What We Mean When We Call Someone ‘White’

On each census form I encounter there is always a section in which I hold the pen tip on the page but hesitate before I flick my wrist down then up. This is the part on the form that asks me about race and this is the worst case scenario. I’ve scanned the page and know my options. Hispanic/ Latino is not listed anywhere. In the best case scenario there is always an additional option with the parenthetical note claiming that whoever created this form understands my plight. He or she understands that Hispanic/ Latino is not a racial identity. He or she has added an extra section with the option Hispanic/ Latino because he or she does not want to put me in an awkward position that would force me think about my own race.

But in this worst case scenario, there are no sensitivities and I have to acknowledge a confusing fact on an official-looking piece of paper. I check white.

There are plenty of people who proudly call themselves Black Latinos, combining race and ethnicity in an exciting blend of cultural identity. And then there are people like me. People with enough conquistador blood running through their veins that checking the box next to white is their only option. On the White Latina color scale and to create a comparison of vast delusion, I’m closer to Salma Hayak than Cameron Diaz (both women of mixed ethnicity, I should add). While nobody would call Salma Hayak Jimenez de Pinault white (just as I wouldn’t voluntarily check white on a demographic report unless provided with no other options), if you were to zoom in on my complexion in the middle of a New England winter there would be no question as to what I am. Skin pigmentation is something I can’t control and so I can get past the awkward box checking.

My confusion does not stem from skin color, however. My confusion stems from race as a socially constructed category. White, as used by an overwhelming number of Americans implies something else. They are describing a person of the Stuff White People Like variety. Which puts me in a bind because those descriptions, usually based on hobbies, interests, educational background, apply to me as well. I love Mad Men and Animal Collective and David Foster Wallace. I’m attending a private university to receive a liberal arts degree. I own boat shoes, ride a vintage Schwinn, hold unpaid internships. When we talk about being white the way we normally talk about being white, often void of facial features and national heritage, what we are really talking about is class. My tastes and preferences, my lifestyle, are those of the liberal privileged middle class.

Más confusion: I am a product of what I like to call “reverse-gentrification.” I come from a working class background in the truest sense (My parents are immigrants. My mother used to clean houses. Neither of them have Bachelor’s degrees). The only reason I lived in the affluent suburbs of New Jersey and attended a high-performing public school was due to an affordable housing project. I had all the ingredients of a natural growth childhood but enough critical exposure to middle class culture to form my tastes. I know what I like and all my white people tendencies are natural to me.

So it would appear to be that at the most superficial level, I am white.

If white means privilege then I’m white. If white means skin color then I’m white. If white means educated or enjoying the things that I enjoy then I’m white.

Except that somehow, despite all this, I’m still not. If I’m placed in a room with some of my closest friends and we are asked to point at the non-white person in the room I will sit quietly and wait for their fingers to point in my direction. I am still not considered white to my white friends, whom I share more in common with than the cousins I see during holidays.

This is reassuring.

When I am reminded that my white friends don’t consider me white I’m always a little surprised and then immensely relieved because I don’t want to be white. Certainly not the type of white that comes with white guilt. The white of the past. The white of colonialism and occupation and oppression. The white of right now. The white that says race isn’t a huge problem anymore. The white that gets overly defensive of claims against mis- or underrepresentation of people of color in the media. The white that falsely associates white with power and education and upper middle class culture. This is the problem with being white. And it’s the same problem that everybody of every color has when they confuse white with anything other than what it really is: an option next to a check box indicating a color. TC mark

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  • http://testimonialcomic.com nishantjn

    While it means privilege, as you say, you are comfortable being white. And then you say you don’t really want to be white and remain thankful when others point you out as non-white, because then you get to distance yourself from the history of colonialism and oppression and what not.

    I like your conclusion that skin color should be just a check-box that you tick next to, but I still feel you are conveniently picking whichever side suits you best at the opportune moment. And that seems like just another privilege.

    (I anticipate a lot of comments about how there is no such thing as privilege and it has become the go-to word for anyone with anything to say against white populations.)

    • ajohnny

      I think that’s the point; she’s able to float between sides – or, more appropriately, unable to stay anchored in one of them – because of the conflicting expectations raised by her skin color and cultural practices. It’s not easy, and it’s not so much a privilege* as it is something which allows her to relate to ‘white’ culture more easily. (No matter how successful she is in doing so, she isn’t able to succeed altogether.) She’s not trying to boil down the concept of race to nothing more than skin color because, as the article argues, it *can’t* be that easy. Skin color and cultural practices have been and continue to be linked in the minds of most. I can relate.

      [*btw, what’s with the word ‘privilege’? Privilege to what? Having fewer cultural hassles to navigate is not a gift given to anyone, it’s just an accident…in the ‘I-didn’t-do-this’ sense, not the ‘oops’ sense. The concept’s heart is in the white place but there’s got to be a better word to use.]

      • Girl

        She says ‘privilege’ because that’s the way you talk about being white in a sociological context. I assure you she learned this connotation at her liberal arts school.

  • http://fedinger.wordpress.com Frances E. Dinger

    This is really well written and well reasoned. A great exploration of ‘passing’ and kyriarchy.

  • Prince

    “The white that says race isn’t a huge problem anymore. The white that gets overly defensive of claims against mis- or underrepresentation of people of color in the media.”

    WEEERD!

    In this day and age, only white people says “do not play the race card” when accused of discriminatory remarks. I mean the only way to solve the problem of inequality and discrimination is to recognize that there is one. Do not be blinded by just mere constitutional rights or popular perceptions on equality.

    So when a person gets degraded and blames inequality for it, people shouldn’t just blurt out “do not play the race card” and be overly defensive. We should dig deeper and understand what people are going through and what caused them to blame inequality for.

  • Tonya

    So nice to read an article on here that isn’t a mindless thought. Well done.

  • http://twitter.com/Reef215 Reef G (@Reef215)

    I find it awkward how many “white skin” latinos consider themselves white just because they are off lighter complexion.

    I am pretty sure you are darker than mariah carey & she has an african admixture. But the amazing thing is if mariah was born in peru instead of america she would consider herself white latina.

    This is because in latin america if you look black then you are afro latino and if you look white then you are white latino.

    That is the 1 thing I like about america 1 drop rule. You cannot deny your african the diaspora no matter how slight it may show up in your actual features.

    I am pretty sure that you and both of your parents are both light skin latinos. But depending on what part of the world you come from you probably have a large african ancestry, as well as Indian.

    • Mercedes

      Legitimate “Afro-Hispanics” are not Afro-Hispanic because they’re “dark skinned”. They’re Afro-Hispanic because their ancestry can be traced to the Black slaves brought into Hispanic colonies. But on another note, is that REALLY how Hispanic people are classifying each other now a days? “Bro, you’re dark so you’re Black Hispanic?” Wow.

  • Carmen

    I’m Argentine, and can so relate. One look at my fair olive complexion and people toss me in the white pool. It’s hard for me to resign myself to that fact, since white sounds so… Bland. Vanilla. To me, being white means rarely knowing who your ancestors were; how and where they lived; what trials they faced. It means celebrating holidays in the exact same way as all your neighbors without a lick of tradition or culture. Despite my light skin, my life is rich with those things. Everything my family does is painted with history and knowledge of what we are and what we represent. I know that cultural identity shouldn’t be lumped together with race, but when you’re discussing “white” people, it seems inevitable. It’s such a blanket statement; it’s impossible to not overlook all the cultural representation that seems to be missing. I try to tan my skin as much as I can and highlight my bone structure just so people won’t look at me and assume I don’t know squat about the blood that runs through me.

    • Gabriella

      I wish people didn’t see white people as being so bland and vanilla and meaning we rarely know who our ancestors are, etc. That is so far from true for many of us. Assuming white usually means of European descent, that’s a whole lot of culture you’re overlooking. Some of us are still VERY much in touch with our Italian, Polish, Irish, German, Russian, etc. (insert European country here) roots. The pale complexion means nothing; we don’t need to prove anything by having a tan. And for a lot of us pale people, everything our families do is painted with history and the knowledge of what we are and what we represent, just like yours.

      • White person

        Exactly. I may be white but I have a very rich culture.
        I’m really sick of the notion that white people are boring, heartless sods.

    • xyz

      That is SO SO fucking offensive and an unfortunately extremely prevalent attitude.

    • Kalyn

      I am white and I know quite a bit more than “squat” about my personal heritage. I can trace both sides of my family back to their early European origins, which does not make me or anybody else “bland vanilla”. That was incredibly condescending. My life is not devoid of a unique culture simply because of my skin tone.

    • Christina

      Like your rich cultural history of savaging indigenous people of South America

      • Sk

        And South America never did anything bad to anyone.

    • Kate

      Riiiight cuz Europe has no history does it? Idiot.

  • Berenice

    I think the fact that Latin@s like you and I struggle to find an appropriate way to identify ourselves emphasizes the problems that exist in this country. Being successful and a Latino is not a commonplace notion. Being forced to identify as white does very little to reflect the institutionalized obstacles our families had to overcome in order to arrive at where we are now.

    • bianca

      THIS.

  • xyz

    ” And it’s the same problem that everybody of every color has when they confuse white with anything other than what it really is: an option next to a check box indicating a color.”

    Yes. good article.

  • Christina

    I find it kinda ironic you mentioned having enough conquistador ancestors to be white looking but relieved to not have to be associated with a history of colonialism and white guilt.

    • Mercedes

      Before reading your comment, I thought I was the only one who noticed that she said that. It threw the whole thing off for me.

      • Shauna

        It makes sense, though–she knows her family’s ancestry, but others look past it because she isn’t seen as white by most people. It adds to her point, not detracts from it.

  • nightshaye

    First off, who is “we”? Why didn’t you write “me?…

    You say that growing up in a priviledged community made you like “white” things.Thats because the issue (it should have been staring you in the face as you were writing it) boils down more often to money and social class. Money trumps race much more often than one would think. OJ Simpson was able to win his infamous case not necessarily by playing the race card, but because he had the money for a lawyer good enough to make a jury believe there was a race card.

    That being said, by ” Im always a little surprised and immensely relieved because I don’t want to be white. ..Certainly not the type of white that comes
    with white guilt. The white of the past. The white of colonialism and occupation and oppression. The white of right now. The white that says race isn’t a huge problem anymore. The white that gets overly defensive of claims against mis- or underrepresentation of people of color in the media. The white that falsely associates white with
    power and education and upper middle class culture. This is the problem with being white.”
    Its reassuring to know that a young, educated, bright woman would see prevalance in only -and
    only- negative attributes of an entire race.This is what is known as stereotyping. I think it really astounding that you denegrated a whole race right here as you did, while Im sure you would be livid if the sterotyping were the other way around.Yes, you sound young, educated and bright. And you definitely sound like a racist, and proud of it. Maybe you can blame it on learning racism in your white community, and absolve yourself from responsibilty for being a racist- and tell yourself that because you aren’t white, you racism against them is completely justified.I have friends of all different races, and we have fun goofing on each other about it. And we all do it.But, either all can do it, or none can do it. No one- including you, are any exception, although you assume that you can be. You see, “priviledge” can take other forms as well.
    Dont use a thinly-veiled piece supposedly about “checkboxes” -please-  to appear to be other than what it really is- a racist rant.

    • Sylvia

      the author isnt saying that white people ARE all of those things, she’s just explaining that she’s glad she’s not seen as white because she doesn’t want to be stereotyped as those things.

    • TRY AGAIN READER..

      GREAT ARTICLE.
      I love how enthused everyone gets over topics like these, people SHOULD talk about this more, that’s the only way we can all get past our thick headed selves and some day become UNITED.

      (it would work best if people didn’t get offended over it, point fingers and place blame and could speak to each other and get their points across without insults but.. that may be asking for too much in a land where we do indeed encourage, and at the same time secretly suppress our freedom of speech..)

      But lets cover the racist comment: il try to stay on topic…
      the article speaks about stereotypes and its not someone’s racist views, there’s no way you can deny your race or say that one is better than another and place blame on certain races due to their past, no one has that right, -that’s not to justify our pasts either.

      no one can compare entirely what its like to be in someone’s skin and therefore no one is superior or for that matter even entitled to call anyone else a racist… usually people’s racism derives from a lack of understanding or fear.. sometimes its just what they grow up learning from those around them, and so they don’t know better, (that’s NOT to say they cant learn to not be racist with a bit of guidance and again, to clarify- im not justifying that kind of behavior , im simply trying to throw another view out there and see if it helps us understand where people may be coming from..)

      My personal suggestion:
      try REreading the article and NOT taking offense. try to read it as it is and not read between the lines so much, i think this is where the misunderstanding tends to occur.
      I doubt this article was meant to insult; but rather to show another point of view on such a sensitive topic as race vs ethnicity in America.

      keep in mind readers:
      1. this is one girl’s opinion to the world.. opinion.
      2. the world will react in more ways than one, being that we’re only human.
      3. we must all learn to understand before we jump to accusations and persecutions
      4. consider all points of view first
      5. respect them even if they may be different from yours.

  • Jmo

    Oh please. Racism??? Leave it to the “white people” to take offense, as they often do, rather than taking this article for what it is: someone’s point of view. Americans are so concerned about current issues being unconstitutional but at the same they forget about the most revered amendment: Freedom of Speech. The need for political correctness only creates hypocrites and contradicts the right for everyone to say whatever they want.

    Ps: Going to Ellis Island, making a family tree in 3rd grade, and binge drinking on march 17th does not count as celebrating your rich European culture.

    • Gabriella

      (In response to your PS) How about immigrants passing traditions along to their children and grandchildren.. Young Americans going to live and work in the European country of their heritage for an extended period of time.. Meeting relatives in that country that they would have otherwise never met.. Speaking the language.. In some cases having dual citizenship.. and in general making a real effort to keep the culture and traditions alive, even when in the States? This is more common than you think, and it should not be minimized to a 3rd grade project and binge drinking on St. Patrick’s Day. Every culture is beautiful, and everyone, even those of us of European descent, can find meaningful ways to keep the culture alive. I stand by my original comment.

    • Mary

      It is possible to see the article as someone’s point of view and still take issue with it; and it is possible to recognize freedom of speech and still disagree with what’s being said.

      P.S. That is incredibly condescending. It’s attitudes like THAT that keep racism going.

    • Sylvia

      I’m white, and I thought this article was neat. Also, yeah, it’s sad I don’t have many family traditions, but I’m still an interesting person :D

    • anon

      Agreed! I see enough white people mentioning that they’re polish or french somewhere in their bloodline to seem cultural or somehow more interesting – even though all of their family lives in the U.S., and have no ties to their “mother country” whatsoever.

      • Gabriella

        There are people of ALL races who are like this. Just like there are people of all races, even white Caucasians, who are very much in touch with their mother countries. Just. Stop.

    • Alonso

      I’m embarrassed for what a dick you are.

  • NOM

    OH MY GOD THIS IS ME.

  • Jeff

    Yeah.. Because being educated is a pure white characteristic. .

    • Janet

      “Yeah.. Because being educated is a pure white characteristic. .”
      I stopped reading after that

  • Ollie

    Compared to most of my peers, I’m very Americanized. We had different exposures and that set me apart from them. I couldn’t control these influences since I was just a kid- so sometimes you just stick out like a sore thumb because you’re not as culturally aware as your peers. They may even label you as white because they know you’re different from them -taking into consideration your skin color and interests.

    • http://twitter.com/mexifrida FC

      I agree. My friends from other countries have called me a ‘white hippy,’ because of my music/literary taste, although i’m hispanic. I don’t argue with them, but it just would be nice to accept that whatever you like doesn’t have to be defined by your origin.

  • Jen

    Maybe it’s because I’m in Texas (Ok, definitely because I’m in Texas) – but why on earth wasn’t there a box to check for Latino/Hispanic? On our forms they even have a few extra boxes to explain more in depth where you originated from…

  • Nothing wrong with being born pale

    White privilege is hateful and not constructive. Plain and simple.

  • http://twitter.com/mexifrida FC

    I think what some people don’t take into account is that there actually IS a variety of races/ethnicities in Latin American countries.
    When I am in Mexico, I see of course, the wide majority of mixed indigenous and european heritage, but there are also those with overwhelming indigenous or European heritage. As well as African and even Asian or Middle Eastern.
    There are blond, blue-eyed, red-haired, freckled hispanics as well. I would think they would fully identify as Hispanic/Latino in the US. Yet, I have had friends like this who have told me people think it’s ‘funny’ to show them off as their ‘white hispanic’ friend.
    I think as long as people know that every country is not defined by race, as more people already now do, it will satisfy a lot of the questions posed in the article.

  • nightshaye

    Jmo, Im afraid you are simply contradicting yourself in almost everything you say.
    But first, where did I say I was white? Please show me.
    Secondly if I were, how could you possibly make such far-flung presumptions abt how I would celebrate my heritage? You saw me at Eliis Island boozing it up? Wow! That must have been some night, cuz I dont even remember it!
    You discredit yourself with these assumptions.
    And presuming I was white, does that mean I have no 1st amendment rights in my response? Is that what youre saying? My freedom of speech wouldnt count if I were white?Finally, your defensiveness is glaring.Im sorry, you dont have to take it from me. Its all up there, its racist and as lopsided as your response to me.Therefore, Im impressed by the calibre of your political correctness. So much so that you are an apologist for racism which is just so obvious.Nothing personal, but you lack a hefty dose of fair-mindedness and reason. Conversing with you in that case is useless. Until you get your wits about you.

  • http://chicagowrite.wordpress.com qbik4

    i was discussing this with a friend today, and i agree on the fact that the social construct of “race” seems to be fairly illogical when considering that an entire people from Mexican down seem to identify as Hispanic – which isn’t a race. however, i also thought that there is some empirical basis to race as far as a biological development based on specific environmental conditions, with everything from skin tone to height being affected. i think it’s also important to recognize certain biological points to race (although current categorizations of race might have been founded in a more insensitive era) while considering the social aspects as well.

  • Esmy

    I just really want to know why everything is considered white. Education, vegan food, riding bikes,indie music, arts degrees… are all considered “white.” This is so stupid. None of these things make you white. If a white person goes listens to Selena and enjoys Mexican food does this magically make them a Latino? Didn’t think so.

    • Gabriella

      Yes! Exactly.

    • ajohnny

      Well, there are two reasons, I think:

      (1) These things, at least in the ways they exist in contemporary Western culture, are the result of ideas conceived by ‘white’ people, even if they were ‘borrowed’ from non-white people (appropriation could also be considered one of those things!). Additionally, the social comfort (I don’t like the word ‘privilege’) which makes having these things possible is one known by a largely white population.

      (2) In a culture which treats whiteness as a default — as the absence of Other things rather than the possession of Something(s) — being ‘white’ is treated more as an attitude than an identity. Being non-white, on the other hand, is almost always a matter of skin color. It’s why people /still/ believe in the One Drop rule (Obama!), or why it’s not possible to insult a white person with the same gravity with which one can insult a non-white person. Liking ‘Latino’ things won’t make you Latino because, in the end, Latino-ness, or any other sort of non-whiteness for that matter, is a force much stronger than whiteness. Not pleasant but that’s how it is.

      • anon

        Great answer.

  • Jay

    Whiteness is tied to socioeconomic power and I think it’s an important thing to point out, as the author does here. What’s also interesting is how her class allows her to navigate various social spheres, but never quite fit in one (because of either race or class). It’s a 21st century sort of double-consciousness.

  • Mercedes

    Being part Hispanic, I’m really confused why you wouldn’t consider yourself “White” on certain occasions. Considering every Hispanic country can trace their origins to Spain, a European country, by that definition you would have European ancestry. Unless you are LITERALLY an Afro-Hispanic person, as in your ancestors were Black slaves brought to a Hispanic colony, your concept of “Whiteness” doesn’t make sense.

    • Alonso

      THANK YOU for pointing this out. The whole time I was reading this, I was like umm are you serious?

    • ShadesofGrays

      you hit the nail on the head mercedes.

  • Jessica

    Thank you for writing this.

  • http://thevagabondisland.tumblr.com ZHKND

    “WHITE” DOES NOT MEAN “”PRIVILEGE”; THAT IS A MARXIST FALLACY.

    “WHITE” IS THE TONE OF CAUCASIAN PEOPLE’S SKIN.

    “LATIN”, AND “HISPANIC” ARE NOT RACES, NOR ETHNICITIES.

    “LATIN” IS A “TERM” TO DENOMINATE PERSONS/PEOPLE WHO NATIVELY SPEAK A LANGUAGE DERIVED FROM LATIN.

    “HISPANIC” IS A “TERM” TO DENOMINATE PERSONS/PEOPLE WHO NATIVELY SPEAK THE SPANISH LANGUAGE.

    BASED ON HOW YOU VAGUELY DESCRIBED YOUR APPEARANCE, YOU ARE A “MESTIZO”.

    YOU ARE “TRANSPARENT” IN THAT YOU ARE BLATANTLY PROJECTING YOUR “INSECURITIES” ON THIRD PARTIES & EXTRAPOLATING THEM TO RACIAL & SOCIAL ISSUES; BASICALLY THE AVERAGE “LEFTIST LIBERAL”/MARXIST BEHAVIOR.

    YOU ARE IGNORANT.

    • emmerdales

      I don’t think she’s all that ignorant. The world is ignorant. And makes stupid assumptions and weird social distinctions. She writes about her conflict in the context of our society. I mean, it’s all fine and dandy if she thinks about herself in the context of a perfect non-stereotyping, politically correct world, but no one else will.

  • Emily

    Though your internal conflicts may seem confusing or contradictory to some of the commenters and myself, I definitely share some of your sentiments. I’m Asian, and I live a typical middle-class American “white” life. Most of my friends are white, and, for a while, a few of them jumped on the #whitegirlproblems bandwagon and were constantly using this term. It always bothered me because the problems they described were generally privileged American problems, not white problems. I think white Americans often mistake the privileged American stereotype for the white stereotype because they are the majority in this country. They look at the stereotype of a white person as an insider instead of thinking of the white population as an outsider. Personally, as an Asian girl, I could think of plenty of real “white girl problems” stereotypes from the perspective of an Asian person; i.e.: having to shave every day because white people are hairy. So (for some of those offended commenters), no, vegan food and arts degrees and suburban towns and such are not “white,” but it would be damn hard to argue that Americans and/or privileged white Americans don’t make this false stereotype.

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