Racial Categories and Why We Cling to Them

By: Jennifer Lawson-Zepeda

The discussion over George Zimmerman, with so many attempting to classify his race for him proves that as much as some like to say that we are all “Just part of the human race;” this is not necessarily true. We are still defined by our racial category when it comes to many things, and crime is one of them. Hispanics aren’t a race but a multiracial minority group.

Hispanics and Race

All These Children Are Latino

Latino identity is often a visible identity. But, there are many exceptions.

The Hispanic culture challenges black/white thinking, in that we define the word, ‘multiculturalism’ in our various shades. And we have many shades and colors within our homogenous culture, some of which can be listed as:

  • the Afro looking Cuban
  • the Southern Cone European look of many Argentinos
  • the Bolivian Quechuan or Aymaran appearance
  • the Mestizo mixtures of Chile

We have a mixture of races, appearances and ethnicities or mixed identities. Even within the regions or countries listed above, there is always an ethnic breakdown of racial categories that give us each different looks.

Why this perplexes non-Hispanic Americans amazes me, since we have the same thing in the U.S. today. But the hypocrisy of so many in the U.S. who love to minimize this by saying inane things like, “We are all just part of the human race,” amazes me.

Why Racialize Us?

Why? Because they are the same people who also use ethnicity to decide who:

  • Immigrates to the U.S.
  • rises in corporations
  • is elected into office
  • will be tried in a court of law
  • will marry their daughters
  • is dangerous on the street

But most of these people hide behind cute little clichés that distance them from the discussion of race out of some need to be politically correct.

Ignorance

It’s hard for me to believe that in this day and age, people still don’t realize that Hispanics or Latinos come in all races. Apparently, there are people who are so dull that they still feel a need to define a person, like Zimmerman, by their misconceptions of race.

Therefore, many blacks wanted to define him as white, to get the maximum racial stereotypical historical associated hatred for him; while whites were saying things like, “He’s not white, he’s half Hispanic,” to ensure he is not affiliated with them.

“People like purity. They also enjoy using easy identity categories, especially if they can be differentiated from each other. But from what we now know of George Zimmerman, the man accused of killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, he is a sum of hodgepodge parts: Jewish, Catholic, white, and Peruvian. No wonder the press had trouble deciding whether to identify him as “white,” “Hispanic,” or “a white Hispanic.”

“To return to Zimmerman: he identifies himself as white, which is normal. The fact that he speaks no Spanish is also typical of a large percentage of Hispanics. Despite that, non-Spanish-speaking Latinos often get a bad rap for not being able to use their ancestral language—another form of internal segregation. My opinion is that were Zimmerman a Spanish speaker, the Hispanic minority would be feeling much closer to him now. Had he been Cuban, perhaps the Cuban-American community in Florida would have already marched in his defense. Had he been Mexican, the tenor of the conversation might be about how Mexicans have become ubiquitous, to the point that some of them even live in gated communities that need vigilantes to protect against hoodlums.”

(Source: George Zimmerman, Hispanics, and the Messy Nature of American Identity)

A Race or What?

This leads to the questions: Are Hispanics a race? Are we an ethnicity? Or are we simply a mixture of similar cultures?

The concept of a “Latino” identity today is not coming solely from European or white Americans. Today’s descriptions of Latinos are being dictated to us by members of many racial groups, depending on how they want to define us for any given scenario.

Much of the information is based on misunderstanding, even within the Latino communities.

For one thing, throughout history, Latinos have considered the color of a person’s skin a relevant determiner for things like marriage, based on the racism against blacks and indigenous people in our cultures. Racial identity has long been a determinant in our social status, privilege and even the focus of many wars in Latin America. It certainly has been a determinant in human rights. So, racial identity is still very much ingrained into our culture.

The attempts by other ethnic groups to assimilate us from individuals with a rich heritage and traditions into a more generic existence, therefore, is not acceptable to many of us. We like our identity. We feel no need to surrender it to satisfy other ethnic ideas.

Have you ever wondered why that might be? After all, we are all immigrants to the U.S., so some ask why it is so important for some to hold onto our identities. The answer lies in the history of the U.S. and immigration in general. Linda Martin Alcoff addresses this in her discussion of Latinos and categories of race:

“Irish, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, and other so-called “white ethnic” communities have organized cultural events on the basis of their identities at least since the 1960’s, with the cooperation of police and city councils across the country. Certainly for the Irish and the Italians, this movement of ethnic assertion has been precisely motivated by their discrimination and vilification throughout much of U.S. history, a vilification that has sometimes taken racialized forms. Thus, there are some clear parallels between Latinos and white ethnics: many have immigrant family histories, and many today share a cultural pride and desire to maintain some cultural traditions perhaps motivated by an awareness of historical if not ongoing discrimination. So why does the growth of a visible, politically assertive Latino population so often elicit such strong negative reactions and a flurry of political analysis about its likely degenerative effects on the general society? ”

“Latino-themed events are marked as such in a way that white cultural traditions are not—the latter are seen as simply “American” or “Christian” rather than white American or Anglo Christianity. Whites who enjoy a surfeit of opportunities for their own cultural expression often do not realize this privilege, and then feel mystified and threatened by the cultural expressions of other groups.”

(Source: Latinos and the categories of race)

Binary racial thinking

The U.S. has been founded on a sort of black/white binary form of thinking that divides us when it comes to things like racial profiling and convictions. So here comes this new mixture of people who defy the racial stereotypical thinking of racial identities, and blam! You have confusion over whether people like Zimmerman are white or Latino, instead of an acceptance of diversity.

Linda Martin Alcott mentions this too in the following:

“Despite our hopes that the influx of Latinos on the North American continent, in all of our beautiful diversity, would transform and annihilate the binaries and purist racial ideologies prevalent in the United States, this is not likely, at least not likely very soon. The racializing practices long dominant in the U.S. will not simply implode because of the pressure of Latino self-representation as non-raced or as racially mixed. Latinos in the U.S. have without a doubt been racialized. And I would argue that the history and even contemporary socio-economic situation of Latinos in the U.S. simply cannot be understood using ethnicity categories alone; we have been shut out of the melting pot because we have been seen as racial and not merely cultural “Others”. However, although we may be stuck with racial categories for longer than some of us would wish, it may be easier to help “race” slowly evolve than trying to do away with it as a first step.”

“It will also mean that Latinos will be unable or at least unlikely to address the racial issue from within Latino identity: if “Latino” comes to mean merely ethnicity, race will come to be viewed as an issue that may affect many of us but is properly outside of our identity as Latinos. Light Latinos will do what too many white estadounidenses have done: believe that race has nothing to do with them.”
(Source: Latinos and the categories of race)

Ms. Martin Alcott also mentions that the practice of racializing Hispanics also removes our solidarity as a people; and this has been proven in the Zimmerman case. As blacks united to stand behind Trayvon Martin, the NCLR chose to avoid taking a stand on the issue, because of the racial divisiveness this could ultimately cause. This happened again in the Kendric McDade case.

Dividing through Racialization

As other racial ethnicities; or people of color unite to help their social status in the U.S. by racializing our culture, we divide our interests. We are not always included in the racial categories of other ethnicities, even if we fit in by the general characteristics we share with them. We are that “other” category. The one that so many in organized and unite racial ethnicities tell to, “Go home” when they feel divided from us.

And that is what much of this comes down to. The attitude of “Go back to Mexico” that is parroted across the U.S., to Hispanics from a variety of countries. As I’ve said before, the attitude today is that all Hispanics are invaders into the this great land we call “America,” in spite of the fact that “America” is part of a larger continent called “Las Americas,” which houses has housed our culture much longer than many “Americans” have been American.

14 Comments on “Racial Categories and Why We Cling to Them”

  1. I think there is a systematic effort to erase culture from ethnic distinctions. The desired effect is a homogenous blend that has no true cultural influences. The motivation is subtle. By removing pride in your culture, the misplaced pride can be transferred to material possessions. By removing customs from your culture, it’s easier to sell a unified religion or non-religious spending spree. By removing identity from your culture, you are more agreeable to engagement in foreign wars, or even war upon your not-like-me neighbors.

    Culture, as much as genetics, shapes who you are. Culturally, i am Irish, and did not even realize just how Irish i was in attitudes and point of view until i began reading Mike’s Irish tales, yet i am several generations removed from my Irish roots.

    We are all “just people”, but we are also all culturally distinct people. The push for the homogenous blend, i call the Colonial view, one that insists it’s the only right way to do things, the only true education, the only real religion. It is a vain narcissism, an ego trip that doesn’t admit their way is not necessarily the only way or even the best way of living. There is so much we could learn from each other if only we would let go of the idea of racial profiling, stereotyping and the belief we must all be the same in order to live harmoniously. How boring. How stagnant. How dreadfully barbaric. I am beginning to think the best society we could create would be one in which all the “others” got together and said, “Colonial Anglo Huns, go home.”

  2. Karlsie, I agree with you. I think you’ve made some excellent points about the need to remove traditions and cultural affiliations for some. It makes it easier too for corporations to make their employees feel isolated and obedient.

  3. Bob, as someone who is part Native American, as well as fighting Irish, i would suggest you go back wherever you came from. My ancestors were here first. And speaking of who was here first… i think it’s very ironic that states like Texas, California and Arizona should be whining about the Hispanics when many of these fine families had settled there long before the U.S. went to war with Mexico and seized these territories.

  4. Excellent post Jennifer: I have never understood why Americans cling to the ‘prefix’ to the word American, eg., Afro-American, Irish-American, etc. but I can see your point. Here in the UK we do not. I am Irish, my wife is Indian, my children are English with my grandchildren being potentials for the United Nations with their father’s Italian blood. I hope they never emigrate to the US………..lol. The Irish were hated in the UK in the 1950/60’s as it is a fact that trouble-makers, drunks and other such men were regularly given ‘conditional discharges’ from the courts provided they ‘left immediately for England’. Subsequently all the Irish were tarred with the same brush – drunks, trouble makers, idiots etc. It was not until the 1970’s that the highly educated Irish began to ‘cross the water’. Oddly enough, although for several legal reasons I am entitled to a British Passport, I still retain my Irish one. In fact, it has been quite profitable up to now……..Mike.

  5. Bob…thank you for demonstrating what I wrote about! ROFL wicklowmick1940, besides being a white Hispanic, I look white; so I spent the majority of my life trying to fit into the American white culture. But, I may be an excellent learning tool, in that even as much as I did fit in, in so many ways; there were areas I just couldn’t fit. It usually came down to answering questions like: “You understand Spanish?” or “How do you know about that?” I learned an interesting perspective, hearing jokes about Hispanics as people assumed I wasn’t Hispanic, and then seeing how the same people acted when they thought Hispanics were around. I’m actually glad to have seen this. It gave me an understanding.

  6. Karlsie, if many people like Bob knew American history, they would understand why this country he claims to own and have so much pride in, is founded on many Hispanic and Native American traditions, names and families. For instance, in Los Angeles, we have many wealthy Hispanic families who are celebrated in places like the Lucille and Edward R. Roybal Foundation. This organization sponsors health clinics in Los Angeles that offer low cost health care for families who qualify. They also offer scholarships to Latino students pursuing careers in health care. Edward R. Roybal lived his life in Pasadena, California as one of the deans of local and national politics. He also endorsed several candidates in elections. He is remembered as the famous Member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He was born on February 10, 1916, into a Hispanic family that traced its roots in Albuquerque, New Mexico back hundreds of years, probably before Bob’s family even arrived here. It’s Hispanics like this who irritate people like Bob, because he can’t measure up to what they achieved in their lifetime, even with the din of racist cliches being lobbed their way. And its the reason many of us feel a sense of pride over who we are and what we have accomplished, without losing perspective of our traditions.

  7. Interesting point Jennifer: “I learned an interesting perspective, hearing jokes about Hispanics as people assumed I wasn’t Hispanic……”. Over here there are many stupid Irish jokes – (I love a funny joke be it Irish, Jewish etc). My usual response is “Why are Irish jokes so stupid?”…”So that the English can understand them”………..or “What is black and blue and floats in the River Liffey?”……”An Englishman who has told his last Irish joke in a Dublin pub”………….And you know something?……the English seldom laugh……………..Mike..

  8. There always seems to be the “other” that society makes stupid jokes about. Growing up in California, it was the Stupid Polish. When I married one I learned of their rich history and the fact that a good portion of our constitution was taken from theirs.

    Hispanics in my neighborhood were the “boogey-men”. A sad thing since I lived in San Diego. I can remember contantly being told not to let those “Mexican” men stare at me. Funny thing since all Mexican men and Hispanic men I have known are gentle,love children and are in no way scary. It ended up the scary folk were in my own circle.

  9. Mike, i love those jokes. I can’t wait to tell them to my Irish friends.

    Jennifer, i got to to see a bit of the perspective you’re talking about while i lived in Mexico. I was first consigned to work in Mexico City translating Spanish documents into English for a Mexican real estate agency offering bids to American business investors. The job abruptly ended with the peso crash. In love by then with a Mexican artist, i stayed, helping him sell handcrafts on the streets. Because i am Native American as well as Irish, my eyes and hair are black and i tan easily. Within five years, i was speaking fluent Spanish and was as dark as any Mexico City resident. The Americans didn’t know i was “one of them”, and freely made comments about the street artists who were offering their goods, which i freely translated back to my friends. If the comments weren’t nice, we stubbornly stuck to our escalated for Americans prices, and i stubbornly stuck to speaking Spanish. If the comments were nice, i slipped into English, giving them our bargain rates and even offering guide services.

    Thank you very much for the points you made on successful Hispanics on the US side of the border and their contributions to society. I would like to learn more. My children are half Hispanic. One looks Mexican, the other looks Irish. They both bounce around between Irish pride and Hispanic pride, which i think is rather wonderful. When asked their nationality, my red-haired daughter will often as not say “Hispanic”, and just to confuse, my swarthy son will say, “Irish”.

  10. Karlsie,

    My Salvadoran husband was a salesman in Mexico, selling silver, art objects, and leather products. I know exactly what you are talking about with the pricing. We lived there for nine years. He often did that as well when we lived outside of Tijuana. Rude people never realize how they screw themselves, do they?

    Today, I’m engaged to a Mexican American man who grew up in a typical Mexican American family, only his parents were from Mexican descendents. They spoke Spanish and English since his folks were both from the U.S. Virtually everything most other American families did, they did. The differences were that he also spent six months in Mexico with his aunts and uncles. He grew up in a Mexicanized American culture with some of the stereotypical things Americans see in Mexican Americans: low riders, Quinceañeras, the food. His friends were primarily Mexican or Mexican American. But he’s very Americanized.

    I grew up in a neighborhood, where kids were expected to attend college, go to prom, go to parties — all the stuff teens do. But the difference is that my friends were a mix mash of people from all types of countries. In my circle of friends was my best friend – an Argentine American, like me; a Puerto Rican gal, a Vietnamese gal, a black gal, a few whites, and a gal from Alaska with Native American family.

    It would blow this guy, Bob’s mind! Not all Hispanics grow up poor. My fiance’s family had a nice financial portfolio — including business ventures and real estate holdings…all paid for. They were the ideal citizens that we all talk about, paying their bills on time, working hard for their family, and buying homes. Many Hispanics mirror that in Los Angeles. They own their own home, have 401Ks — all of the things that Americans think we don’t have.

    If you look at some of the well-known names in California, you will see some predominant Hispanic families who had great influence on this state. Among them are: Don Romualdo Pacheco — mother was Ramona Carrillo who became State senator, lieutenant-governor, and one of the leaders of the Republican party. The grandson of Captain Antonio del Valle, who came from Mexico to California in 1819, is now one of the most prominent politicians in the State. Don Juan B. Castro has held many offices of trust and profit in Monterey County. Don Ignacio Sepulveda, a thoroughly educated lawyer, married an American wife, and was long a superior judge in Los Angeles. A number of similar cases might be mentioned in which individuals of the conquered race have found their opportunity in the material development of the Pacific coast.

    And certainly, there is the other side of that story too, like all other cultures in this country.

    That’s why I don’t downplay anyone. We value and admire the Irish culture as much as the French culture. (I’m French Argentine). We love the Mexican culture as much as we admire the people of Thailand. I don’t admire people because of their culture, but because of how they act. And if they act stupid of bullyish, I don’t forgive them because of their culture, either.

  11. Grainne,

    That Latin American immigrant stare can be unnerving, if you aren’t used to it. Even as Latinos, some of my pals have said that it gets on their nerves. Not so much for me, anymore. I stare too, now. LOL

  12. Jennifer, Yes it can be, but that’s not what I meant. My very white family members made immigrant workers out to be boogey-men that stole girls from home and took them away to Mexico to do god knows what when I was very young these were the stories I was told. That they all wanted my “magical whiteness”

    What the shit? It was a terrible and evil misleading thing to say to a little child. But you can see how these thoughts are propogated at an early age. By the way, my oldest is 1/2 mexican so I guess I like the monster stories.

    With people being treated and talked about that way they need those intense stares in a way.

    It’s interesting to me that here in the west there seems to be more tolerance for any latino who is not Mexican. Cubans, Haitians, Peruvians get more of a pass. The opposite seems to be true on the east coast where there are less Mexicans; Puerto Ricans, Haitians, Cubans bear the brunt of the antilocution. – Just an observation. It’s all about who/what we have been taught is the imminent invader.

  13. Grainne, I laugh all the time with my fiancee about “What the hell did his people do that pissed off everyone,” because he is Mexican American. I also say, “better his people than mine.” But this is sick humor trying to lighten the disgusting attitudes that so many have of Mexicans and blaming them for all Latino behavior. BTW, I’ve been that guera that was charged more in Mexico for looking white, too. It goes both ways. But I still think those stares at times can be disconcerting.

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