Latinos and the “Other Race” Option: Transforming U.S. Concepts of Race. Featuring "Stories of Self-Definition" by Clara E. Rodr

September 25, 2007

Lurking in the shadows of the news media’s early coverage of the 2000 census numbers was a challenge to the U.S. system of racial classification. In accordance with a well-established pattern, 42% of Latinos identified themselves as “other race,” and 97% of all respondents who declared themselves “other race” were Latinos—a significant trend not emphasized in the press.[1] In addition, 6% of Latinos took advantage of the new “multiple race” option, compared with only 2% of the non-Hispanic population. In fact, of all the multirace combinations made possible by the new option, the most common was “white and ‘some other race,’ which census officials said was checked mainly by Hispanics.” According to The Washington Post’s analysis, this would all seem to indicate that many Hispanics were “apparently frustrated that they did not see a racial category that included them.” A more accurate interpretation came from the National Council of La Raza’s Sonia Perez: “Those concepts of black and white are just not at all how [some Latino] people are used to defining themselves.”[2]

The fact that large numbers of Latinos repeatedly identify themselves as “other race” on the census is the centerpiece of the provocative thesis of Clara Rodríguez’s recent book, Changing Race. Latinos conceive of race not only as a simple question of “biological or genetic ancestry or color,” she argues, but also as a matter of “culture, national origin and socialization.” While Rodríguez is quick to emphasize that there is not “only one Latino view of race”—or that race “as understood by Latinos does not have overtones of racism or implications of power and privilege”—she maintains that a generally more cultural, shifting, context-dependent concept of race constitutes a basic difference “between the way that Latinos view race and the way that race is viewed overall in the United States.”[3]

The Census Bureau must be as vexed as it has always been on the issue: How are the millions of racially unclassifiable Latinos to be understood? The last time around, Congress convened a series of hearings in which the idea of making Hispanics a “race” was entertained—albeit nearly without any support from Latino organizations—as a way to ameliorate the “data quality” problem posed by “other race” Latinos. During these hearings, Rodríguez notes that for the first time, it was “publicly acknowledged on a national level that [the concepts of race and ethnicity] were not mutually exclusive but were fluid and dynamic.” This was a sea change from their traditional projection “as fairly immutable and not subject to diverse interpretations.” Though overlap between “race” and “ethnicity” was recognized, a thorough re-examination of the census categories was not achieved and the formal distinction was retained.[4] It is noteworthy, however, that despite the continuing tendency of the government’s categories to reify race, the retired 40-year Census Bureau veteran who oversaw last year’s new multiple race option, Nampeo McKenney, can now be quoted in Time saying, “It’s very clear that race is fluid, it’s changing, it’s dynamic.”[5]

The contradictory nature of the official categories is evident in the coverage of the new census data that focused on the status of the white and black populations vis-à-vis a 58% boom in Latino numbers. “For the first time in the modern era,” The New York Times declared, “non-Hispanic whites are officially a minority in California,” while “Texas may soon become, after California, the second biggest state in which non-Hispanic whites are no longer the majority.”[6] One of the Post’s earliest headlines on the topic trumpeted that nationally, Hispanics have “drawn even” with blacks; a subsequent Times article reported that “black Floridians...risk being overshadowed.”[7]

Accompanying the bar graphs and commentary in these stories was the constant reminder that “Hispanic is a demographic group, not a race.”[8] Thus, Hispanics are an exceptional ethnic group, indeed the only U.S. ethnic group that may be of any race. “Non-Hispanic white” is not the same as, say, “non–Eastern European white” or “non–West Indian black,” because “Eastern European” and “West Indian,” as ethnicities, are not recognized as racially heterogeneous categories. Despite the fact that a plurality of Hispanics—46%—identified themselves as white only, the comparison of Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites as distinct groups is considered viable. The implication is that white Hispanics are not quite white, not “really” white. This corresponds to the stereotyped image of Latinos, as Rodríguez understands it, as “tan.” “Within this perspective,” she writes, “Hispanics are often referred to as ‘light-skinned,’ not as white.... Seeing Hispanics/Latinos as ‘light’ clearly restricts their ‘whiteness’ and thus makes them nonwhite by default.”[9] Caveats and technicalities aside, the news media treatment of the census results, especially in regional instances in which whites are or are swiftly becoming a minority, continue the demographic metaphor coined by Time magazine following the 1990 census: “the browning of America.”[10]

The story of this country’s “browning,” the nativist’s nightmare, is an old one, entrenched in U.S. popular, literary and cinematic culture. Eighty years ago, the father of U.S. eugenicist demographics, Lothrop Stoddard, feared “the rising tide of color,” as he titled one of his books, and the consequent “race suicide” of “slow-breeding whites” outpaced by the immigration and fertility rates of “inferior colored peoples.” It’s worth worrying whether the latest demographic “explosion” of “colored people” in the United States might occasion a recrudescence of Stoddard’s language.

“In many states,” The New York Times reported in an article on the burgeoning Latino population in the Midwest, “there are already signs of public unease over the role of immigration in crowding schools, burdening hospitals and depressing wages. It may not take much to turn those worries into a nativist backlash. Paroxysms of anti-immigrant fervor, after all, usually accompany recession. Historically it starts with calls for a crackdown on illegal immigrants and sometimes, indeed as recently as 1996, the backlash produces laws that take services not only from illegal but also from legal noncitizens.”[11] Time featured an article on the Iowa governor’s plan to boost the state’s sagging number of laborers by stimulating immigration. “‘Do we really want to become another California, with all of its immigrant problems?’” asked a retired Iowa lawyer, apparently one of the many residents of the country’s “fourth-whitest state” who, the article says, “want it to stay that way.”[12]

Robert Samuelson, in his column for The Washington Post, noted a “subtle and useful shift in tone and message” in the press’s coverage of the census. Citing articles from the Times, USA Today and the Post on the “new social problems and tensions” that immigration brings—many of which are borne by immigrants themselves—Samuelson concluded: “To benefit from immigration, we may need a little less of it.... We may also need to favor skilled over unskilled immigrants, further improving the odds for assimilation.”[13] The National Review felt that “the United States should restrict the currently high inflow,” since “Hispanics come here because it is better than home,” and it will only “stay attractive as long as less than everyone comes.”[14] Items in The New York Times on Arizona, which had the greatest Hispanic population increase, also reported on swamped social services, such as a $49 million peak last year in “uncompensated [health] care to illegal immigrants and other uninsured county residents.” But in a perspective absent from mainstream editorializing, Tom Rex of Arizona State University, quoted in the Times, contextualized Phoenix’s “rusting manufacturing way to bustling strip malls” by suggesting a relationship between border enforcement and labor control. “In a sense,” he said, “[illegal immigration] bailed the country out. Otherwise, a labor shortage would have had a real effect on our economy.”[15]

It remains to be seen if immigration policy and popular attitudes will swing rightward as a result of the new census findings. The New York Times noted that in California, “Republicans are not going to be successful statewide unless they can come up with some way to rebuild and repair the damage they’ve done among Asian and Latino voters with the anti-immigration crusades of the 1990s.”[16] George W. Bush’s more strategically savvy politics in Texas—in which “Hispanics were incorporated into [the Republican] party and [its] agenda,” if only through his rejection of “harsh rhetoric” and “symbolic gestures”—seems a more likely tack. [17]

Three years after its “browning of America” piece, Time published a special issue titled “The New Face of America.” Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner have called its cover girl—a computer-generated image of what the ideal, racially mixed citizen will look like once whites in the United States have become a minority—a “divine Frankenstein.” The fantasy’s aim, by representing the USA as “a happy racial monoculture made up of ‘one (mixed) blood,’” they say, was “to help its public process the threat to ‘normal’ or ‘core’ national culture that is currently phrased as ‘the problem of immigration.’” The “crisis image of immigrants,” linked to “white fears of minoritization,” is a “racial mirage” that in “supplying a specific phobia” avoids a “substantial discussion of exploitation.”[18] This papering over of massive social inequalities with feel-good multicultural images and gestures—such George W.’s “colorful” right-wing cabinet—may be the ideological maneuver to beware of in these postmillennial days, even as the old nativism whispers in the press.

What follows are excerpts—called “Stories of Self-Definition”—from a number of case studies in Clara E. Rodríguez’s Changing Race: Latinos, the Census and the History of Ethnicity in the United States. The studies, conducted in the early 1990s, asked a sampling of Latinos to fill out a copy of the 1980 census’s race question, and then to answer a series of questions meant to ascertain why they answered the way they did. All of the respondents below, whose names have been changed, identified themselves as “other race.”

José Peterson or JP: The Hyphenated American

At the time of the interview, JP perceived himself to be (and was understood to be) assimilating into white corporate America. On the census race question, JP checked “other” and specified “Puerto Rican American.” He explained that he attributed his Puerto Rican heritage to his parents but that he identified as American because he was born in the United States. He added that he was bicultural because “various aspects of both the American and Puerto Rican cultures” influenced him.

When he understood the questions to be asking about his physical appearance, JP consistently answered that he was white. But he did not feel it necessary to explain why he did not then select the white race category. When he understood the questions to be asking about his cultural identity, however, he said he was a “hyphenated American.” In effect, when JP answered the census question on race, he assumed that the categories represented other major social-cultural-racial-political groups in the United States, and he supplied his own (hyphenated) group. Although he clearly saw himself as physically white, he identified himself as “other (Puerto Rican–American) race.”

Even though JP identified as “other race,” his adaptation to the U.S. racial system followed the familiar immigrant assimilation model. He answered the questions in much the same way that second-generation European Americans usually answer them. For example, Greek Americans or Italian Americans would see themselves as culturally the product of both the old country and the United States, as JP did. But earlier immigrants probably would not have mentioned that their grandmother had Indian blood.

Celia: Latina, Black and Proud… And Not African American

Celia identified herself as “other race,” and on the census question, she wrote in “black Hispanic Panamanian.” Celia lived through the racial insensitivity of the 1950s, the racial awakening of the 1960s, and the renewed racial hatreds of the 1980s. Yet she says that throughout the constant racial turbulence, she always knew “who she was.” She emphasized that she is both Hispanic and black and has strong roots in both identities.

Celia realized that most North Americans saw her to be like “any other black” but noted that she felt uneasy with American-born blacks. She sensed that they strongly disliked blacks from other countries. To illustrate, Celia described an experience she had had at a playground with two of her children when they were young. She said that when she began talking and a black American woman heard her accent, the woman verbally abused her, and so Celia left the playground. Celia is a black Hispanic Panamanian and proud of it. But she is not a black American, and she does not see herself as black according to U.S. definitions of blackness. So she did not check off the “black” category on the census question.

Mr. Arco Iris’ Rainbow Identities

Mr. Arco Iris’ name means “rainbow” in Spanish, and he is always addressed as “Mr.” because at 62, he has a respected and established position as a professional in the criminal justice system. Born and raised in East Harlem and the South Bronx (predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods), he is the son of parents who migrated from Puerto Rico to New York before World War II.

In response to the census race question, Mr. Arco Iris checked “other” and wrote “Puerto Rican” in the space next to it. But when answering “How would you describe yourself racially?” and “What do you consider yourself to be?” he stated, in both instances, “I am a mixture of black, white and possibly Indian.” He noted that his racial identity had changed over time. “As a child, I perceived myself as a Puerto Rican and distinctly apart from black and white. But as I grew, I understood Puerto Rican as a mixture, and I could identify with both blacks and whites.” The way he viewed his ancestry also has changed: “I would have considered myself more white up to the age of nine. As I got older, I developed a broader definition of race and acknowledged greater mixture.”

Mr. Arco Iris described his color as “brown” and explained that North Americans tend to see him as a “brown-skinned Puerto Rican or a light-skinned black.” His interviewer described him as “not white/not black.” On a five-point color scale, Mr. Arco Iris labelled his mother as a one (light) and his father as a five (dark), and he identified himself as a four. This was darker than the interviewer’s view of Mr. Arco Iris, as a three (intermediate in color). When asked why he characterized himself as darker than North Americans might see him, Mr. Arco Iris stated that “four is more biologically accurate” and further explained that he identified himself as dark out of respect for and loyalty to his brown-skinned father.

José Ali: The Pressure to Be Black

José Ali is a Dominican, 24 years old, single and a full-time student at a public university. José Ali answered “other, Hispanic” to the census race question and explained: “By inheritance I am Hispanic. However, I identify more with blacks because to white America, if you are my color, you are a nigger. I can’t change my color, and I do not wish to.” He consistently alluded to his identification as black when answering other racial items in the interview, for example, “Hispanic, yet identifies as black” and “I describe myself as black.” When asked what the word “black” meant to him, he replied, “As other people see me.” Finally, when asked, “Why do you see yourself as black?” his answer was, “Because when I was jumped by whites, I was not called ‘spic,’ but I was called ‘nigger.’”

During the interview, José Ali noted that he assumes everybody at his job assumes he is black and he does not “want to burst their bubble.” He said that he goes along with their assumption as long as he is treated well but admitted that he accepts this identity because it would take him too much time to explain why he is culturally not an African American. He pointed out that “when you are seen as a certain race, you are also seen culturally the same.” But when people assume he is an African American, “they are disregarding my own feelings. They don’t ask. They simply assume.”

Asked if his identity had changed over time, José Ali answered yes. “I realized that though I feel Hispanic, I was not seen as Hispanic or Latino, but as black. Now I agree with whoever thinks I’m black. There is no point in trying to prove that I’m not black...after being practically attacked by whites because of the way I look. I decided to accept the fact that no matter who I feel to be, I am categorized as black.”

Thus, even though José Ali says he is “other race, Hispanic,” his responses reveal the pressures that some Latinos feel to identify as an American black. This imposition of the black-white racial order on Latinos separates them into “whites” and “blacks” and in the process attempts to create new African Americans and so-called hyphenated (European) Americans. Latinos understand this phenomenon as their being identified racially but not culturally. Other Latinos in the sample felt similarly confused or pressured to be “white.” Consequently, today Latinos are pressured to be categorized according to their color rather than their national heritage and culture.

Victoria: A Celebration of Color

Victoria is a single, 30-year-old Chicana graduate student who was born and raised in a small town on the U.S.-Mexican border. Almost all the town’s residents are Mexican and work in the fields, although her parents do not. Her father has a working-class occupation, and her mother is a homemaker. Victoria has several sisters, and her family is Protestant. She has been to Mexico only once, when she was 23, and she described this trip as consciousness raising.

During her interview, Victoria consistently placed herself in an intermediate position, choosing “other” on the census question and specifying “Hispanic.” She gave her color as “brown” and said that North Americans saw her as “other,” not “white” or “black.” When Victoria finished elementary school, she went to a junior high school where she was placed on the accelerated track. Here most of her classmates were Anglos. She describes this period as when she went from being a “smart Chicana” to a “smart white.” Most of her friends were white, and her sisters would make fun of and mimic her “whiteness.”

When Victoria went to the local community college, she continued to excel academically and was very active in student government. She also recalled the following experience that subsequently made her feel very ashamed: One day the dean patted her on the shoulder and told her, “I’m so glad you’re not like the other Mexicans,” considering this a compliment. Asked how she felt about the remark, Victoria said that it made her uncomfortable but remembered that she looked up and smiled.

Until she went to another college, in California, Victoria did not realize the significance of the dean’s remark. When she did, she first reacted with fury at having denied her heritage and having accepted the implication that her accomplishments were an exception to the rule. She later also resented what she perceived as the limitations of Mexican culture. As she explained, she travelled a long road in a short time, from being identified as white to being proud of being Mexican to being angry at Mexican patriarchy. In essence, Victoria saw her education as a vehicle that helped her escape certain sexual and racial boundaries, but she also felt that while doing so, she had had experiences that damaged her self-image, such as when she was treated as a credit to her race.

Pablo Morales is an assistant editor at The Village Voice and a staff assistant at NACLA.

Clara E. Rodríguez is professor of sociology at Fordham University and author of Changing Race: Latinos, the Census and the History of Ethnicity in the United States (NYU Press, 2000).

1. Census Bureau press release, March 12, 2001, see
2. D’Vera Cohn and Darryl Fears, “Multiracial Growth Seen in Census,” The Washington Post, March 13, 2001.
3. Clara Rodríguez, Changing Race: Latinos, the Census and the History of Ethnicity in the United States (New York: New York University Press, 2000), pp. 4, 5, 7, 8.
4. Rodríguez, Changing Race, pp. 175–176.
5. Lise Funderburg, “I Am What I Say I Am,” Time, March 26, 2001.
6. Jim Yardley, “Non-Hispanic Whites May Soon Be a Minority in Texas,” The New York Times, March 25, 2001; Todd S. Purdam, “California Census Confirms Whites Are in Minority,” The New York Times, March 30, 2001.
7. D’Vera Cohn and Darryl Fears, “Hispanics Draw Even With Blacks in New Census,” The Washington Post, March 7, 2001; Dana Canedy, “Florida Has More Hispanics Than Blacks, Census Shows,” The New York Times, March 28, 2001.
8. Purdam, “California Census Confirms Whites Are in Minority.”
9. Rodríguez, Changing Race, p. 19.
10. William A. Henry III, “The Browning of America,” Time, April 9, 1990, cited in Rodríguez, p. 129.
11. Susan Sachs, “A Hue, and a Cry, in the Heartland,” The New York Times, April 8, 2001.
12. Tammerlin Drummond, “Como Estás, Des Moines?” Time, March 19, 2001.
13. Robert Samuelson, “Can America Assimilate?” The Washington Post, April 6, 2001.
14. National Review, “The Census: Minority Report,” April 2, 2001.
15. Michael Janofsky, “Arizona Owes Growth Spurt Largely to an Influx of Hispanics,” The New York Times, March 28, 2001; Janofsky, “Illegal Immigration Strains Services in Arizona,” The New York Times, April 11, 2001.
16. Garry South, chief political adviser to Gov. Gray Davis (D), quoted in Purdam, “California Census Confirms Whites Are in Minority.”
17. Yardley, “Non-Hispanic Whites May Soon Be a Minority in Texas.”
18. Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, “Sex in Public,” in Lauren Berlant (ed.), Intimacy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p. 313.

Tags: race, Latinos, US racial categories, immigrants, identity politics

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