‘White-Passing’ Isn’t a ‘Get Out of Racism Free’ Card (OPINION)

Sep 19, 2017
1:15 PM

Latinx Rally in Portland, Oregon, organized by Milenio.org Voz Hispana Cambio Comunitario (Photo by Joe Frazier/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

The recent Nazi rally in Charlottesville and the rise of hate crimes in California and the rest of the country are indicators of how much more racist white-supremacist Americans are becoming a threat to our livelihoods, safety and well-being. This is nothing new, obviously, as Latinxs we have faced our share of white supremacy via lynchings, forced sterilization, colonialism, segregation and state-sanctioned violence. Just this past year, there were 183 Latinxs who were killed by police in the U.S. and 195 in 2015. So even as white-passing Latinxs have this aspect of their Latinidad as a privilege that many others don’t, the color of our skin is only one marker.

Many of us are so adamant about getting white-passing Latinxs to acknowledge their white-passing privilege. We see it on our Facebook pages, in our community discussions, and even in the classroom. We push for white-passing Latinxs to understand how their experience is different from people like me who have visibly brown skin or our Afro-Latinx familia who face anti-blackness everywhere they go. What we tend to forget is that even if our friends are white-passing, their skin color is not the only marker of their Latinidad.

I grew up on the south side of Milwaukee, full of Latinx people, music, businesses, and culture but I was headed to Appleton for college, where 87% of the city’s population is white and 5% Latinx. I was prepared for this though because I had been living in Wisconsin for a while now and was used to being in predominantly white spaces. The odds seemed to be in my favor too because I ended with a Mexican roommate and close group of Mexican friends. Somos mexicanos, right? It was all good.

Later in the year, my friends and I were all talking about how we had first met and I said to my friend, “When I first met you, I actually thought you were white.” She had a soft voice, was wearing a Beatles t-shirt, and was a straight-up hipster. What was I supposed to think? That one comment lead to many debates in our friend group about skin color, Latinidad, Mexicanismo, colorism, class and cultura. It took our entire freshman year to realize because I had dark brown skin, very Mexican first and last names, and I was from a low-income family, that meant that I wore most of my identity as a Chicano out in the open for everyone to see. There wasn’t anything I could really do to protect myself from the racial slurs and the ignorance of white people. It also meant that because my friends had lighter, paler skin than me, it wasn’t always obvious to others that they were Mexican and that was a part of their passing privilege. That was just the reality.

However, that didn’t take away from or hide the fact that they both spoke fluent Spanish and were way more confident at speaking it than I ever was. They were first-generation Mexican-Americans and I was fourth. That’s a big experience gap and culture shift. They also enjoyed bachata and could speak of the motherland in ways that I only dreamed of. These were all things that identified them as Mexicans, as Latinas. Different aspects of our cultura, that in America labeled them as hyphenated Americans and the “other,” something they couldn’t escape, even with their light skin.

Anthropologist Manning Nash’s essay work in “The Core Elements of Ethnicity” explains exactly how markers of ethnicity play out in the U.S. by defining them as index features. According to Nash, index features “implicate or summarize less visible, less socially apparent aspects of the group. These boundary-marking features say who is a member of what group and what minimal cultural items are involved in membership.” Nash refers to these index features in two ways: 1) as a trinity of core features that are visible to members and non-members of a group and 2) a trinity of secondary features that are culturally denoted. Here’s how it works:

Core Index Features:

  • kinship: our connection as Latinxs based on biology and a common descent that unites us
  • commensality:  the way we eat together that encourages and ensures a sense of hermandad
  • common cult: sacred symbols and religiosity, which for many Latinxs this means Catholicism for example

Secondary Index Features:

  • language: Spanish, Nahuatl, Chicano-English, and all the other dialects used in Latino America
  • dress: hoop earrings, the sarapes, the guaraches, the gold necklaces and bracelets
  • physical features: skin color, hair, tattoos, eyebrows and eyeliner

All of these features indicate how we perform our identities, that we unconsciously and consciously use to identify one another, and determines who we call hermanx, primx, amigx. And that’s only the more dominant traits that non-Latinx folks can identify on their own. There’s also things—like the pictures of la virgen in our houses, not walking around barefoot, sana sana colita de rana, sending money back home to la familia, and curanderismo. All traits and features that we share and identify who we are. As you can see, skin color falls into only one of the six categories mentioned.

The biggest assumption we make when we focus on the whiteness of their skin is that they operate outside of the Latinx community, when actually, they operate within the community. Their lighter skin tone only allows them to move between communities, whether they chose to or not. And let us not forget that they are still the prima at the quinceañera, el hermano de Juan from down the block, even Dr. Gutierrez who has a PhD in Latino Studies. Just like my friends, white-passing Latinxs are as Latinx as we are and they live every day choosing which aspect of their identity to share and which to hide around non-Latinxs.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying white-passing Latinxs shouldn’t continue acknowledging and educating themselves about their privilege. That should always be happening and is something we should all be doing. What I’m saying is that passing isn’t a get out of racism free card. This is a call to action for us all to take a look at each other as Latinxs, como la raza, and figure out que es lo que nuestra communidad necesita and how we can help other people of color as well.

Nash mentions one last feature, la tradición, which he connects to how we have survived as a people. He says, “the group has strength from the evident fact of its survival and that strength is augmented if individual survival is but a link in group survival.” In non-academic terms: en la unidad está la fuerza, y por eso vamos a sobrevivir.


Jaime Gonzalez is a Chicano raised in California but now lives in Wisconsin. He has a BA in Anthropology and Ethnic Studies from Lawrence University in Appleton, WI. His interests include Chicano culture, contemporary social justice and pop culture. Jaime is currently an MA student in an interdisciplinary Liberal Arts program at St. Norbert College in De Pere, WI.