The troubling term that’s undermining Latino identity

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Alvarado)
(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Alvarado)

“…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.”

Leo Carmona's message to people who use the term "whitewashed." (Photo by Elizabeth Alvarado)
Leo Carmona’s message to people who use the term “whitewashed.” (Photo by Elizabeth Alvarado)

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.

Crystal Pino's message to people who have called her whitewashed. (Photo by Elizabeth Alvarado)
Crystal Pino’s message to people who have called her whitewashed. (Photo by Elizabeth Alvarado)

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.

20 Comments

  1. Please imagine for a moment that you were born in Mexico and had lived there all your life. Imagine further that in this alternate world European-Americans had, over many decades, moved–millions of them illegally–in large numbers to Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosi, and other northern states in order to seek better lives for themselves and their children. Imagine that Euro-Americans and descendants in Mexico were on track to become the majority population in Matamoros, Monterrey, Chihuahua, and other major cities.

    Now imagine that you found out that for many second-generation Euroamerican-Mexicans assimilating into mainstream Mexican culture was considered a betrayal of their heritage. How would you feel about all this? How do you think you would feel if you found out these kids had insults for other kids who spoke Spanish too well or English too poorly, for those who liked futbol more than football, etc. They called them semillas de cacao or sometimes, when they were feeling really mean, cacas nevadas.

    Finally, imagine that some of these second-generation Americanos went on to attend top public universities in Mexico where they wrote about the pain they sometimes felt when they were accused of ‘bronceando’. But instead of claiming that such criticism strengthened their sense of Yanquismo, what if they said: “You’re right I am more Mexican than my parents but so what, there’s nothing wrong with being brown or Mexican. This country’s not perfect and life hasn’t always been easy for us here. But I love this country and I’ve had opportunities here that I probably never would have had if my parents had stayed in the US. So, I guess I’m proud to be ‘bronceando’, if that’s what you want to accuse me of. That doesn’t mean I hate my skin, my parents, or the US or that I think it has nothing redeeming or good to offer–it will always be part of my heritage–but I will not stay stuck in the past. I’m glad my parents came here. Mexico is my home and these brown Mexicans–and all the other colors we Mexicans come in–they are my people and I am theirs.”

    1. Mexicans always make fun of other Latinos like don’t say that eh eh I’m Mexican and proud crap. :/

  2. It’s an interesting topic. Personally, I just fail to understand how most of the world at large fails to recognize many (if not most, statistically-speaking) Hispanic/Latinos as “white,” to begin with, given that many are still mostly European descent, and the last time I checked, the peoples of Spain were white people.

    Whitewashing is a weird thing to say, regarding many Hispanic/Latino people. I’m not sure how it’d be any “whitewashing” if one’s already technically white. Did folks forget that Spanish peoples were generally among the FIRST “white” European people of the Americas?

    Just like when Bobby Dean got in trouble for “brownfacing” as Desi Arnaz, but I couldn’t help but think, “…But Desi’s already white.” Hell, even Desi Arnaz did blackface on I Love Lucy–he was so “brown” that it prevented him from mocking black. Cubans very much so consider themselves “white.”

    I know “Latino” can refer to someone who ‘s not even white, but lived in a region/culture of Latin America, and that many Hispanic are mixed with Native American heritages. But still, by and large, J-Lo, Sofia Vergara, and Pitbull are indeed “white” people.

    1. The problem with these people calling themselves white if they don’t actually identify that way is that it erases a whole other part of who they are, their native heritage, just like the Spaniards erased the native peoples. So where does the vicious cycle ever end?

  3. All of these kids look indigenous or Mestizo (Euro mixed with Indian). As a Nicaraguan (U.S. citizen) making over 120k in software, great education through hs and college, who cares! Some people will always call you a “beaner” based on features, no matter how fair skinned. Be like the Jews, make your money and ignore idiots. Although speaking fluent Spanish like myself just ingratiates you to a wider group of Hispanic (1st gen – 4th gen). Keep it real; ignore this “safe spaces” mindset and grow thick skin.

    1. Amen brother!! I almost threw in a remark about the wonderfully surreal “safe-space” preschool fantasy, complements of an infant brainchild we know as the radical university system. It’s one thing to create a place where individuals, who are consistently, and in some cases, dangerously persecuted for their way of being, can take sanctuary so as to gain some small measure of peaceful respite, yet it’s another thing entirely to extend such a refuge to those who are now given the excuse to play a victim as a result of their own confrontational ineptitude. These people are now allowed to identify any of the multitude of situations where their lack of self confidence, bright on by the interaction with others, perpetuates a general sense of social unease, as a marginalizing attack. These same situations are those that most of us deal on a daily basis in one form or another. Situations that the normal maturing individual learns to deal with and develop a sense of strengthed self identity, such that these situations rarely ever enter our conscious sphere as negative influences in the future. It’s called growing the f up!! It actually sickens me to hear one of the prime examples used to qualify the need for such places by individuals other than those who desperately need them to maintain a sense of sanity and safety. The prime example of a social instance where passive aggressive language carries the capacity to trigger an immunosuppressive event consequent extreme anxiety of one who exhibits normal psychological, emotional and physical health comes in the form of a question by an individual who asks it out of sincere curiosity and nothing more: “hey there, I was just wondering what your ethnicity might be? ” apparently this exact question can cause terrible anxiety and was thus a prime example for why schools must have “safe places” where such questions are explicitly prohibited. REALLY!?! Wt*? Is our future generation that delicate? If so, then I’m very concerned with how in the heck these same people, whom we can scarcely call adults, will one day deal with the greater world when confronted by its many harsh and horrible problems. There won’t be anyone else to blame for their own inadequacies at that point, and worse still, no codependent mommy or daddy to make the problem go away. Get a grip people!!

      Here’s another wonderful example of great minds actively resolving problems through real next generation innovation:

      “The safe space, Ms. Byron explained, was intended to give people who might find comments ‘troubling’ or ‘triggering,’ a place to recuperate. The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.”[20] Critics accused the college of infantilizing the students.[21][22][23]

      Wow we don’t deserve to be associated with the same species who pioneered the world and beyond, imagined greatness and brought it to life from the mind’s eye. We are a bunch of wining little pity parties looking for a handout and someone to blame for our self perpetuated inadequacies.

      1. These are children they don’t reflect the whole of my generation and my ethnicity. Most of us laugh at these people, but they get the attention because of clickbait articles and because of they are social justice warriors. Nothing wrong with being a extreme SJW, but they don’t describe most of america.

  4. Wow it’s this excessively sensitive, over analytical, read between nonexistent lines, play the victim predisposition that’s turning a vast percentage of the so called millennials into pity party conformists each ill equipped to handle the true nature of reality in any practical form. Quit attempting to fit a fickle world, qualifiably as beautiful as it is horrible, into a nice pretty box for your “feel better” PC convenience. The world is messy, and this unrealistic social construct the arrogantly ignorant, self-aggrandized patronizing do-gooders of America adhere to precipitates weakness amongst a world of hungry lions ready to take advantage of such perceptive misrepresentation. Comparing the term whitewashed to the most taboo of socio-cultural core-crushing slights, and actually drawing correlative indistinction by imposing a synonymous meaning, is so foolishly lopsided, that in many respects you’re actually undercutting the destructive severity of those words truly deserving of such descriptive scrutiny. Furthermore, giving equal persecutor power makes light of the true significance involved in those instances where individuals were truly being belittled and persecuted through verbal attack.
    The very fact that you’re even allowed the privilege to contemplate such injustice is anomalous to a world where many are just in constant desperation to survive, or dealing with committed atrocities of that which you could never begin to contemplate. Save the rants on moral conviction for those persecutory attacks truly worth their weight in destructive vernacular and diction. Quit being such a wining snowflake and learn how to deal with passive aggressive humor in ways that would actually make the rest of the world see you as a mature adult and not the helpless creature they believe you to be.

    I’m half Sioux, German, Scottish and Brazilian, yet I never once interpreted the petty meaningless term “whitewashed,” often given in lighthearted jest, as anything other than a representative attempt at ambivalent natured humor from a friend…. and whenever I myself used the term, it had zero underlying mal-intent to thus be construed in a way reflecting a sense of mutually understood lost cultural identity. To think as much and be so foolish as to experience existential fallout through resulting consequence, may actually need to perform a great deal of existential introspection. Then they may actually get a grip and if they’re really lucky a sense of what it means to have a backbone. Then maybe they’ll finally be ready to stop parasitizing mommy and dady’s life blood and if they’re really feeling empowered, go get a real job and start becoming a productive member of society rather than sucking dry both the money and attention truly deserving of those who have actually kept this nation afloat through effective socioeconomic production.

  5. As a Hmong, people say whitewashed a lot (sometimes blackwashed) and it’s annoying. I grew up with whites and Hmongs and I care more about where I’m going than where I come from… Sorry that circumstances beyond my control led to me being born and raised in a Hmong/White community? Sorry for seeing past the color and giving everybody who is nice a chance?

  6. Sorry but you are not Latinos. Latinos means Latins and these are the Latins and have been Latin for more than 2000 years: Italians, French, Romanians, Portuguese and Spaniards. You are from what the French colonizers called “Amerique Latine” and so you are “Latin Americans” by geographical location only. Why the colonizers called that area of the Americas Latin America? because their languages, French, Portuguese and Spanish, originate from the Latin Language (Lingua Latina) of the Romans who by the way colonized what they called “Hispania” in Latin and remained there more than 700 years. The Romans also imposed their Latin Language, Roman Laws and Christianity. The Latin is only in your language and it doesn’t have anything to do with you. In fact Latino/Latin is not your race, not your ethnicity, not your DNA, not your Blood, There is no Latin Skin Color and there is no Latin Music and there is no Latin Food. It’s all your invention.

    1. THIS. It’s so funny to hear “Latinos” call each other “whitewashed” when they’re mestizos or indios. I’m of Spanish descent (an actual Hispanic/Latina), and it’s frustrating when I tell people this and they say I don’t “look Spanish.” Are people this stupid? It’s so weird. Anyway, you should ignore people who accuse you of that. I don’t speak Spanish. I speak English. I was born and raised here by American parents, and I consider myself American before any of the races that make me up (which is a long list, including Jewish, Asian, and black). If you’re going to be American, be one, and don’t apologize. None of America’s previous immigrant groups have kept their languages or remained completely in line with the Old World’s culture. This should be how today’s immigrants see it, and how they should act.

    2. Al Rex, your are absolutely correct. The word Latin/Latino/Latina, etc, has been terribly misused in this country. My ancestors from Italy are the true, original Latins. Yet, this term is used by all forms of media in America, as well as our government, employment forms, & even doctors’ offices. The current pope is a true Latin, as he is not only from the geographical location called Latin America, but he is also of Italian heritage, Now would most people look at him & say he is Latino? Nope. Even the word Italian contains the word Latin. Also, aren’t some of the folks who describe themselves as Latin, disrespecting their Native ancestry? It’s a shame that they are honoring the language & culture of the very people who imperialized them, & though many of them have that European blood in their veins, they are totally ignoring their other ancestry. By the way, people from Central & South America never refer to themselves as Latins. It’s only when they come to live here. They simply refer to their birthplace, eg: Mexican, Salvadoran, Columbian, etc. This country is compelled to put people into these categories.

  7. So, judging from some of the comments I think most people did not really try to understand you, which is not surprising but sad that they couldn’t quiet themselves to just hear you and what you are trying to express. Calling people out on this means calling them to question the rigid categories and labels and expectations we have developed. We have a literally white/black understanding of race and ethnicity in the US and I find it really unhelpful, especially when discussing all the iterations of Latin American identity. You’re also asking people to confront that nasty reality that we readily stereotype ourselves. I used to envy Mexicans that grew up in Mexico, because they just got to be who they are without every worrying if they were ever Mexican. But for Chicanos it’s like we’re constantly being judged for not being enough of something, and forget it if you want to have interests that don’t align with how people view you. People would rather make assumptions or judge based on what they see and not have a conversation about something. I wonder if people even stop to think about what they are saying when they use this term. Whiteness itself is made up, but then when you ascribe certain interests and activities (usually cultural activities seen as high brow) to whiteness you are essentially saying that white supremacists are right. That “nice” things are for white people or that different ethnicities should never interact or that the family you are born in determines what kind of person you’ll be. You are attacking a person’s right to be an individual and to just be who they are. It’s also a very ignorant understanding of how identity works. Identity is very, very complex and layered.

    And the whole being light skinned thing is a product of colorism. Light-skinned privilege is a thing. Light-skinned privilege is real. Yet you can’t pretend that skin color is the only marker people use to decide if you are white, or even that a light-skinned person might still not be seen as darker by white people. In the U.S. we don’t talk about people of East Asian descent as white even though many are lighter skinned. And that’s because whiteness isn’t just skin tone. White supremacy is good at excluding and it uses a lot of methods to keep the club exclusive. Ask your light-skinned friends and you might be surprised how often they are othered by white people. It’s silly and ignorant to decide that because of your skint tone that you get to decide someone’s identity. It may no be the worst thing in the world or a serious hate crime when you’re called whitewashed, but that should not be a standard for how to treat people. Well, I didn’t hit the person or assault them, so my behaviour was fine? Really? That can’t be the bar for good behaviour. Being unkind is never ok. And just because someone was unkind to you doesn’t mean you get to take out that frustration on other people. That’s not ok either. This is not what social justice should lead to. That is not the point of all these conversations on racism or sexism or colorism. The point is to open our eyes to biases or negative thought patterns we have and to break them so that we are kinder and more loving with each other. The point is to free ourselves from oppressive systems that hold us all down and prevent us from freer, authentic, healthier lives.

  8. I wouldnt worry about being called white washed. I was born and raised in the USA, my dad is German (from germany) and mom is polish (second gen), I can speak German but not polish and grew up with a lot of their cultural practices. Does that make me any less of a pole just because I cannot speak the language? No, I’m still a German, a Pole and more notably, an American. Point being, if you are a Latino and you dont speak Spanish, you are still a latino. Be proud of your culture, stay strong and dont let those, especially those from your culture demean you like that. You dont have to prove anything to anyone if you know who, and what you are!

  9. I still cant believe the amount of ignorance I have read in this post. But I dont blame the original poster of this publication as most people in the US are also very ignorant about this particular topic. I still dont comprehend why people still think to this day that being Hispanic or Latino has to do with race, instead of Ethnicity/Culture. Their is a reason why in the US census or when your filling out an application for employment, driver lincense, passport ect they specify clearly in the ethnicity/race questions that HISPANICS AND LATINOS CAN BE OF ANY RACE! You can be Hispanic or Latino and still be White! Do people forget that the vast majority of Hispanics have Spanish/European ancestors as well? Which are as White as any English, Irish, German and Italians. Some of us Hispanics and Latinos like myself have mostly Spanish/European ancestry. I personally can back this up as I done an extensive research on my family tree to prove this. Sure, like most Hispanics and Latinos I also had some family mixing that came from my Mestizo ancestors from many generation ago, but for the most part it was all Spanish ancestors in my family tree. This is the reason why some of us Hispanics and Latinos don’t look the stereotypical ones ( of mostly Native American ancestry ) because most of our ancestors came from Spain or other European country. We are therefore White Latinos! If you look White like an Italian/Greek, Middle Eastern, Irish, French person and you have mostly Spanish/European ancestry than you are White, even if you Hispanic or Latino. Having a Spanish name and/or speaking Spanish doesnt change your race, its just that your cultural background is different than the typical White Anglo person of the US who are usually of English/Irish/German ancestry.

  10. Being called white washed by ignorant people or people who have no knowledge of their culture. and to this article We are not Latino or hispanic! Stop with those terms already! Spanish is not our native language. We are the desendents of the original people of this land ! We are native to this continent! Mixed or full blood doesn’t matter.

    NOT LATINO! NOT HISPANIC!
    WE ARE INDIGENOUS!!

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