On a stop to promote his new children’s book, Islandborn, Pulitzer-Prize winner Junot Díaz asked a group of fans packed into our local bookstore if there were any Dominicans in the house. From the front row, my nine-year-old shot his hand up and waved it wildly until Mr. Díaz acknowledged their shared heritage with a cheer. I felt accomplished, knowing that I had instilled even a drop of the cultural pride that I feel as the daughter of Dominican immigrants. Teaching a young boy who speaks no Spanish and has never been to the island to love the culture of his grandparents is complicated, even more so because his fair skin affords him a choice: he can choose to be “white.”
Being Hispanic or Latino means you belong to a category of persons in the United States who trace their origins to any one of 20 or so Spanish-speaking countries. Latino is not a race defined by phenotypal characteristics observable to others. Latinos are black, brown, red, yellow, white, and any combination of these, with facial characteristics and hair texture as varied as our skin tones.
And if we are black, do our lives matter? If we are brown, will ICE raid our homes and businesses? If we are white, will we settle into a place of privilege as others in our community are stereotyped, marginalized and incarcerated? The intersection of Latino ethnicity and race is messy.
In the U.S., race has been recorded since the inception of the census in 1790. Ethnicity was added in 1970, and limited to Latinos. For all other respondents, racial and ethnic identities are captured in a single category like Chinese, African American or American Indian. But for Latinos, the U.S. Census Bureau insists on a distinction. Despite a 2016 report from the Office of the President calling for a reexamination of “the use of separate questions measuring race and ethnicity,” the 2020 survey will again ask: Are you of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish-origin? What is your race?
Latinos approach these questions with ambivalence. Many of us, undoubtedly, will leave them blank. For us, race is ambiguous.
In the 2010 Census, more than half of the Latino population described themselves as white, and 37 percent described themselves as “other,” while only three percent, or 1.2 million Latinos, selected black. Objective ratings based on phenotype are seven times more likely than self-ratings to classify Latinos as racially black. Where we see language, customs, beliefs, and traditions, others seem to see skin color, hair texture, and nose width. Our collective identity has been uprooted and redefined in ways that have nothing to do with our ethnic heritage.
Still, even as we disavow racial categorization, the ramifications of race and racism are imposed on us. Like for other populations of color in the U.S., our phenotype determines, in large part, our health and our wealth. Studies show that dark-skinned Latinos have lower educational levels, earn lower salaries, live in more disadvantaged neighborhoods, and have more physical and behavioral health problems than light-skinned Latinos. These negative outcomes reflect the myriad ways in which discrimination erodes the life chances of people of color.
And these processes begin early in life. In a study with 750 Mexican- and Dominican-origin four- to five-year-olds, my research team collected skin color ratings which we used to classify children as “white,” “brown,” and “black.” We then gathered data on mental health and academic achievement when the children were finishing 1st grade. We found that rates of academic underachievement, hyperactivity and aggression were two to four times higher in “black” and “brown” Latino children, compared with “white” Latino children. Associations between dark skin color and negative outcomes were most pronounced for “black” children. Our findings were expected; a growing body of research shows that as early as preschool, black children are viewed as aggressive, threatening and criminal, and these perceptions shape their interactions and their opportunities. From the time they step into the classroom, young children in our society learn that skin color trumps all other attributes.
Even within our homes, we are taught to value whiteness. Social scientists note that Latinos have internalized colonial ideologies in ways that both deny and reinforce skin color hierarchies. But we cannot avoid race or its implications. We cannot fail to see in ourselves what others see so prominently in us. Latino is not a race, but it is a racialized ethnicity. So if we deny our racial heritage, how can we demand acceptance from society?
We should own our identity as a population of color and embrace the Latino label as intersectional, reflecting a rich blend of ethnic and racial characteristics. And we can start with our children. We can teach them to be proud of their identity. Researchers describe ethnic/racial identity as a sense of belonging and pride with one’s ethnic or racial group. A strong ethnic identity in Latino youth is associated with higher self-esteem, better social and emotional functioning, fewer behavior problems like drinking and using drugs, and better performance in school. Studies show that when parents and other important adults celebrate the histories, traditions, and values of their culture, children are more likely to understand and embrace differences in themselves and in others.
We need to do more. Yes, we are Latinos, defined by our dialects, foods, clothes, and customs. But we are also a people of color, and we need to celebrate our skin color, our hair type, the width of our nose, and the size of our lips. Leaf through Islandborn and you’ll see a celebration of Dominican culture represented through characters with cinnamon-colored skin and naturally curly hair. Mr. Díaz is on to something, both utterly simple and profound. By portraying Latinos in shades of brown, we help our children embrace their intersectional identities. And collectively, we move closer to reclaiming our identity.
Esther Calzada is a clinical child psychologist and an associate professor of social work at The University of Texas at Austin. She wrote this opinion piece through The OpEd Project. The piece represents the views of the author, not of The University of Texas at Austin or the Steve Hicks School of Social Work.