Thursday, July 17, 2014

Latino race

Here is a video of a guy going around a carnival in the Washington, DC area and talking to Latinos about what box they check for "race" in the census.  The person who made the video regards the interviewees' reticence and confusion as evidence that they are denying their indigenous roots.  The disparaging and denial of Native American ancestry is certainly an issue in many Latin American countries.  But to be fair, I think that the way the interviewer frames his queries shaped to a large extent how people responded.  I don't think a lot of Latinos use the term "Native American" in Spanish.  If he had asked outright if people thought they had Indian ancestry, I'm sure many would have said yes.  Or maybe not--maybe a lot of his interviewees would think of Indians as "real" Indians, with parrot feathers and exotic customs living in the rainforest.  At any rate, by using the exact terms of the US census form (white, black, Native American, Asian, with Hispanic as a cultural heritage but not a race), I think the interviewer just confused everyone.  I'm sure this was in the spirit of not biasing responses, but his "neutral" wording ended up doing just that, in my opinion. 

My takeaway is not so much that Latinos in the US are denying their race, but rather the video underlines for me how confused they are by US conceptions of race, and how inappropriate US categories are for describing how many Latinos think of themselves.  In my experience, within a given Latin country people often have different racial designations like black, Indian, and mestizo or criollo (which I think most people are aware of is a mix precisely between indigenous people and Europeans and/or Africans).  When they get to the US, I imagine it can be difficult to transpose this to the new cultural context, since all those distinctions people may have made inside of El Salvador or Peru or whatever, get glossed over as anyone from those countries is lumped together as Latino.  And in this new US classification system, there is a clear difference between blacks, whites, Asians, and Latinos, the latter of whom live and effectively self-identify as a race unto themselves, not simply a "cultural heritage", despite the census's best efforts to tell them that "Latino" isn't a race. 

So I saw the video more as comic than as tragic.  People's stumbling answers and nervous laughter betray the complete irrelevance and inadequacy of the census's designations for them.  The last image that the interviewer repeats from a prior interview doesn't look to me like a young woman denying her heritage, but simply affirming that she doesn't fit neatly into the categories of the US census.  "What box do you check for race in the census?"  "I don't know, white I guess."  "Do you consider yourself white?"  "Not really..."

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