Term Limits: A Heated Discussion on Latino Identity and Race

Envisioning dialogues help us understand the fallacy of our thinking. We often believe that our morals or judgements are based in logic or reasoning. The U.S. media, whether it is Fox or MSNBC, only help reinforce these notions of the fallacies in our collective thinking. Preaching to the choir is their bread and butter. Ratings drive their rhetoric, which only leads us to beg the question.

Gandhi once said that “persuasion is a form of violence.” When rhetoric only serves to reinforce what we already believe, it becomes a deceit. Instead rhetoric should be a force of learning not why we are right but, more pressing, why we are wrong.

The following is the transcript of a Facebook thread in which I enthusiastically debated with a “friend” —whom I refer to only by initials— and which I found to be both worrying and enlightening. Our discussion is in reference to an article that first appeared on Latino Rebels back in May.

Though by no means do I purport to be in league with the leftist philosopher Noam Chomsky, the following did remind me of the recent discourse between the former and Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and secularist philosopher. My hope in publishing this transcript is not to slander my worthy opponent, but instead to demonstrate the dangers of assuming without question. Only my readers and critics will determine if I’ve succeeded or failed.

Credit: DryHundredFear/Flickr


Berdina Juarez: This study does not really bring anything new to light. I wish we would first learn what the term means in the first place. Studies like these reinforce the notions of race that we should be trying to move away from. I consider myself white because that’s what most people think of me, and quite honestly I think it would be disingenuous for me to argue. I’m also Hispanic, and the two are not mutually exclusive.

There are many Hispanics that are of African and Asian decent, and when they are racially profiled, it will be within the context of how black or Asian they look that will determine how they operate. What is a Latin@? Is it the Spanish football team or the Filipino football team. Is it both or none?

ML: It is descriptive rather than normative. The term Hispanic currently exists as a category. It is admittedly an artificial one in many respects, but it seems to function as a meaningful categorymeaning that people’s take on various [issues] including politics seem to break along the lines of Hispanic or non-Hispanic.

But there is [a] question of whether that continues to be the case as assimilation occurs, or whether Hispanics end up like Italians or Jews in functioning as whites. (And if so, more like Italians or more like Jews?) Or do Hispanics end up more like African Americans in being a clearly distinct group. Part of that depends on how people see Hispanics (as this survey tries to get data points about) and partly on how Hispanics see themselves.

There is a big [effort] among many Hispanics groups to change the Census to make ‘Hispanic’ a race or ethnicity level box. According to Census workers, many Hispanics in places like Texas resent being forced to pick a “white,” “black,” “Asian,” “mixed” or “other” box, because they say “I’m Mexican” or “I’m Latino,” suggesting that they see the term as something more than cultural and more akin to race.

BJ: That’s the problem. The term is culturally transient. Until you have a concrete definition of the term, you cannot study its meaning in full. As far as the study is considered, I don’t see any meaningful data. It wasn’t a comprehensive study. It set out to prove a point instead of the opposite. That’s bad science. And there is plenty of evidence to show that many Hispanics have easily assimilated into white culture. Look at the show I Love Lucy or the actor Anthony Quinn.

But I never liked the term white culture. What is white culture? Is it being educated, middle class and liking to go to Starbucks? I know many people who are not white that consider [going to Starbucks] something white people do.

ML: Well, it is self-defining in this instance. Among people who self-identify as Hispanic, how do other people see you? This study isn’t definitive, but it does suggest that Hispanics who identify as white aren’t seen as white by other people. Like all research, it’s most interesting if it leads to as many questions as it answers.

For what it is worth, when I look at your picture, for example, I don’t see someone who is white. I see someone who is educated and fully operative in mainstream American culture, but not white. (Admittedly we’ve never met in person). Does that mean anything? Maybe not. But it could for some people.

BJ: Yes, well, I’ve lived in England for many years, and when I tried to explain to them that I was not white it sounded pretty ridiculous. In particular black and Asian Britons found it offensive that I would not think of myself as anything other than white.

No one has ever questioned me when I walk down the street in an all-white neighborhood and or stopped me because I look suspicious. I have rarely been asked what race I am. I blend in beautifully in white, respectable society.

I grew up in Tarrytown, here in Austin, and my race was rarely if ever a topic of conversation, other than how other Hispanics never considered me one of them because I was too white.

A sign in Jim Crow Texas, 1949 (University of Texas)

A sign in Jim Crow Texas, 1949 (University of Texas)

ML: Sure. But [doesn’t that] in some sense confirm the study? It suggests that Hispanics who identify as white and have lighter skin and presumably more European features [are viewed as white by other people], but that Hispanics who identify as white yet have darker skin or less education are seen by other people as non-white.

That, of course, could change over time. It wasn’t clear in the late 19th century that Jews and Italians would be seen as part of the Anglo-Saxon spectrum, but they are today. But then again, it might not [change], and the bulk of Hispanics who are less European-looking than you might remain a distinct group, if not emerge as a racial group.

That’s a question that has huge political implications, because if you talk to Democrats in Texas, there tends to be this “demography as destiny” view about the state’s emerging Hispanic majority. But that may be illusory if Hispanics not only identify as white but are seen as white.

And for everything the article shows about this moment, Hispanics by and large aren’t seen as white. I’m not sure that actually holds over the long run. What’s most interesting to me about the study is that it is a data point about how self-identified, white Hispanics are seen by others that can be used as a base line for future studies.

BJ: Yes, I know the bets the Democrats are placing on the Hispanic population in Texas, and it’s idiotic. Like the study said, those Hispanics that are considered white but don’t consider themselves white aren’t going to vote. Not now and not ever. Voting is something white people do.

Also, I find your idea of what a white person looks like troubling. When you see Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz or Antonio Banderas, do you see a white person?

Spanish actor Javier Bardem at the Academy Awards in 2011 (Wikimedia)

Spanish actor Javier Bardem at the Academy Awards in 2011 (Wikimedia)

ML: I don’t have a firm view. But when I see your picture, I see a Latina. I don’t attach any negativity to that (nor do I attach any particular positiveness). But to the extent that people in society do attach certain stereotypes or values or expectations, it could have positive or negative ramifications.

Like most people, I guess I see celebrities in a separate categoryI don’t really think of Oprah or Samuel L. Jackson as black, even though they clearly are. But as the experience that black and other non-white celebrities have with cops shows, [especially] in situations where they are not clearly identifiable as celebrities, the stereotypes can be quick to reattach themselves.

If you are trouble, I guess I would say that I also am a bit taken aback by the number of comments you’ve made basically defending that you are white. You don’t say “I want to be treated as a person.” You are pretty emphatic (it seems to me) that you want to be seen as a white person. What does it say about our society that it is so important to you to be white?

BJ: I think you’re the first person I’ve heard say that they don’t consider Oprah and Samuel L. Jackson black because they’re celebrities. I guess what you’re trying to say is that, since they are celebrities, they’re not really black?

ML: Michael Eric Dyson has written fairly extensively on the concept of “honorary whiteness.” People like Oprah clearly are black but get treated differently by white people.

BJ: But obliviously you do have a firm view of what a Latin@ is; otherwise you wouldn’t have described me as such. And you still haven’t answered my question: when you see the above-mentioned celebrities, do you see a white person? Clearly you are able to discern an answer regardless of their celebrity, as you’ve demonstrated with your observation of Oprah and Samuel L. Jackson.

Two sisters in Havana, Cuba (Adam Jones/Flickr)

Two sisters in Havana, Cuba (Adam Jones/Flickr)

ML: I don’t have a firm view. I went to law school with a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman of German descent who identified as Latina (her family immigrated from Latin America). I know lots of Afro-Cubans who are also Latin@. So I recognize [that] the category embraces a lot of people.

But like the cop on the street or the [average pedestrian], I have a perception of ethnicity that is shaped by my experience —in my case growing up in Texas— just as you do. And to me, based on my experience, if we met on the street, I would think “she’s Latina.” I could be wrong; I’ve met fair skinned Pakistanis that I thought were Latino but who weren’t. A friend of mine gets mistaken for Jewish even though he isn’t.

But to answer your question (even though you haven’t answered mine!), I see Banderas as a Spaniard. And I see Cruz as an upper-class Mexican who, in the United States, could read as white or Latina. You might be in the same boat. We’ve never met in person, but from your pictures I would guess that you were of Hispanic heritage, and I would be right. Maybe in other circumstances that would be unclear, and I would think of you as something else.

Jane Doe: Berdina, have you read the original study on which this report is based? That’s an important step to take before you critique its rigor.

BJ: Yes. I could spend the rest of my weekend tearing it apart —which is what a good scientist would do— but since I’m not a qualified scientist and don’t have time to properly argue its weaknesses, I won’t.

JD: Here is the [original] article.

BJ: I think your question regarding why I find [it] so important to be considered white or not is more telling of you and your limited understanding of the definition of the term Hispanic, which of course only proves my original point. The celebrities I named are all Spaniards, or really Castilians, and not, say, Catalan—but that’s for another time. They are all white. So where does this leave us? It’s all coming down to phenotype, and that’s dangerous.

Spanish actress Penélope Cruz at the BAFTAs in 2007 (S Pakhrin/Flickr)

Spanish actress Penélope Cruz at the BAFTAs in 2007 (S Pakhrin/Flickr)

ML: Look I’m not saying you are not very European in heritage. But being from Texas, I also would not think that you are English or Swedish or Italian rather than of Mexican heritage. That to be sure is based on my experiences [with] phenotypes, but that’s how people react on the street. Sometimes that’s neutral, and sometimes it carries with it positive or negative connotations.

BJ: You’re really hung up about how Mexican I look, which is telling in of itself.

I am not subjugated to the same harassment as many black and Asian people are: I don’t get pulled over by the cops. I don’t get stopped in department stores or asked to show my I.D. I’ve driven around with an expired registration and inspection sticker for months at a time and was never pulled over by a cop. I usually get out of tickets with a warning and am told “Have a nice day.” I’ve spent a good amount of time in Georgetown where the cops are not known to be friendly to my type, and yet I’ve never experienced any problems. Unfortunately, if I were darker or black, I probably would not have the same experience.

ML: In fairness, why is it a negative to you if someone says you look Mexican? What’s the hang up there? Why is it so important to you that no one be able to tell? It seems important to you that you aren’t one of the dark people that get pulled over or have trouble with the cops—almost as if you think you are better.

BJ: What? You’re joking, right?

ML: Not at all. Why all the vigorous responses trying to prove that you can’t look Mexican because you have no problems with the cops? I wouldn’t think Penelope Cruz has problems with cops either, but she also looks Mexican. Looking Mexican isn’t a pejorative—except to you, apparently.

BJ: Okay, well, I appreciate the mansplaining hour and all, but how is one to refute lunacy with logic? One can’t, of course.

I have no idea how you are drawing the conclusions you are and find your arguments insulting not to me personally (it’s hard to be offended by a truism), but to Mexicans in general, whether they be living in Mexico or not. What you have basically said is that all Mexicans look alike. That’s very degrading, and if you can’t figure out why that’s degrading and demeaning, then I really don’t know what to say to you. Good luck.

'La Mulatta' by 18th-century Mexican painter José Joaquín Magón (Wikimedia)

‘La Mulatta’ by 18th-century Mexican painter José Joaquín Magón (Wikimedia)

ML: Not saying all Mexicans look alike, at all. Just as not all Irish look alike. But I have a friend who looks classically Irish, and people have no problem picking him out as Irish. I have other friends who are Irish that no one would know [are Irish].

Same with Mexicans. I have Mexican friends from Mexico who look completely European. You are not one of them. That seems to offend you because you seem to want it to be that you are so non-Mexican looking that no one knows. And if it bothers you that someone would say that you don’t look completely European in their subjective opinion, you might ask why that is.

BJ: I have little interest in what people do or don’t think of me. So let’s take me out of the equation. Instead we’ll go back to firm examples of the fallacy in your thinking. According to you, Penelope Cruz looks Mexican. Well, she’s 100-percent European, so I really don’t know what your definition of what a European looks like is.

ML: To the contrary, you are the one who spent repeated posts expounding on how “everyone thinks I’m white,” and when someone says you look Mexican, you say “I don’t get stopped by the cops,” because you apparently associate looking Mexican with being dark and getting stopped by the cops.

BJ: Listen to yourself and read your own comments. I find it scary when people start talking about “looking completely European” or which persons looks Mexican or whatever. I really don’t understand how that’s hard to accept. You seem to want to reaffirm the stereotypes people have regarding race, which I find problematic.

As far as your allegations regarding me, again, how does one fight lunacy with logic? I have no rebuttal to an argument that is clearly placed and framed in a deceitful lie and is being used as a tactic to silence me and put me in my place, so to speak. No argument I could put forth would be of a satisfactory nature in such light, so there’s no point in trying.

ML: Listen to yourself. You are the one who is so offended that someone could look at your picture and think “she’s a Latina or Mexican.” That’s the whole start of this whole chain of rants. To you, that’s a negative. That’s really sad.

BJ: I ask you kindly and with all due respect to please stop commenting on topics you have a limited stereotypical and superficial understanding of. If you find my personal and corporal experience of my existence of living for 38 years questionable then, again, that is more telling of you not me.


An earlier version appeared on LadyBerd.com.