White on White by Kazimir Malevich

A recent article about the effect of education on the lifespan of Americans used the categories “white,” “black,” and “Hispanic” in its comparisons and accompanying graphic. These are common American cultural labels for racial categories, even though the 2010 census contradicts popular culture by stating that Hispanics can be of any race. (I have written previously here and here about the ways Americans use the terms Hispanic and Latino, and about the logical paradox of Hispanics as a race that can be any race.) 

Interestingly, the article used the term “non-Hispanic whites”—following the census distinctions, and implying that there are two kinds of whites—Hispanic whites and non-Hispanic whites. However, I have never heard the term “Hispanic white” in everyday speech. In contrast, one often hears or reads sentences like “The author/doctor/experimenter/perpetrator is a white Hispanic/black Hispanic.” In other words, American culture assumes that Hispanics constitute a category that includes the subtypes white Hispanics and black Hispanics. And the article implicitly makes the same assumption. Otherwise the article and graphic would have used only the two categories white and black (instead of white, black, and Hispanic), or the four categories Hispanic whites, non-Hispanic whites, Hispanic blacks, and non-Hispanic blacks.

What does all this mean? It means that paying attention to the way language is used reveals the way things actually are in a culture, which is often different from the way we would like them to be. In this case, it means that Americans don’t use the term “Hispanic white” because they assume that Hispanics are not white—so the term would be self-contradictory. For a person considered Hispanic to say he or she is white is in some ways parallel to someone with a black parent “passing for white.” Some Hispanics might look white here, and be white in other countries; and American culture might change the way it categorizes people like them in the future; but in the United States of 2012 they are not white.

(Naturally, if readers know of examples of the use of the term “Hispanic white,” I’d be interested to hear of them, since they might be a sign that American culture is changing.)

Image Source:

White on White by Kazimir Malevich (1918)

Wikimedia Commons http://bit.ly/S6iGHc

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