Race identification: grappling with ‘Whiteness’ as a Latino

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…
Race identification: grappling with ‘Whiteness’ as a Latino

Ethnicity and race can be confusing and overlap: Many Latinos identify as white in terms of race even though their ethnicity is Hispanic. (U.S. Census)

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, they’re trying to pinpoint what it means to be white, Latino, or both.

When European groups—Italians, Polacks, Germans—came to the U.S. in the early 1900s, they weren’t 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 distinction—externally—between the groups.

Several scholars have predicted that our perception of “whiteness” will again change over the next few decades, encompassing the growing Latino population. They’ve 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 aren’t 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 white—or be perceived by others as white—that’s 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 wasn’t 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 group—only six percent—reported 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, it’s 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 there’s no other option (in the form of a checkbox) or when it’s 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.

The US census categorized race different than ethnicity.

Latinos come in all races; while some might be of African decent, other can be blonde and blue eyed. (Shutterstock)

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 person’s 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 isn’t mutually exclusive with retaining an identity as Hispanic or Latino.

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