What race are Hispanic people?
In the latest episode of MTV’s Decoded, comedian Franchesca Ramsey pairs up with fellow YouTube activist Kat Lazo to explain how answering that question is tricky, largely because of the ways Hispanic (and, likewise, Latino or the gender-neutral Latinx) identity is racialized in the US, even though these categories don’t actually refer to a race at all.
To understand what race Latinos and Hispanics are, you first must understand the difference between Latinos and Hispanics
Lazo points out that Hispanic identity refers to language, or "people of Spanish-speaking origins." Latinx identity, however, refers to people whose origins are geographically located in Latin America.
And while the two categories mostly overlap, people from Brazil and Spain illustrate the distinction. Brazilians are Latino because the country is located in Latin America. But Brazilians aren’t considered Hispanic because the country’s primary language is Portuguese. Meanwhile, Latinx identity brings together people in South and Central America, who may share a history of Spanish colonization, but that category isn’t defined by having Spanish-speaking ancestry.
"Just like America, Latin America has a long and complex history that intersects between native people, European colonization, African slavery, and global immigration patterns," Lazo said. And that’s why she points out that Latinx identity includes a variety of races.
So that’s why boiling down Latinx to being just one "race" makes no sense
Despite the broad racial diversity that actually represent Latinx and Hispanic people, they are often represented as one homogeneous group instead of being recognized as being just as racially diverse as the population of the United States.
As Lazo says, "The US and Latin American media has done a great job at constructing an image of what Latinx look like, and that image is rarely black or fully Indigenous, for example." So, instead, the more common profile of a Latinx person as portrayed in films and television is someone like Modern Family actress Sofia Vergara, as opposed to someone like Zoe Saldana, who identifies as Afro-Latina (of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent).
But racism, or pressure to identify as white, also plays a role in why Latinx and Hispanic people, when they are considered to be a race, are racialized as white.
"We, like the rest of the world, have internalized these message of white supremacy through the media and our education," Lazo said. "So it’s no wonder that when Latinx in the US are confronted with deciding their race based on the Census, in a predominantly black and white binary society, many of us default to white."
Latinx and Hispanic identity signifies common cultural practices like language and shared histories, and those don’t easily map onto skin color.
It’s one of the reasons, Ramsey says, that "if an Argentinian couple adopts a baby from China, that baby will most likely grow up speaking Spanish, and rooting for Lionel Messi."
At the end of the day, this is a reminder, as Ramsey (and Vox’s Jenée Desmond-Harris) has explained, that race is a social construct, not a natural biological classification. Rather, Ramsey said, race is "basically an ever-shifting categorization that sometimes includes ethnicity and sometimes doesn’t."
Or a simpler answer, as Ramsey puts it: "Race doesn’t exist, but ethnicity does." So are people who identify as Hispanic (or even Latinx) actually white?
As Ramsey says, "It depends." But it’s important to reflect on the fraught reasons why Hispanic and Latinx identities are associated with whiteness too.