To My Fellow White Latinx: It’s Time to Decline the ‘Get Out of Whiteness Card’ (OPINION)

Oct 5, 2020
3:17 PM

I am a white Mexican.

Some people do a double take when I say this, others squint and take a long, hard look at me, and some have even pulled me aside to ask in private what I mean by that—surely I didn’t mean to say that. There is nothing particularly distinct about me or my ancestry. As far as I can tell, no one in my family —on either side— is a recent immigrant. For at least 150 years, my ancestors were born, lived, and died in the state of Jalisco. They tended to their crops and animals, worked in factories, fought in wars, and raised very extensive families in mostly rural areas around Guadalajara. I am a pretty “average” Mexican, and Mexican all the way.

In New York City, I live in a neighborhood with a large Latinx population, of which Mexican immigrants have become a growing number in recent decades, so I feel quite at home. Because I am white, when I go into the bodega and ask for a bag of nopales or masa in Spanish, people routinely tell me “no pareces mexicana.” My daughter and I are so used to this, that we usually exchange a smile before I respond again in Spanish “I know.” 

I recount these two small pieces of my biography —my very Mexican origins and my very white appearance— to reflect on the seeming impossibility of being both, white AND Mexican. My purpose is not to exalt or redeem this composite identity—I have no interest legitimizing any white genealogies, including my own. It is also not to publicly lament the many times I have been assumed not to be Mexican—or Latinx even. I have seen outraged Latinx recount such stories as an abuse, while remaining completely oblivious of the white privilege that they are receiving even as they are misidentified.

Yes, I said white privilege.

These days, as the global repudiation of white supremacy grows stronger, I keep scratching my head at the number of fair-skinned, European-looking Latinx I know —of all political tendencies and both in the U.S. and in Latin America— who refuse to be called white. I don’t intend to shame my fellow white Latinx, nor to call anyone out on their own understandings of their identity. Mostly, I’m interested in understanding why. Why, despite a life of white privilege, do so many white Latinx vehemently refuse the title? Sure, I admit that I have an agenda. I believe that in order to truly join the global movement against racism and for Black lives more specifically, it is absolutely critical for us, white Latinx, to start facing up to our complicity with and participation in white supremacy. The widespread refusal gets in the way of our ability to do anti-racist work. And while I think the denial is misguided, I am interested in listening and taking seriously my people’s reasons for refusing the term white—not to coddle their racial comfort, but to find a way forward in the fight to dismantle white supremacy.

I will start with the simplest culprit of white denial: guilt. Who wants to be associated with the bad guy? A good friend of mine (half-white Cuban) recently told me that her nine-year-old nephew said to her in confidence that he didn’t want to grow up to be a white man. She told me that in his tone when he said the words “white man,” he seemed to already be carrying the tremendous moral weight of that identity and her heart broke a little. And while this is poignant story of a young boy, we can’t hide behind our white veil of innocence our whole lives.

Eventually, we must reckon with our entanglement with histories of colonization, genocide, enslavement, and exploitation. Yes, being white and Latinx most probably means that some ancestor somewhere up our genealogical line sailed the ocean blue, and like Columbus, participated in some pretty heinous acts—whether actively or passively. And yes, I recognize that people’s genealogies are complex and I am grossly generalizing here—most of us in fact cannot trace our lineages to La Niña, La Pinta or La Santa María. But despite the vast diversity of routes that brought our European ancestors to this land that we now call América (and I mean the continent), it is undeniable that the basic racial hierarchy that operated in colonial times is alive and well today. And this means that in our lifetimes we, fair-skinned, Europeanish-looking Latinx, have been beneficiaries of racial privilege. How many times have we heard our friends and family members remark with excitement “¡Ay, míralo qué blanquito!” at the sight of a baby they deem beautiful? Let’s sit with that for a moment.

This takes me to the second culprit: blindness. As scholars and activists —particularly Black folks at the frontlines of racial justice work— have been telling us for quite a while, one of the fundamental characteristics of being white is being oblivious of one’s whiteness.

Tricky, right?

Being afforded the luxury of not having to think about one’s race on an everyday basis is the most evident marker of whiteness. So, if after cavalierly checking off the Latinx ethnicity box, you have ever stared blankly at the boxes of racial categories in front of you —knowing that you cannot in good conscience check off Black, Indigenous, or Asian— you are probably white. And I know that many of us are also compelled to check off “mixed-race” or “other” and feel satisfied with reproducing the myth of mestizaje and the supposed incomprehensibility of Latinx racial categories. But if like me, you are routinely “mistaken” for a white person, I think you know which box is most accurate. In the end, race is not an essential truth about us or our ancestors, it is a biased reading of our bodies that places us along a hierarchy. This experience doesn’t resonate, of course, for my fellow white latinoamericanos. In Latin America, we don’t check off ethnicity boxes for being Latinx. In our countries of origin, being white is unmarked, so most likely, we haven’t checked off many boxes in our lives. But that doesn’t make us any less white.

This racial blindness tends to be compounded by our experiences with other forms of discrimination—which can look and feel a lot like racism, but should not be conflated. Those of us who are immigrants, for example, have likely been made to feel unwelcome in the place where we reside due to our nationality or ethnicity. In the U.S. the messages that saturate popular culture with negative stereotypes of Latinx—as rapists, drug traffickers, and animals from “shithole countries” are dizzying and deeply harmful. In one way or another, we Latinx have been collectively made to feel undesirable and many of us have faced formidable obstacles to access the basic rights that should be guaranteed to any citizen of the planet: health care, education, a minimum income, and the right to live without feeling hounded. For white latinoamericanos, not all of whom are rich and famous telenovela actors, poverty, political disenfranchisement, and violence all act as experiences that hinder our ability to recognize ourselves among those with white privilege. How can I be privileged if I am poor? Or if I have experienced oppression due to my class, national status, gender, or sexual identity?

The key here is that racial privilege, though two words, is really one concept and is centrally about race. All of the other injustices that we have experienced —while important— do not cancel out our racial privilege.

Of course, discriminations are often intertwined in ugly ways. Thirty-five years after the fact, I still remember the look of disgust on a little white, U.S. American girl’s face when by mispronouncing the word “robot” while standing in line at Disney World, I revealed to her that I was “Spanish.” I was only seven years old, but understood immediately that being “Spanish” was bad. In the U.S. and Europe the rejection of our language, our cultural practices, and our very existence is palpable.

But this should not be equated with racism. Xenophobia is real, as is ethnocentrism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia. But all of these are also distinct from racism. They are often compounded by and entangled with racism in terribly insidious ways, but they are not simply synonymous.

So even though after that fateful summer in the early 1980s I have been subjected to other instances of humiliation for being Mexican, those were not experiences of racism. Yes, I was made to feel inferior and yes, those experiences felt terrible, but I did not at those moments cease being white.

The relationship between myself and the little girl in Disney World was mediated by a violent history of U.S. imperialism in Latin America—which is also deeply marked by racism. For centuries, the U.S.’s dominance of Latin America has been justified by the logic of the so-called “white man’s burden,” the alleged moral responsibility of “superior races” to bring others along the path of civilization and development. This was the logic of the Monroe Doctrine, which has been consistently enforced by U.S. foreign policy and was openly celebrated by John Bolton just last year, who proudly assured a group of Bay of Pigs Veterans in Miami that the doctrine “is alive and well.”

So that little encounter between two little girls was not “simply” one across ethnic, linguistic, and national differences. For me, it was marked by the indignities of belonging to a country that has been exploited and routinely portrayed as inferior by another. It was marked by a relation of inequality. But even in those moments, I did not stop being white. If I had, the little blond, blue-eyed girl would not have had to discover I was “Spanish,” she would have known that we were different just by looking at me—and maybe she would not have been so dismayed to find out that I wasn’t “like her.”

The takeaway is this: the fact that we have been subjected to numerous forms of discrimination —some of which intersect with racism in complicated ways— does not exempt us from our whiteness. Yes, many of us have suffered all kinds of injustices. And some of these injustices are also related to racialized ideas about the countries we or our ancestors came from, but these experiences of marginalization and inferiorization should not be taken as a “Get Out of Whiteness Card.”

This one is harder to sit with.

I was recently part of a group of white Latinx all living in the U.S. who met to discuss and work through Layla Saad’s book Me and White Supremacy. Here was a group of twenty-some white Latinx ready to face up to our complicity in white supremacy and yet in our conversations some of the same patterns emerged. We consistently distanced ourselves from U.S.-born whites and many of us expressed discomfort at self-identifying as white. Rather than simply dismissing this as blindness, I had to ask myself yet again, why is the refusal so entrenched? I want to understand.

My 12-year-old daughter, who is more politically savvy than I was at 30, asked me the other day in the presence of white Argentine friend if she should count herself when tallying the number of people of color in her school. Without flinching, my friend affirmed that she should, of course include herself.  For her, being half Mexican and half Colombian undoubtedly made my daughter a person of color.

When I said that I disagreed, the conversation turned tense. That night I went to bed with the question swirling in my head and in my sleep I figured out the answer I wanted to give my daughter: “Imagine a world map in which some countries are marked white and others are not. But within those countries there are people of different colors. We come from countries that are not marked white on the world map, but you and I are white—we are reminded of this every time someone says ‘you don’t look Mexican.’ Of course, this association between being Brown and being Mexican has to do with the fact that many of our paisanxs —including some of our family members— are in fact not white. But for those of us who have been called ‘güeros’, the category ‘person of color’ is an odd fit.”

One of the things I’ve learned after more than two decades in and out of the U.S. and Latin America is that whiteness operates through a global pact. We white people recognize and welcome our kind with open arms. One of my first experiences with the Pan-Latin American whiteness club was when I traveled to Colombia for the first time to meet my then-fiancé’s family and his great grandmother candidly declared that she liked me better than his previous Mexican girlfriend because I was lighter-skinned. Granted, she was senile and had no social filter at the time, but she was likely expressing what others thought.

Everywhere I have been in Latin America —and I have lived or worked in Mexico, Nicaragua, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Cuba— I have been immediately invited to join the whiteness club. The invitation can take many different forms, but the most consistent of its characteristics is that it is marked by a tacit affirmation of racial superiority.

But because in Latin America we don’t like to openly talk about race, we cloak white superiority in the language of culture. We condemn and deride Black and Indigenous people’s cultural practices while marveling at our own accomplishments—ay, mira fulanita’s beauty and menganito’s financial success.

We selectively appropriate Black and Indigenous people’s labor and cultural practices with little or no regard for Black and Indigenous people’s well-being. In Mexico, to name just one obvious example, white Mexicans tout “our” cuisine as world patrimony without directly crediting or benefiting the communities that sustain it. We naturalize the vast social and economic disparities between black and indigenous people and “us”, the racially and ethnically unmarked. We might publicly lament the poverty and marginalization that these communities face, but most of us do very little to shift the disparities. If all of this sounds like the behavior of white people, it’s because it is. To the point, despite its history of racial mixture and its subaltern status in relation to Europe and the U.S., Latin America is not exempt from the global regime of white supremacy.

And yet, I think it is important to recognize that racial categories are contextual and that they often shift. They shift over a person’s lifetime and sometimes they shift when we travel—even from one neighborhood to the next.

The cultural cues that we use to attribute race to any given individual are complex—they include how we dress, speak, carry ourselves, etc.  And accordingly, they can often shift depending on who is doing the assessment: their own geographical location, class, race, etc.

So while I recognize that some of us are not uniformly identified as white —always, wherever we go— this experience of shifting racial categories does not absolve one from racial privilege. True, some of us are white everywhere, while some of us have been racialized as non-white and perhaps have even lived firsthand the indignities of racism at some point in our lives.

But if we have ever, anywhere been identified as white, then we carry the moral responsibility of dismantling white supremacy as members of the group that benefits from it. Many of my family members, for example, would not be read as white in the U.S. A combination of their shade, speech, and manners would likely disqualify them from entry into the whiteness club in say a restaurant in the Upper East Side of New York. In Mexico, however, some of these same people are undoubtedly white—in Mexico we call ourselves mestizos. The precise meaning and reading of that whiteness is different from what it is in the U.S., but its essence as the invisible, racial norm that is globally positioned as the pinnacle of the human form and culture, remains.

And the disproportionate access to resources that this category affords is also undeniable. My primos and tías may be intimately familiar with experiences of racism when they are north of the Río Bravo, but if at home they have ever been called güeros, their complicity with white supremacy is clear. I would hope that having experienced racism firsthand would only make one more empathetic with those for whom it is a daily and inevitable occurrence.

In the end, as Ibram X. Kendi reminds us, some of us white people do not identify as white to avoid reckoning with the ways that whiteness has offered us the privilege of being inherently normal, standard, and legal. It is not a comfortable thing to do, owning up to one’s whiteness, but if we want to actively contribute to dismantling white supremacy and the colossal suffering it sustains, it is a necessary place to start.


Roosbelinda Cárdenas is a cultural anthropologist, professor, immigrant, and mother. She is passionate about social justice issues and about Latinxs wherever they may be. She lives in East Harlem with her daughter and partner. Twitter: @roosbelinda.