Latino and Race: Together and Separately

Oct 1, 2014
8:15 AM

Just when I think that the notion of “white Hispanic” has faded away, several more commentaries continue to appear. All raise important points yet miss others that are equally important. (I want to thank Christina Saenz-Alcánatra for effectively and succinctly explaining the arguments of various commentaries.)

To discuss “white Hispanics,” means to discuss two issues: one is being Latino in the U.S. context and the other is variation in skin color. I argue that these need to be discussed separately and together in order to understand the impact on individuals. Being Latino in the U.S. is frequently a racialized experience, which matters for most members even if they are light-skinned. But that does not negate the additional effect of being dark-skinned in a society that privileges whiteness.


First, Latino is a racial/ethnic category. We use both race and ethnicity in the definition because Latino operates as a racial category in contrast to “white” and “black” and because Latino is an ethnicity with distinct historical and cultural experiences. Most of the time, there is consensus about who to include in the Latino category: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Salvadorans, Dominicans—all of which are from countries with long and/or extensive histories of migration to the U.S. Yet there are times where it gets confusing: for example, wealthy, light-skinned South Americans from countries with little migration to the U.S. may reject being, or not be seen as, Latino. Class, skin color and migration history serve to define the commonly understood Latino experience.

Second, skin color among Latinos falls on a continuum from white/European to dark/indigenous/African descent with lots of folks in the middle. While the particulars vary by specific country of origin with more mestizo/indigenous in some countries and more African descent in others. It is this continuum that makes talking about “white Hispanics” so problematic.

Much of the discussion around “white Hispanics” revolves around (1) are they like white Americans and benefit from being light-skinned? and (2) are they really Hispanic? My purpose is to separate being Latino from skin color and discuss ways each matters separately and together.

The first question is: is it helpful in U.S. society to be light-skinned? Obviously yes: a well-dressed light-skin Latina walks into an expensive clothing store will likely receive more favorable treatment than a similarly dressed dark-skin Latina. Note that in this example we imagine a middle-to-upper class appearance and differences by skin color.

Let’s consider another example: several young men are on a street corner —all dressed in baggie pants and white tee shirts— in a poor Latino neighborhood when a patrol car stops and the police question and briefly detain the young men. One of young men is light-skinned and the others are darker-skinned yet odds are that all will be treated negatively regardless of skin color. It is that these young Latino men fit the stereotype of gang member, more than skin color, which defines how they will be treated. (And just imagine these young men entering the expensive store in the above example and we know that all will be subjected to the extensive negative treatment).

Research on the effect of skin color among Latinos has shown, for the most part, that lighter-skinned Latinos gain advantages in education, earnings and other economic outcomes. Yet not all of the studies on skin color have found significant differences (Edward Telles and I did not find an effect of skin color in our comprehensive study on Mexican Americans.)

These examples are situated in public spaces where skin color may be the primary indicator signaling difference. Much of the time, we live in institutions where it is not just our skin color that identifies us but also name, language ability, prior experience and place of residence that signals to others who we are. Schools and work places are two such institutions. To be Latino in these institutions has meaning in addition to skin color.

For example, a young man from the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas once told me that his high school guidance counselor pointed him toward community colleges and yet he was now in graduate school. The young man was light-skinned (including light eyes and light hair) but in the Rio Grande Valley where over 90 percent of students are Mexican origin, he was simply Mexican. It’s possible that dark skin Mexican students in this setting receive more negative treatment yet simply being Mexican or Latino is a stigmatized category in this environment.

I am a light-skin Latina and a professor, so how much does being Latina matter in my life? The combination of my name, class background, language and area of expertise signal to my colleagues and students that I am Latina. I have had experiences where being Latina had been a disadvantage. Yet I would not claim that how I am treated is equal or harsher than dark-skin Latino colleagues. And, when nicely dressed, I can walk into a nice clothing store and not be followed.

Research has documented the disadvantaged effect of being Latino in the U.S. in many respects including education, economic status, place of residence and policing.

In sum, being Latino matters and skin color matters together and separately.


Vilma Ortiz is a Professor of Sociology at UCLA with over 20 years experience exploring the socioeconomic experiences of Latinos in the U.S. Professor Ortiz and Edward Telles wrote Generations of Exclusion: Mexican Americans, Assimilation, and Race.