I am an immigrant from Latin America. Darker skin, strong accent, black hair. An American citizen. And yes, white.
White? Why not Hispanic, or Latino, or Hispanic-American?
Because, if you push me, I choose to be white.
Question: Is George Zimmerman, the alleged killer of Trayvon Martin, white or Hispanic? The police called him "white" when they arrested him, while his own father called him a "Spanish-speaking minority." His mother is from Peru and his father is "white." So, which one is Zimmerman? And, more importantly, who decides?
The ethnic/racial undertones in this case go well beyond Zimmerman, and speak to the identity of us all here in America. And ultimately to the question of whether people that look different can live together, and not destroy each other.
So, why is it important to be white in America? Because "white" means power, wealth, majority, opportunity, success, competence, access, you call the shots, you are on top, you are the best.
Consider this example. In Blink, #1 National Bestseller author Malcolm Gladwell, relates a "test" conducted by psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, in which they asked "black college students" to "identify their race on a pretest questionnaire" using 20 questions from the Graduate Record Examination. The result: "that simple act was sufficient to prime them with all the negative stereotypes associated with African Americans and academic achievement -- and the number of items they got right was cut in half" compared to the group of black students that was not asked to identify their race. Similar negative stereotypes are associated with "Hispanics," which, coupled with what I call inertial racism (the unconscious proclivity to associate and prefer people that look like yourself), has detrimental effects on many.
It was 1976 when the U.S. government passed a law requiring that federal agencies lump together data on people tracing their ancestry to Spanish-speaking countries. Thus, language became the defining characteristic of the newly created "Hispanic" or "Latino." And federal forms and policies specifically exclude the possibility of "Hispanics" being able to self-define as "white," reserving the latter category to people with origins in Europe, not Latin America.
Now, language can be used as a means of communication and connecting, or it can be used to differentiate, segregate and even discriminate, especially when it is connected to labels. Gordon Alport, in "The Nature of Prejudice" observes that language is always the first step in the process of separating an individual or group from the larger society. The use of words that identify a person or group as being different creates a focus on that difference. It defines that difference and communicates that difference to increasing numbers of other people. And that is how we get the separated and often-times segregated "minorities."
And don't get me wrong, I'm not talking victimization. America is the land of opportunity, and has as its highest value the idea of fairness. No, I am talking mainly about self-inflicted segregation. Yes, unless we accept labels, people cannot impose them on us. Minority is a state of mind, and if we change our minds we can change who we are.
Take celebrity actress Raquel Welch, immortalized as the all-American blond in One Million Years B.C. Lately she was seeing on TV playing a Hispanic aunt in the PBS series American Family. Her mother was a white American, her father from Bolivia. She was white then, "proudly Hispanic" now. Her choice.
And our beloved Ray Romano? Good guy, blond kids, all American family. White? Well, he looks so Latin he could be my brother! Peter D. Salins, argues in his book Assimilation, American Style, that Italians and Jews were considered non-white in America, but due to the wonders of assimilation, they have now become white. Could the same process apply to so-called Hispanics and other "minorities"?
Of course, I am not talking about bleaching our skin or dying our hair blond. Not even Anglicizing our names necessarily. But I am talking about assuming a winning attitude, feeling you have not only the opportunity but the right to succeed. Feeling empowered to compete with anyone. Being part of the mainstream, and being determined to excel, to be the best, to be the leader of all.
Not long ago I asked a friend who had just been selected as an "up-and-coming leader" by a national magazine, if he could be the leader of all. He was born in California, of Mexican ancestry. His response was: "I can be the leader of my Hispanic community." I pressed and asked again, can you be the leader of all, whites, Asians, Hispanics, anyone. And he repeated that he could be the leader only of his Hispanic community. He obviously had a mental block to overcome. I am convinced that he can be the leader of all, and as soon as his mindset changes he will be.
Ultimately, shouldn't we all just be Americans? What is the need for labels? Why do we insist in looking for differences rather than commonalities?
On the brighter side, the Pew Research Center recently found that people are not accepting the labels wholesale. In their 2011 Survey, only 24% said they identify themselves as "Hispanic" or "Latino." Some 21% said they call themselves American, a figure that climbed to 40% among those born in the United States. This is particularly important since there is a demographic revolution happening in the United States, with Americans of Latin descent numbering over 50 million today and expected to grow to 128 million by 2050 becoming almost 30% of the American population. For our own sake, for the sake of our families, our community and our country, we need unity, E Pluribus Unum, out of many, one.
I would rather call myself an American. But if you press me, if you really want me to adopt a label, for the sake of equality and freedom I will tell you: I am white.