White Latinos & The Privilege of Being Unseen

Monica Ortiz, Contributing Writer

Growing up, I always got annoyed when people called me white. In elementary school, I didn’t understand the difference between nationality versus ethnicity versus race. My grandmother was a Cuban immigrant and my father was Puerto Rican. I am not European so therefore I am not white. Nevermind that Cuba is a country, not a race and my ancestors were most likely European colonizers, but I was a child and understandably ignorant of the issues. I did not recognize the privilege of being perceived as white in America growing up seeing black and brown Latinos being called slurs, illegals, and bullied while white-passing Hispanics like me were given a free pass because of my skin color. This was not a one-time experience. These situations and racism and prejudice are constant in the Hispanic community.

We see it in pop culture where white Cuban singers like Sabrina Claudio and Camila Cabello will get exposed to racist derogatory comments made against black women. We see it with mejorar la raza (translates to ‘improve the race’, a phrase common in Latin America when talking about having kids with lighter skin people to “improve” the chances of having good looking kids) and calling black hair, pelo malo (bad hair). Lightskin, white-passing Latinos are the ‘acceptable’ ones. They are the ones most visible, most heard, most embraced. We see it in the way black and brown bodies are criminalized and mistreated by the police force disproportionately compared to white people.

When I was a child, I would watch telenovelas with my mom and grandma. These shows were primarily based in Latin America and with mostly Latino actors obviously. Colorism is very prevalent in a lot of Latin and Hispanic countries. White Hispanics have a certain privilege in society compared to black and brown Latinos, especially when it comes to visibility in media and the arts. Most of these shows have a primarily white cast with a few nonwhite Latinos peppered throughout the show, but they are rarely the main characters. Even in mainstream American shows, black and brown Latinos are usually the poor, delinquent characters. This feeds into the stereotype that black and brown people are inherently criminals that are poor and make horrible life decisions and can never be as successful as the white man. When so many shows feed into a colorist narrative, people will only consume that narrative.

Anti-Blackness and colorism is a real thing in the Hispanic community, especially for Cubans. Relatives always told me stories of their times in Cuba where Afro-Cubans were treated like dirt by white Cubans. Cuba was a highly segregated place when my grandma was growing up; she had a black friend she couldn’t even tell her parents about. When children grow up in that type of environment, they parrot the views of their families and this is the reason white supremacy continues to be perpetuated in society and Latin America in particular. The normalization of the mistreatment of Afro-Latinos should not go unchecked. Dismantling racism should start at home with our families especially during this time of protest and unrest. Our identity as a Latino does not overshadow our white privilege and we should do everything in our power to combat that.