Still, I describe myself as white.
My Latino friends, most of whom take great pride in their cultural heritage, often sound offended by this, the notion that I would appropriate such a label. Even my black friends often correct me, “you’re not White. You’re Hispanic!”
My simple reply is that I’m both, but they rarely accept this. I explain, “yes, I’m of Cuban descent and that makes me Hispanic. But I’m also fair-skinned. I can’t deny that either!”
“But you’re Hispanic!”
What everyone wants, it seems, is to know which box I would check on my census form or job application. Let it be settled then - whenever there is a Hispanic option, I go with that.
But when I say that I’m white, I’m not talking about ethnicity - I’m talking about skin tone. And there’s a reason that I highlight this trait.
When people first look at me, they rarely ever see a Hispanic. Most people tell me that I look Jewish or Italian. Most people see white skin and assume that I’m White (notice the capital W) and/or European.
Now, I understand the desire to dissociate from whiteness. After all, white people colonized Africa and the Americas, enslaving or demolishing all who got in their way (people of color). They then built the US on slavery and genocide. This is not a history that I claim, nor that I could ever be proud of; and indeed my high-school self often sang loud with Fat Mike of NOFX, “don’t call me white! Don’t call me white!”
For example, take my growing up and schooling in Miami – about as culturally rich and diverse a city as they come. In elementary and middle school, I attended magnet schools that pulled me from the whitewashed suburbs to poor black communities. I took classes with descriptors like advanced, honors, and gifted, where nearly all of my classmates were white or Hispanic like myself – even though the school was otherwise populated almost exclusively by black students. I suspect that my teachers and fellow students would have treated me quite differently if I had darker skin.
Now I live in Washington Heights, a neighborhood that is about 70% Latino. Many of the Hispanics, being Dominican, have quite dark skin. Some of them could easily pass for African American or Black, just looking at them. And there’s no way to know, just looking at them, whether they are Hispanic! So considering the data for NYPD’s Stop And Frisk policies, these dark-skinned Dominicans would be at least five times more likely to fall victim to racial profiling by police. To illustrate my point, have a look at the image above. You can't necessarily tell which of these hands belong to Hispanic people, but it's obvious enough which are more likely to be stopped and frisked by NYPD!
Therein lies the problem with identifying only as Hispanic.
The fact that I have fair skin really does have an impact on my life experience and how I interact with other individuals and the broader society. I know that I benefit from the same privileges as non-Hispanic whites and if I deny my whiteness, if I deny or ignore that I have fair skin, then I also deny my privilege. As I now try to find my voice in a private and/or public discussion on privilege, I’ve decided that to deny my white privilege, as so many white people are prone to do (Hispanic and non-Hispanic alike), would absolutely be a step in the wrong direction.
So, keeping both my ethnic heritage and my whiteness/privilege in full view, let’s move ¡pa’lante!