Who and What the Hell Is a White Hispanic?

Sep 25, 2014
9:30 AM

Since The New York Times’ ridiculous piece in May claiming that more Latinos are identifying as “white” between the 2000 and 2010 Census, Latino and non-Latino commentators alike have been weighing in on the many shades of color within the Latino community and the role of the “white Hispanic” within it. An intense discussion about race also continues on social media. This is not a discussion of Afro-Latinos against white Latinos or the white Spanish against the indigenous. It is more about how Latinos are making sense of the confusing label of the “white Hispanic.” What does it mean to be labeled or take on the label of a “white Hispanic?” Some in our own social media community have attempted to make sense of the term “white Hispanic” as a role within and on behalf of our community. Others have seen it as a product of confusion, while even others have dismissed the identity altogether. In this post, I will go through each of the different ways that the social media community has attempted to understand the question: who and what the hell is a “white Hispanic?”

Via NY Times

Via NY Times

“White Hispanics” as Latinos, Too: Many Latinos on social media have been quick to come to the defense of lighter-skin Latinos who they are “part of the community” and embrace their culture like all Latinos. One Latino Rebels follower commented, “There are no white Latinos. Being Latino is mutually exclusive with whiteness.” In other words, you are either Latino or white, but you can not be both at the same time. Many white Latinos have used the recent discussion to stake a claim that they too are Latinos despite their light skin. One blogger on Major Magazine wrote, “My strong ties to my Mexican roots do not only stem from my sincere love for Latino culture but from aching need to prove that I am not white.” In essence, these social media users have used the  white Hispanic debate as a way to draw a line around their community and to ensure that white Latinos are inside of the line with the rest of the Latino community. These users do not believe the concept of the “white Hispanic” is real or valid, yet they believe in the concept of an unified Latino community. To them, “white Hispanic” is simply a meaningless term to divide their authentically defined community and culture.

“White Hispanics” as Brokers to and for Whites: As César Vargas appropriately points out, many of these “white Hispanics” claim that they are equally oppressed as their darker skinned brethren, because white Latinos have to struggle to prove their authenticity to both the Latino community and the non-Latino community alike. As he positioned, “white Hispanics” do not experience racism or have the same outcomes as darker Latinos, yet they are not perceived as a threat to the whites in control. He argues instead that “white Hispanics” can use this opportune time to discuss how white privilege is not just a privilege for non-Latino whites and that “white Hispanics” should own and discuss their dual privileges due to their dual access to the Latino and white community. Hence, their Latino identity, coupled with their lighter skin, allows them to be placed as brokers to the darker Latino community for the white-controlled society.  A  broker (just like a housing broker) reaps profits from both parties. Vargas assigns the role of the “white Hispanic” as a broker: whose white skin gives them dual privileges and access to both communities that could be used for either personal or communal gain.

“White Hispanics” as Buffers between the White Elite and Darker Non-Elite: As a critical complement to Vargas’ essay, The Blinker’s Geoffery Mullings argues that “white Hispanics”are socially positioned somewhere between being a beneficiary of white privilege and victim of cultural racism. To use their term, “white Hispanics” are buffers—liaisons between the white elite and the darker non-elite. While “white Hispanics” may have some upward mobility, they will never be fully accepted into the white elite and hence will never be in a position of power or control. The article’s example cites the career of Spanish Cuban and “white Hispanic” Rafael Pineiro, the First Deputy Commissioner and highest ranking Hispanic in the NYPD. After Pineiro was passed up as the possible first Hispanic NYPD Commissioner for Bill Bratton, Mullings positions that Pineiro was never seriously considered as the NYPD’s top dog and that he was politically useful to be the Executive Officer for the Latino-majority Bronx and second-in-command during the racially charged times of “stop and frisk.” According to Mullings, Pineiro’s lighter skin allowed him to make contact with the top but his Spanish-Cuban ancestry never gave him full access to the top.

“White Hispanic” as a Product of Confusion: Sociologist Hector Cordero-Guzmán’s Latino Rebels essay attempts to make sense of the category of the “white Hispanic.” He does not seek to understand who is a “white Hispanic” or what role they are assigned amongst the Latino or non-Latino white communities. For him, the “white Hispanic: is a result of social confusion of Latinos having to inhabit the border of two different cultures. In one culture, Latinos may see themselves as one identity, yet in another culture, they may take on a different identity. To bolster his point, he cites results of the racial classification of Puerto Ricans from the 2012 Census’s American Community Survey. He writes, “The percentage of Puerto Ricans in New York City choosing the ‘White’ category was 44.7 %. In Puerto Rico, the percentage was 82.3%.” Amongst the same population from the same survey, why would Puerto Ricans in one place have a completely different selection of their racial category than in another place? Cordero-Guzmán chalks it up to context:  that is, racial identification will change based upon where you ask the question.

For example, in the U.S., there is the one-drop rule. If you have even one ancestor who is African, Asian, or indigenous, you’re automatically non-white. In Puerto Rico, the one-drop rule is that you are considered white if you have even one white ancestor in the previous four generations (known as the Regla del Sacar or Gracias al Sacar laws). In the U.S., a Latino historically is not white since Latinos by definition are a mixture of Spanish, indigenous, African and Asian blood. Yet in Puerto Rico, a Latino is white if they have just one white ancestor. For academics like Cordero-Guzmán, the  “white Hispanic” is a negotiation between two conflicting racial classifications.

In conclusion, why did I decide to go through a typology of the meanings of “white Hispanic?” The social media discussion demonstrates that even we Latinos do not know who or what the hell is a “white Hispanic.” Some of us try to make sense of the term by dismissing its validity as a real category or identity but also as a chance to make sense of the boundaries of who is and not in our communities. Commentators like Vargas and Mullings seek to assign “white Hispanics” with a role such as broker or buffer in order to deal with the ambiguity of the term. By assigning “white Hispanics” a role, one can make sense of what is expected of them and bring clarity to their function in and for the community. Others like Cordero-Guzmán accept that the “white Hispanic” is an ambiguous term, because race is ambiguous.

One thing in clear from the comments on social media: We as Latinos many not know what a “white Hispanic” is, but we want to control its meaning to the world. We want to define the term, instead of letting some government bureaucracy or armchair ivory tower theoreticians or misinformed journalists define it. If the term is going to be “out  there” in the world, we want the term to derive meaning from our LIVED experiences of navigating the made-up racial categories.


You can follow Christina Saenz-Alcántara on Twitter @ctsaenz.