Rachel del Valle | Reshuffling the race card
Duly Noted | Hispanics can’t afford to ignore race in a country that’s so hung up on it
January 23, 2012, 1:15 am·
Rachel del Valle
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Sofia Vergara is having a moment. The Colombian actress who is often described as “voluptuous” has been famous in Central and South America for years.
Vergara rose to stardom in the States when she landed a role on the much loved, laugh track-free sitcom Modern Family. Like Ricky Ricardo before her, Vergara plays on her accent and cultural stereotypes in order to color her character Gloria, a fiery Latina.
That persona reaches into her off-screen life as well. In the past year, she’s picked up a number of advertising campaigns for companies including Pepsi and CoverGirl.
But here’s the thing about this spicy Colombiana: she’s a natural blonde. Vergara is just one example of the complicated relationship between the category of “Hispanic” and conventional notions about race in this country.
Despite what Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 — which implicitly encourages racial profiling — might tell you, with Latinos, what you see is not always what you get.
Findings from the 2010 U.S. Census released last year show that more and more Latinos are thinking outside the race box. Instead of identifying as black or white, they opt for something less clear-cut.
Looking at a PDF of the race question on the 2010 census, I found myself doing the same. I’m not “White” or “Black” or “American Indian.” I don’t fit into any of the Asian subdivisions. Out of 15 options to categorize my skin, I choose the most ambiguous one — “Some Other Race.”
For the 2010 census, a new line was added above the question of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish race. It read, “For this census, Hispanic origins are not races.”
If Hispanic is “not a race,” then people like me don’t have a race. And according to the U.S. Census Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin, I’m not alone. Hispanics made up 97 percent of all those classified as only “Some Other Race.”
Many attempted to specify their “other” classification by writing in identifiers like “Latino,” or “Salvadoran.” But in the general count, those personal preferences were generalized as “Some Other.”
If I had more than an inch to explain, I would say that my family history isn’t easily charted on ancestry.com. There’s the Caribbean influence on my mother’s side, with some Afro- and Chino- Cuban mixed in. There are the European notes on my father’s side that lead to Spain and back to Cuba.
It’s a long history that I’ll never be able to trace completely. I can’t deny its complexity by checking a box. Because even if I do attempt to clarify what makes me look the way I do, it will be melted into “Some Other.”
Then there’s the other end of the color wheel — those who choose to identify as “white” instead. Many of these are mixed-race Hispanics who choose white because the other half of their racial identity isn’t an option on the checklist.
Should there be a “brown” box? And if there were, would people accept it?
In the U.S., race is a trick question. I don’t know what the solution is, but I do know that our current system isn’t working. If Hispanics hope to gain the political influence to correspond with their growing population, we need to be counted as something distinct.
As a recent article in The New York Times points out, census data collected on race specifically — not ethnicity — determines voting districts and identifies disparities and discrimination in education, health and employment — just to name a few.
When Hispanics refuse to conform to America’s racial conventions, they may be hurting themselves more than they realize. The lack of clarity in Hispanic identification gives politicians the excuse to be equally unclear in their policies.
Take, for example, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In Florida, Romney has launched an ad campaign with his son speaking Spanish, appealing to the large Latino population.
In South Carolina, he has been campaigning with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, author of draconian Arizona-style immigration laws. There’s something wrong with that duplicity.
With a census that robs Latinos of a racial identity comes a country that attempts to oversimplify it. Hispanic identity is more than skin deep. With people like Vergara entering the mainstream, I hope that when the next census rolls around in 2020, we have a clearer vision of what Latinos look like.
Rachel del Valle is a College sophomore from Newark, N.J. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Duly Noted appears every Monday.