“…Kind of like you, Elizabeth. You’re so whitewashed.”
My cousin’s words stopped me dead in my tracks in the middle of Costco.
A mere ten seconds prior I had been contemplating going back for my third burrito sample, half listening to her telling me about another “whitewashed” person she knew.
Now here I was with what felt like an existential crisis on my hands. Me? Whitewashed? I’d never been called that before. What did she even mean?
It’s difficult to come up with an all encompassing definition for the term, because it can vary from person to person, and tends to be used so imprecisely. Personally, I think of the calling someone “whitewashed” as a derogatory way of telling minority groups they’ve forgotten about their roots in order to assimilate to western culture.
It’s ironic. As Latinos we’re constantly faced with the pressure to assimilate in order to fit in. But somehow we’re also supposed to “stay true to our culture.” It’s a game we’re destined to lose no matter what we do.
Since that afternoon in Costco last summer, I’ve noticed just how often this problematic term is thrown around.
It’s one thing to call attention to the “whitewashing” of mainstream culture — like with the recent uproar about Academy Awards nominees being almost exclusively white, or the all-too-common practice of casting white actors to play non-white roles.
But individual Latinos throwing this label at each other is something different.
“I used it once on a really good friend because he wouldn’t speak Spanish with me and he wouldn’t listen to the same music as me, and I was like, ‘You’re hella whitewashed,’” Leo Carmona, director of La Raza Student Commission at the University of Washington said reflecting on the term. “That was because I wanted to surround myself with people who are like me.”
He’s not the only one guilty of using it. I once said it myself, to describe another one of my cousins who’d dyed her blonde and got blue contacts.
It wasn’t until I was called whitewashed that I realized the confusing, negative feelings it can evoke:
Was I not being true to myself and my culture? Are Latinos like me somehow subconsciously trying to escape our Latino heritage and just become white.
According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 2.5 million Americans who had identified as Hispanic and “some other race” during the 2000 U.S census changed their answers in the 2010 census and checked Hispanic and “white” instead. That shift could have been partly due to new instructions on the 2010 census form clarifying that Hispanic is an ethnicity, not a race. But perhaps it really was more of us wanting to identify as white.
Regardless, for people like Crystal Pino, a psychology and philosophy major at UW, the negative impacts of being cast with the label are clear.
“I think over the past year and a half, [being called whitewashed] has been a constant struggle with my identity,” she said.“I don’t speak Spanish, I understand it but I don’t speak it fluently, and that was one of my major insecurities growing up.”
Some psychologists believe this insecurity relates to the social identity theory, in which one’s self esteem is derived from their group memberships.
“These people may feel like they don’t belong to either group, which may negatively impact their psychological wellbeing. It is possible that the process of being “whitewashed” is related to this phenomenon, in that whitewashing causes Latinos to be denied their Latin heritages,” explained Eric Gomez and Adriana Germano, both Ph.D. students at the UW’s Psychology Department, in an email.
Zenia Avelar, a receptionist at Microsoft in Bellevue, WA, said this is something she struggles with, especially when she visits family back in Mexico.
“They mostly just say, ‘Ya llego la gabacha (The white person has arrived),’ and it makes me feel weird because to them, they think I’ve forgotten about my Mexican roots,” said Avelar, who added that this judgment is pointed toward the way she dresses and speaks.
Everyone I talked to seemed to understanding that calling someone “whitewashed” is negative — yet we still hear it all the time, and many of us have used it ourselves.
When I think back to my cousin whom I called whitewashed, I can’t help but feel guilty for my way of thinking back then. Sure, she decided to change the way she looked, but who am I to decide that makes her less Latina than I am?
“I think people often associate ‘whitewashed’ with being arrogant,” said Carmona. He says he’s felt like people considered him whitewashed because of the life he’s leading today, as a first-generation college student. He feels that this sets him apart from other family members who haven’t had this same opportunity.
Similarly, Pino described her middle school and high school years as being filled with experiences that set her apart from the other Latinos in her community.
“Because of how well I did in school, people thought I was too smart to be Mexican and people who were Mexican would say, ‘Wow, you’re not anything like other Mexicans I know,’” she recalled.
So the term “whitewashed” can be used to question not just your identity, but also to undermine your intelligence. That’s all the more of a reason to erase it from our vocabulary.
Carmona believes that in order to for this word to stop being used, we need to understand that everyone has their own identity and culture and that it’s okay if it’s different from yours.
“I know for me, being a first generation Mexicano, my identity is important to me because it’s what I grew up with,” he said. “It depends on where you come from. Everyone has had different experiences and their own identity and they choose what they want and what they don’t want.”
In a strange way, being called “whitewashed” has a way of making you actually appreciate your own culture more than before. Having someone call your identity into question makes you ask yourself, “Well, what exactly is my culture? How does it relate to my identity?” It’s an experience that forces you to answer these questions and emerge with a greater understanding of yourself and your culture.
“I feel like I’ve become more true to myself and I embrace my culture even more when I see my family,” Pino agrees. “I feel more connected to the culture than I did before.”
Let’s face it, there are no set guidelines for what makes someone Latino or not. Just because we all identify as Latinos doesn’t mean we’re all the same.