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While most studies have not looked at perceptions of Latino racial identity, Dr. Nicholas Vargas sought out do just that. The assistant professor in the School of Economic, Political, and Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas examined whether Latina/os identify as white, as well as whether they thought other races saw them as white.
This study examined the assumed "whitening" of Latina/os to the whitening of Eastern European immigrant groups in the U.S. in the early twentieth century.
Our friends at Latino Rebels sat down with Vargas to discuss his research findings in depth. Below is the interview between Latino Rebels founder and publisher Julio Ricardo Varela and Dr. Vargas, first published in Latino Rebels:
JV: What prompted you to do this study?
Vargas: As I became more familiar with the scholarly literature on assimilation, a literature that is informed primarily by the assimilation trajectories of Eastern and Southern European groups of the early 20th century, I came across a number of arguments that Latina/os would soon be following in their footsteps.
The argument is that Latina/os will come to identify as White and look back on their Latina/o identities much the same way that many Whites today look back to a detached Irish or Italian heritage. Some of these arguments suggested that Latina/o racial self-identification as White on the U.S. Census and other surveys could be a sign that the process of Latina/o Whitening is already underway. Journalists proclaimed that if Latina/os are identifying as White, then they are probably “becoming White” the same way that others have in the past.
I wanted to revisit that set of scholarship with better data. How one self-identifies racially can matter in some social contexts, but in general, experiences of race (be it privilege or discrimination) are most influenced by how one is perceived racially by others. Yet these studies were not focusing on how Latina/os are perceived racially in the U.S. Additionally, I wanted to highlight that given the current federal system of racial classification: Latina/os are forced to choose from a list of racial categories that does not include a Hispanic or Latina/o option. With this knowledge, I expected that far fewer Latina/os would report that they are perceived (and presumably treated) as White by others than the proportion that self-identifies as White. And if true, this would call to question some of those previous arguments.
JV: For the non-academics interested in this topic, what would you say are the three biggest takeaways from your study?
VARGAS: I think there are two key takeaways. First, 90 percent of the U.S. Latinas/os who self-identified as White in this study recognized that they are not actually perceived and treated as White by others. So how people self-identify racially on surveys, especially surveys with limited racial options, is not a very good indicator of whether or not racial boundaries between Latina/os and Whites are changing. Though a fairly large portion of Latina/os typically do self-identify as White (around 50%), that choice is informed and limited by a host of factors. Perhaps the most important factor is that there is not currently a Latina/o or Hispanic racial option to choose from. This probably isn’t news to the readers of Latino Rebels, but this is the first relatively large-scale quantitative study of Latina/os that distinguishes between racial self-classification and how we are perceived racially by others. In that sense, this may be important evidence to consider for scholars and journalists who have previously reached different conclusions.
The second is that I find almost no evidence that the boundaries of Whiteness are expanding to include the vast majority of Latina/os in the U.S. Only six percent of Latinas/os report that in general, they are perceived as White by others in their daily lives. And it is primarily only Latina/os with very fair physical features and very high household incomes who report this. If most Latina/os were “becoming White,” we would expect that Latina/os of all shades, income levels and orientations to explain that they both self-identify as White and are perceived and treated as White by others. But this study finds that it is only Latina/os with characteristics typically already associated with Whiteness who come to have these experiences. So there is not much evidence that the boundary between White and Latina/o is shifting or changing much.
JV: Of all the issues your researched in this study, what was the finding that surprised you most? Why?
VARGAS: One surprising finding is that Latina/os with light physical features (skin tone, hair, eyes) from middle or lower class backgrounds are far less likely to report that they are perceived as White than are light Latina/os from upper class backgrounds. In the U.S., we typically expect race to be about physical characteristics, but this study indicates that it is the combination of physical characteristics and class background that best determines whether or not one is perceived and treated as White. Very few Latina/os have light physical features and incredibly high incomes. So, few Latina/os have the capacity to “pass” as White, even if they wanted to (which is not a given!).
JV: It seems that the issue of U.S. Latin@ identity is still a very shifting target. Your study seems to acknowledge this shift? Why do you think it is so?
VARGAS: I think the study suggests that there is actually less of a shift between the categories “White” and “Latina/o” than is often presumed. But racial identities are certainly moving targets. They vary by time and place. Hispanic or Latina/o means something different in Dallas, Texas (often code for Mexican) than it does in NYC or Miami. They also mean different things over time. The label, “Hispanic” for example, only became widely adopted a few decades ago. And we are an incredibly diverse set of people who fit under these broad labels, so shifting with and against them are to be expected.
But I think that over time, the broad labels of Hispanic and Latina/o are becoming increasingly valued by later generations. Those of us who grew up with these labels relate differently, and perhaps more strongly to them than earlier generations for whom the labels were somewhat thrust upon. In that sense, we should probably not expect U.S. Latina/o identity to wither away over time (into Whiteness), but perhaps, become an even more important marker of identification and belonging in the multiracial U.S. The hypothesis about later generation Latinas/os valuing these labels differently was not a finding of the study, but I think it is an important direction for future research.
JV: Do you think the U.S. mainstream media is mature enough to understand the nuances of your findings? If not, how best does one communicate your findings to you?
VARGAS: I think the onus is mostly on social scientists to effectively communicate our findings to the public. There are a lot of nuanced findings in the study, and more studies are needed, but the overarching point is that it finds almost no evidence that the boundaries of Whiteness are expanding to include most Latina/os. If the boundaries of Whiteness were expanding, we would expect a much more diverse array of Latina/os to report that they are perceived and treated as White by other Americans—not only those with light physical features and high incomes. It does not appear to me that U.S. Latinas/os are “becoming White.”