic difference between “Latinos” and “African Americans.” Both are terms of convenience without real meanings.
    If your head is spinning, just take a look at the historical record, and if you still do not believe, there are many ancestral DNA labs available.

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