As the U.S. Latino population continues to expand, researchers are digging into the question of what exactly race means, both in theory and practice.
More specifically, theyre trying to pinpoint what it means to be white, Latino, or both.
When European groupsItalians, Polacks, Germanscame to the U.S. in the early 1900s, they werent seen as white, but today they are. Additionally, those formerly disparate European groups have assumed many of the same characteristics of white culture, all but erasing the distinctionexternallybetween the groups.
Several scholars have predicted that our perception of whiteness will again change over the next few decades, encompassing the growing Latino population. Theyve also theorized that Latinos are actively seeking this whitening.
A recent study published in the Du Bois Review questioned that hypothesis, looking at how Latinos self-classify their race as well as whether they see others perceiving them as white. It suggested that while whiteness may indeed be a fluid concept, Latinos arent attempting to whiten in lieu of their own ethnic background.
Internal and External Recognition
Nicholas Vargas study, titled Latina/o Whitening: Which Latinas/os Self-Classify as White and Report Being Perceived as White by Other Americans? shows that while Latinos may sometimes choose to classify themselves as whiteor be perceived by others as whitethats not necessarily how they see themselves on a personal level.
In conducting his research, Vargas found that Latinos were more likely to categorize themselves as white in the following situations:
– If there wasnt a checkbox for Hispanic/Latina/o on a survey or the U.S. Census
– If the Latino respondent was lighter skinned
– If the Latino respondent was conservative or in an affluent socioeconomic group
While 40 percent of Latinos reported having self-identified as white at some point, a much smaller grouponly six percentreported being classified or perceived as white by others. Within that group of Latinos who were externally perceived as white, however, many did not self-classify as white.
Based on this, Vargas suggests that if whitening is occurring, its not necessarily because Latinos are attempting or hoping to cross that racial boundary. Rather, he uses his research to posit that Latinos often self-classify as white when theres no other option (in the form of a checkbox) or when its advantageous to appeal to skin color or political affiliations with others in a social group. With this, Vargas attempts to disprove the theory that Latinos are actively trying to assume the characteristics of whites or white culture.
Importance of Socioeconomic Status
Another key finding from Vargas study was in the area of socioeconomic status.
Oddly enough, he found that wealth has a similar effect on whether a Latino is perceived as white as that persons skin color: recent federal data indicates that White households have 18 times the wealth of average Latina/o households, and this disparity has been increasing over time Given such stark racial and ethnic inequalities, perhaps it is unsurprising that higher levels of socio-economic status are positively associated with Whiteness.
The researcher noted that there could be a dynamic effect between skin lightness, socioeconomic status, and perception as white, however: if a light-skinned Latino is perceived as white, he or she may have more opportunities to gain socioeconomic status. As that status increases, the likelihood of that person being perceived as white could also increase, according to Vargas study.
Separating Race and Ethnicity
Vargas concludes that Latinos do not necessarily welcome whitening the way that other researchers have suggested they do, though there are Latinos who by choice or socioeconomic situation are assuming some of the characteristics of whites.
He cautions against assuming, however, that Latinos will follow the same assimilation path as European immigrants in the early 1900s.
One of the reasons for this difference, given both in the recent research as well as in past analysis, is that Hispanic is an ethnicity, not a race. Therefore, Latinos are more willing to define themselves as such regardless of the race categories given on the U.S. Census or other survey.
The way the U.S. Census was laid out in 2010 means that a person needed to categorize themselves ethnically, as either Hispanic or non-Hispanic, and then racially, as white, black, Asian/Pacific Islander, or American Indian/Alaska Native.
Given that, even if Latinos undergo whitening by self-identifying as white on future surveys or Censuses, that process isnt mutually exclusive with retaining an identity as Hispanic or Latino.