7 Questions Latinxs Who Don’t ‘Look Latinx Enough’ Get (And Why They’re Harmful)

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Author’s Note: The author’s commentary is framed by his experiences as a white, cisgender Latinx male. He attempts to reflect upon some of the unique difficulties facing Latinx women and Afro-Latinxs, for example, but does not claim firsthand knowledge of those challenges. 

I am Latinx.

But, according to many, I don’t “look Latinx enough.”

This has always bothered me because who determines what it even means to “look Latinx enough” in the first place?

Who decided that to be Latinx solely means having olive-colored skin, almond-shaped, brown eyes and brown, wavy hair?  That we are all Spanish-speaking immigrants?

Who taught the participants of racist Latinx-themed parties that they should dress either as assumingly violent gang members or impoverished farm workers?

These widespread stereotypes evoke oppressive notions of race and class in order to narrowly, and negatively, define Latinx identity.

Further, such a restrictive definition excludes the experiences and identities of indigenous, Afro and, in my case, light-skinned Latinxs.

Identifying as Latinx without “fitting” this “model,” though, often leads to some incredibly problematic and damaging questions. Questions that so many of us, unfortunately, get asked all the time. This article addresses those questions, with actual answers, while also explaining why they are so harmful.

1. Are You Really Latinx?

Or, sometimes more specifically: “Wait, can you be Latinx and white/black?”

Yes, you can.

Now, I understand that we’ve inherited a racial framework whereby this might be confusing.

Growing up, when standardized test time came, for example, I never knew which “race” bubble to fill in. Because, even through college, my options were always: “White,” “Hispanic” or “Black, non-Hispanic.”

Well, what does that make me?

In fact, it was only recently in 2010 that the U.S. Census finally differentiated race and ethnicity, asking the respondent first if they’re “Hispanic,” and, if yes, to then indicate White, Mestizo/Mixed or Black.   

So, yes, I understand that this is confusing, which is why for me the question, “Can you be Latinx and white?” doesn’t bother me (which is not to say that the same applies—or should apply—to other Latinx people). 

What offends me, however, is when I tell someone that I’m Latinx and their first reaction is, “Really?

Really.

This reaction is offensive.

It reveals that you are using your own, preconceived ideas of what it means to “be” or “look” Latinx to evaluate my identity.

It also denies my experiences and identification as a Latinx individual. You’re suggesting that you know my identity better than I know it myself, which is not ok.

2. Have You Been Discriminated Against?

This is a complicated and problematic question.

Dark-skinned, indigenous and Afro Latinxs regularly suffer a lot of racialized violence, discrimination and systematic exclusion specifically because of their skin color, accent and so on.

Clearly this happens in the USA.

But this also continues throughout Latin America where white colonizers and their offspring have similarly developed a system of racial and class privilege.

As a light-skinned male, I benefit from that privilege. And it’s not immediately assumed that I’ve experienced discrimination.

While my experiences are not the same as those of non-white Latinxs, I have certainly navigated anti-Latinx sentiment.

And asking me about the prejudice I’ve faced is a problem.

First of all, insisting that I — or anyone — revisit potential trauma is oppressive. And belonging to a marginalized group is not an invitation for me to share discrimination stories.

If I feel like recounting the times that I’ve encountered prejudice, I will do so on my own terms, not on yours.

Second of all, the question suggests that to be Latinx is to experience discrimination.

It shrugs off the racist prejudice that indigenous and black Latinxs suffer everyday as “business as usual.”

And, it suggests that if I — as a light-skinned Latinx male — haven’t been discriminated against, then I’m somehow less Latinx.

Determining Latinx identity by how much a person has been oppressed is an extremely problematic measure.

As I said above, it denies my identification as Latinx, which has little to do with discrimination and — surprise! — much more to do with the cultural richness and history of Latinx communities.

3. So, Where Are You From, Then?

This question is laden with presumptions:

First, it presumes that all Latinxs are immigrants.

Second, it presumes that if one doesn’t “look Latinx” enough, then they must not actually be from Latin America.

Third, it presumes that everyone from Latin America looks the same.

Well, all of these presumptions are inaccurate.

Because Latin America is one of the most racially heterogeneous regions in the world, Latinxs are incredibly diverse

So, just because someone supposedly doesn’t “look Latinx enough” doesn’t mean that they’re not Latinx.

The same can be said if a Latinx person is from the United States.

I’ve fielded this “Where are you from?” question more times than I can count. “The Chicagoland area,” I respond.

“But you say you’re Latinx?” they ask again.

“Yes,” I repeat.

“Oh, well, where is your family from?”

Even though my parents are also from the Chicagoland area, in my experience, few are satisfied until I answer with, “The Caribbean.”

Not all Latinxs are immigrants. And, while I’m at it, of those who are immigrants, most aren’t undocumented. (Not that being an immigrant — documented or otherwise — is any justification for discrimination!)

The United States has the third highest number of Latinx inhabitants compared to other countries. Only Brazil and Mexico have greater numbers.

With at least 54 million Latinx residents, the USA is just as Latinx as (the rest of) Latin America!

4. Do You Still Speak Spanish?

A less slanted question would be, “Did you ever speak Spanish?”

Because speaking Spanish is not a requirement for being Latinx.

Sure, many recent migrants and first-generation Latinxs speak Spanish, but those numbers tend to diminish in the second and third generations, at which point most Latinx people in the United States are English dominant.

And, there are areas in the USA where Spanglish remains the most common spoken language.

Of course, there are also many Latinxs who, because they are Brazilian, speak Portuguese. Or because they are Haitian, speak Haitian Creole. Or because they are Surinamese, speak Dutch. Or, because they are indigenous, speak one of their own native languages.

5. Why Do You Dress Like That?

Translation: Why don’t you dress more “urban?”

Well, just like not all Latinxs have olive skin, speak Spanish or are immigrants, we don’t all dress the same either.

“Urban” clothing is a derivative of hip-hop culture, an anti-oppression movement and subculture that emerged in the 1970s within low-income Black and Afro Latinx communities in the South Bronx.

Hip-hop has spread to other communities — including Latinx communities — throughout the USA and the globe. 

Many who wear urban clothing know little of hip-hop’s history, and in certain ways, this is exemplary of cultural appropriation. However, some of those who choose to wear such garb reference their or their community’s direct or indirect experiences connected to that history.

I don’t have this connection to hip-hop, which is why I don’t wear clothing that would suggest that I do.

This doesn’t make me any less Latinx, though. (And while I’m at it, if I was to wear urban clothing, that wouldn’t make me any more Latinx either.)

6. Aren’t You Supposed to Have Wider Hips?

Because of my male privilege, this is not a question that I personally have had to navigate. However, many of my female Latinx friends and family members have complained about the major preoccupation that many have with the Latinx body.

Unfortunately, living in a patriarchal society, such attention extends to all female bodies.

But, the assumptions directed at Latinx women can be incredibly specific and damaging.

Presuming that all Latinx women have curvy, “salsa dancer” figures hyper-sexualizes the female Latinx body.

Many also misinterpret this standard as an invitation to read and comment upon a Latinx woman’s chest, waist and hips. 

I’ve witnessed this disgusting display more than once:  A friend mentions to an acquaintance — or even another, seemingly well-intentioned friend — that she is Latinx. Disbelieving this, the acquaintance starts to scrutinize my friend’s body from head to toe, searching for the “missing” curves and shaking their head at their absence.   

7. Why Not Just Be White?

This question is so infuriating, so problematic, that I don’t even know where to start.

Like Question 1, this minimizes my identification as Latinx.

It suggests that there is some racial and cultural standard against which my “Latinxness” is measured. By not conforming to this standard, this question implies that I am “less Latinx” because I have light skin.

It also suggests that there is something wrong about identifying as Latinx.

You ask: “Why not just be white?”

But you actually say: “Why would you choose to identify as Latinx if you could pass as white?”

Well firstly, for most of my life, I have been told that despite my light skin, I’m not white. This was a club into which I was never allowed, at least in a formal sense.

I was never taught to identify as white; I was never taught that I could. So, is it any surprise that I don’t?

Secondly, just because you perceive Latinxness negatively does not mean that I should, too.

So, Why Are These Questions Harmful?

These questions reproduce an essentialized, negative idea — based upon language, race, class, and history — of what it means to “look” or “be” Latinx.

Evoking this essentialized idea has even motivated some to suggest that Haitians aren’t Latinx, for example, and neither are Brazilians, or Guyanese, or Trinidadians, or indigenous peoples, and so on.

To be sure, Haitians have unique experiences, as do Brazilians, Guyanese, Trinidadians and indigenous peoples based upon linguistic, racial and historical differences.

But here’s the thing: The same can also be said regarding Ecuadorians, Nicaraguans, Cubans, Mexicans, Latinxs in the United States, and so on! Communities in or from these countries also have unique experiences even though many speak Spanish, for example, and have brown features.

Using language or race, for instance, in order to define Latinxness is completely arbitrary. It exacerbates differences in one context while reinforcing sameness in another. 

Furthermore, the basis for a standardized idea of what it means to be “authentically” Latinx is itself rooted in centuries of violence and oppression.

Think about it, the idea that Latinxness requires olive skin, narrow eyes, curvy hips and wavy hair is based upon the “perfect” combination of colonial European rapist and African and indigenous slave ancestry!

Reinforcing this standard of Latinx authenticity is particularly harmful for two reasons.

First, it overlooks the vast diversity within Latinx communities. As a result, rather than inclusion, this standard reproduces erasure and exclusion. 

Problematically, this has taught us — Latinxs and non-Latinxs alike — that there exists a singular Latinx community that looks and acts in a singular way.

This is divisive, aggravates infighting and unduly limits solidarity.

Because, this white supremacist narrative reinforces racist and classist notions within Latinx communities.

The second reason why this — or any — standard for Latinxness is harmful is because it restricts popular understandings and perceptions of Latinx communities.

Holding on to such a narrow racial or class-based notion prevents the disruption of this oppressive narrative.

Because those characteristics associated with Latinxness continue to be disregarded or seen in the negative.

For example, I remember, growing up many of my friends attributed my good grades to me “acting white.” 

Whiteness was supposedly the cause of my academic success.

As such, rather than shifting how my friends understood Latinxness, my academic success served to reinforce whiteness as a privileged category.

***

Latinx communities throughout the United States continue to be oppressed.

We know this. Latinxs continue to be excluded from the electoral process. Latinxs disproportionately live under the poverty line. Those with “Latinx names” on their resumes regularly are not invited back for interviews.

So, what to do?

We must reject narrow, arbitrary and marginalizing standards to evaluate Latinxness.

We can’t let our oppressors define, name or label us. Because that creates artificial rifts and divides.

Instead, we must evaluate and promote Latinx culture and identity in our own terms.

And, we must embrace and celebrate the diversity of Latinx communities while practicing inter-Latinx solidarity.

Only then can we organize ourselves and demand the social justice that we, and all marginalized communities, deserve.

Andrew Hernández is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. He is a public anthropologist and teacher and is completing his PhD in cultural anthropology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and he adjuncts at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY) and Baruch College (CUNY). You can follow him on Twitter @AndrewHernann or at his website www.AndrewHernann.com