Honorary Whites and the Collective Black

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If there’s one thing Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s banal discourse on race reveals is a fundamental dynamic in our “post-racial” society. Much of mainstream America virulently denies it is racist, while simultaneously having racist attitudes and beliefs. Of course the mainstream media will deny this, and call for Sterling’s head, if nothing else out of pure embarrassment. But what played out between Sterling and his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, on their now-infamous 9:23 conversation, yields insight into the middle ground Latin@s hold in America’s evolving race debate.

Let’s not even get into the connection between racism and patriarchy here, where Sterling’s main motivation seems to be that as an eighty something year-old playboy, he can’t stand to see his twentysomething girlfriend post photos of herself with Magic Johnson on Instagram. Outside of that, he insists, he loves black people. He’s fine with making millions in philanthropic contributions to African-Americans, but doesn’t want someone close to him to be seen with them.

Granted, the conversation is between an odd couple most likely drawn to each other because of Sterling’s immense wealth, but if we take it at face value, embedded in the dialogue are clear representations of a central dynamic in the evolution of whiteness and racism in America. At the crux of that dynamic are Latin@s, who may ultimately determine whether or not whites are a majority in this country during the 21st century.

Stiviano presents a dilemma that threatens her relationship with Sterling: “I wish I could change the color of my skin” she says, but “I can’t be racist in my heart.” This is a problem faced by many Latin@s who aspire to “pass” as white in American society. But passing is something best accomplished through silence–the tacit approval of mainstream white racism. But, whether for ulterior reasons or not (why the recording was released to TMZ remains unclear), Stiviano refuses to silence herself.

“I am flexible,” she says, alluding to Latin@s’ ability to reach in either direction of the black/white racial binary. But, Sterling insists “You’re perceived either as a Latina or a white girl…You’re supposed to be a delicate white or a delicate Latina girl.” In this way Sterling explains how he could be involved with Stiviano despite her being a somewhat dark-complexioned Latina. For his purposes, she is “either” Latina or white.

Then comes the bombshell of the conversation, a revelation that confuses and/or repels Sterling to the point that he’s considering breaking off their relationship. “I’m a mixed girl,” says Stiviano. “Black and Mexican…Whether you like it or not….You’re asking me to remove something that is a part of me and in my bloodstream.”

Again, this is an argument between an extremely wealthy man who has bought his consort three very expensive cars and a $1.8 million apartment. She may be performing for the recorder, but if she is, she’s an excellent actor, one who seems to be bringing her real-life story to her role, even as she will most likely become an instant social media megastar on the level of Kim K (glass half-full) or the Duke freshman Porn Star (half-empty).

Stiviano’s testimony points to the choice Latin@s have in determining America’s racial future. Will she be okay with being perceived as a “delicate Latina or white girl,” or will she listen to her heart and claim blackness? Being half-African American tilts the equation, but it shouldn’t make that much of a difference, since there is African blood in most of us who claim Spanish and/or indigenous roots.

A couple of weeks ago an article in Slate appeared that created a degree of consternation in the social media because of its mere suggestion that many Latin@s in the future may come to be classified as white. Titled “Will Today’s HIspanics Be Tomorrow’s Whites?” the article states that because of the widely projected increase in the minority population over the next 35 years, we may see something that happened at the beginning of the 20th century, when some groups who were previously considered non-white, like immigrants from Ireland and Germany, and later Southern and Eastern Europeans, were ultimately granted white status. It may be possible that Latin@s, particularly those with fairer skin, higher educational achievement, or more amassed wealth, may be able to construct a white identity.

This could be part of a process described by sociologist Herbert J. Gans in an article published in the Du Bois Review in 2012 called “Whitening and the Changing American Racial Hierarchy.” Gans feels that Latin@s could be key participants in this phenomenon: “The Latino Whitening process is most important,” he writes, “not only because Latinos are by far the largest immigrant group in the country, but also because class, skin color, and other phenotypical characteristics may vary more greatly with this group than among Asians.”

The ambiguity of how Latin@s are perceived racially, reflected in wildly varying phenotypes, not only raise the possibility of morphing toward whiteness, but can also shift the definition of whiteness away from skin tone towards one based more on social class. It’s clear that this has already happened, with limited impact, since Latin@s who become “white” tend to disappear in the suburbs or isolated parts of the country without leaving much of a trace. But what the Slate article proposes is a whitening that until now hasn’t been seen on a grand scale.

The Slate article could be criticized for its heavy referencing of right-wing media outlets like Fox News, National Review, and Breitbart in its discussion of George Zimmerman’s labeling as a “white Hispanic.” But its citations of authors like Ian Haney López and Nell Irvin Painter, two excellent contemporary race theorists, give its argument some credibility. If, as “The Next America,” the recent report by the Pew Research Center claims, the U.S. projects to be only 43% white by 2050, what could we expect the reaction to this specter to be?

Painter, in her book The History of White People, wrote about how the definition of whiteness changed during a murky history of “race science” that attempted to justify white supremacy through empirical studies of human skulls. Haney López constructs a framework of American politics that brings together neoliberalism–containing the growth of the state, from welfare to affirmative action–with a new form of racism. It is a racism that uses a “dog whistle” to communicate racist ideas without using specific slurs to indicate who is black, metaphorically or not.

In the introduction to Dog Whistle Politics, Haney López cites his Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell–who was also President Obama’s professor–who said, “Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary ‘peaks of progress,’ short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance.” These patterns are indeed changing, says Haney López, who confesses that after disagreeing at first, he has come around to Bell’s logic. The changes are happening to preserve the perception of a white majority in the US, and part of the strategy could be the whitening of at least some Latin@s.

Another model for the re-adaptation of America’s racist societal structure is proposed by Puerto Rican-born sociologist Eduardo Bonilla Silva. For more than 10 years, Bonilla Silva has been writing about his theory that we’re evolving from a bi-racial to a tri-racial hierarchy. Perhaps not by coincidence, this structure is the norm in Latin America. In his book Racism Without Racists, as well as in other texts, he argues that the tendency of Latin Americans is to deny the importance of race entirely, something increasingly apparent in American discourse. “We are all Americans!” is the preferred mantra now, the way in Puerto Rico people say “We are all Puerto Ricans,” and in Mexico people say “We are all Mexicans,” etc.

The tri-racial structure Bonilla Silva has devised is as follows:

1) Whites, composed of traditional whites, new immigrants, ligher-skinned children of mixed marriages, and “assimilated Latinos.”

2) Honorary Whites, composed of the majority of Latin@s, Japanese, Koreans, South Asian Indians, Chinese, the majority of mixed-race Americans, and Middle Easterners.

3) The Collective Black, composed of African-Americans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and (possibly) Filipinos.

What are “honorary whites”? They are perceived to be or claim to be neither black nor white, and they receive many of the privileges accorded to whites but without ever being completely accepted as white. According to Bonilla Silva, they could move up to white status depending on their achievements in education, wealth accumulation, or perhaps a strategic intermarriage. If you believe Bonilla Silva, it may be that the majority of Latin@s in the future could qualify as either white or honorary white. Doesn’t it seem a lot like Latin America?

There will always be indignation amongst our Latin@ brethren to suggestions that many of us will become white, across many media. How could it be that after almost 10 years of extremist anti-immigrant politics directed at Mexicans and Central Americans, Latin@s will become white? How could we identify as white if Puerto Rico was never even considered as a candidate for statehood in the early 20th century for fear of its mixed-race population? But we forget that one early strategy of elite Mexican Americans following the US-Mexican War was to claim white status, and that so many Boricuas in New York tried to pass for Spanish during the cruel age of racism that held sway in post-World War II New York. Finally, Afro-Latinos both in the US and Latin America continue to be marginalized, and distancing oneself from blackness has been a strategy used by other ethnic groups to attain whiteness in the past.

A recent study called “Latina/o Whitening: Which Latinas/os Self-Classify as White and Report Being Perceived as White by Other Americans?” makes the argument that the whitening of Latin@s is achieved through two factors: what the individual claims and how s/he is perceived. This perception could be affected by a combination of phenotypical appearance and social class. But although there are some Latin@s who claim whiteness, “many Latina/os appear to recognize that they may be arbitrarily choosing to identify with one inaccurate racial label over another by appealing to phenotypic or political similarities with other racial groups.” For that reason, says the article, the possibility of the creation of a separate racial category for Latin@s is under consideration by the Census Bureau.

This separate category, while allowing Latin@s to celebrate their mixed-raceness, would seem to be permeable, and perhaps create the conditions for honorary whiteness that Bonilla Silva talks about. If a Latin@ who was apparently “mixed” or even “white” chose to identify as black because of “political similarities,” is that necessarily inaccurate? Inaccurate enough to prompt the creation of a new racial category, which is not really a racial category, but a catch-all for mixed-race people? Sounds like Latin America again.

What is the future of Latin@s in a country of racism without racists? In the conclusion of “Latin/o Whitening” it says that contrary to previous speculation, Latin@s don’t appear to be actively seeking to claim whiteness. So is it possible, then, that the idea of blackness could also expand enough for many Latin@s to claim it? Instead of claiming the “brown” middle, maybe what a person of conscience should do is claim blackness regardless of whether or not one has a phenotypical appearance that would be considered “black.”

It may be that, whether she is a gold-digger or not, V. Stiviano is pointing us in the direction of seeking membership in the Collective Black body. It’s a philosophical imperative, a question of ethics. Bob Marley said that until “until the philosophy which hold one race superior and another Inferior” is discredited, there will be war. Rewording this slogan for the age of passive, yet vocal resistance, let us propose the idea that until there is no longer a stigma associated with blackness, we claim blackness. And in this way, avoid the dubious destiny of honorary whiteness.




50 thoughts on “Honorary Whites and the Collective Black

  1. Didn’t know what I was getting into with this article, but thoroughly enjoyed the education on a topic, heretofore, I held little to no understanding.

  2. Interesting post and thoughts.

    “The tri-racial structure Bonilla Silva has devised is as follows:..”

    I’ve never read his book, but I don’t believe “Honorary Whites” actually exist. While I agree that there are people of all non white ethnicities that can be “accepted” by their white peers/friends as “Honorary Whites” – that only applies to the sphere of people that know those individuals beyond face/color value. If they should leave their normal surroundings and encounter people unfamiliar with them, the “Honorary White” status will likely not exist. There are many noted cases of celebrities and professionals that have received far different treatment once they are out of their recognizable attire/uniforms and just appear to be average citizens.

    The racial divide also affects intra-ethnically as well among most cultures- with those of lighter skin tone and more European features being perceived as the ideal and those who fit in those groups being treated better and granted more opportunities than those who don’t.

  3. Hello. Freshly Pressed got me here. Doesn’t Brazil have this tri-racial structure? That’s the 1st thing that popped into my mind as I was reading this. I think South Africa had that too. In America you’re either white OR not; period. I don’t know how the Black American community will take to this. [I’m guessing they won’t.] People are going to self-identify themselves as they wish. Who are we/you or I to judge.

    Thanks for the moderation.

  4. I empathize, my brother-in-law is from Rio, his wife from Ecuador. My nieces speak Spanish, Portuguese and English. I am White. I speak just English and a small amount of Spanish. I lean to who is educated and I pride knowledge. I note skin color is not intelligence.

  5. Had never really thought about the history of how groups had been added to the “white” list before but it’s definitely true. As far as the tri-racial structure thing I can certainly see that structure although I would think middle-easterners these days are in a fourth category. I don’t see them getting the privileges of “honorary whites” and they face a much different type of racism than the “collective black”

  6. We latinos also have (or ought to have) latin guilt worse than Anglo white guilt. The spanish were by far the worst of the colonialist powers in the Americas and didn’t leave much of value behind (everyone has a language, and Spanish Catholicism didn’t work out very well for Spain, either, so I’m not counting either of those). Name one major Spanish American colony that’s not a failed basket-case nation. My ancestors screwed the pooch because they cared more about pillaging the Americas than establishing colonies with the ideals of individual liberty, and now the US is screwed because of it. On top of all of our own latin garbage, we can also get blamed for everything that white people are blamed for too, because we’re white when it suits the media. Grumble grumble grumble!

    Good article, btw.

  7. Hi, I am Danyealah and I am a young African-American writer/blogger/poet. Reading this post was so enlightening for me. I am a college student in Miami, Florida and the majority of my friends are Latinos/as (mostly from Cuba). It has been a struggle living in Miami where I have embraced the dominant Latin culture (I speak fluent Spanish with barely an American accent), but have not felt fully embraced at all by the Cuban-Miami community because of my blackness. Thank you for sharing this post – it was such an interesting and relatable read for me.

  8. I’d not given the subject much thought until Jon Stewart mentioned it the other night. A deeper discussion of the issue was enlightening.

    As a retired editor, though, I can’t resist mentioning that I found the frequent use of @ in “Latin@” very distracting in an otherwise scholarly piece.

  9. Reblogged this on Flying Red Scarves and commented:
    I never really thought too deep into it, but I have noticed it before. This honorary white phenom put into words: I can’t help but let it blow my mind. Putting what I’ve always noticed, what most African-Americans have noticed at some point in their lifetime, somehow makes it more real and very depressing.

    Now if only we could put Native Americans into this narrative somewhere. ..

  10. This is DONUTS people complete DONUTS.

    ‘ he loves black people. He’s fine with making millions in philanthropic contributions to African-Americans, but doesn’t want someone close to him to be seen with them.’

    Aaaaaaah WHAT.

    “You’re perceived either as a Latina or a white girl…You’re supposed to be a delicate white or a delicate Latina girl.”

    There are three categories here she is either white, latina, or mixed with both.

    True talk guys racism still exists. A real entity. Black or the preferred term African-Americans aren’t the only one experiencing this problem.

    It not the colour of the skin that make us human guys, it’s much more than that. We are all the same inside. We have a heart that beats, blood running through our veins, we all have emotions. Darn it we all cry. Why is it so hard for people to look beyond the outside of a person to see what truly lies within.

    DONUTS i tell you, complete DONUTS.

  11. Humans are social animals, and we can’t take out this animal part even after our so called advancement. There are people in society will remain like this, just to make us remind that we are SOCIAL ANIMALS.

  12. I think Sterling and Stiviano are representative of the least common denominator of all races: hypocrisy. Stiviano is offended after learning that Sterling doesn’t care for black people (she claims to be half black) while she voluntarily entered an adulterous relationship and got paid handsomely to do it. So she’s upset her sugar daddy doesn’t like her choice of associates, big deal! Who cares! We’re talking about the lowest form of human being here, the type that will do anything including the selling of their body and integrity for financial gain. To contemplate the racial implications of the their interactions and statements is like deciding the value of religious tolerance when contemplating how Catholic was Al Capone.

  13. White Hispanics will go far. The White supermacist system is so serious that even Latinos and Blacks are fighting against themselves it like the equation of Blacks were enslaved, indoctrinated by Europeans then Asians, Arabs, Latinos have this enviousness, racism against Black people. For what though, and yet our ‘culture is attractive’.
    Guess Black people will never have friends…even Black Latinos are discriminated against because they’re dark. Well the Hispanics and Portuguese started slavery anyways. Look at Brazil, they have the most Black population BUT those who identify as Black and Brown people live the poorest. If you mixed race it’ll depends because if you have the melanin dominance of wide nose, big lips, afro hair then you’re discriminated against the lighter mixed-race person with more European traits of eyes, curly long/straight hair etc. It’s like a eugenics playground where, every non-white people fight amongst themselves and these people keep using science, media to flip the inferiority complex. Black and Brown peoples are like 80% in the world. It’s less in America because Latinos dominate more than African Americans thanks to abortion (Margaret Sander) and other indoctrinated paradimes so the population has decreased. It’s almost like Black people can never win at anything thanks to propaganda racial stereotypes in a neo-European society. Regardless of what history said about the melanin (not the one taught at school).

    By the way, good article though. 🙂 🙂 🙂

  14. Great Post! My question is where will American’s stand on this issue in 20-30 years when most races will be mixed? We can’t choose the “other” box forever.

  15. It is sad, disgusting and down right laughable how far “white people” are willing to go to benefit of everyone else’s hard labour in order to avoid doing any themselves. Sterling wouldn’t be in America had it not been for the co-operation of black slaves who literally made America. America would be no where had the original tribes killed off the first few “explorers” when they first landed. But this is the thanks blacks and “Latinos” (which really isn’t even a race) get.

    Why are we still classifying people into racial categories? what is it suppose to achieve?

  16. Brilliant post. Nothing less than that.
    A few thoughts while reading this:
    I was adopted, not knowing my background, but when you look at my picture… have you ever seen anything quite as Irish? I’d heard there is also some German and Irish in there. My wife is Spanish/Apache (not Mexican, and I say that just as an academic reference), our daughter-in-law is Cambodian. So our grandson is…? Twenty-first Century Californian;
    we have yet to elect a Black President;
    I used to work with a young woman whose maiden name and all four married names were Hispanic. She once admitted to using 50 SPF sunscreen every time she went out because she didn’t want to come off as one of those “dark skinneded (no typo there) Mexicans”;
    I have been told that Latinos cannot be racist against whites nor can Blacks;
    it was perfectly acceptable for my mother-in-law to tell me and anyone within earshot that I didn’t like beans because I was a “Honkie” but it would have been blasphemous for me to say she ate them with every meal ’cause she was a “Beaner”;
    is Justin Bieber or Eminem or Kim Kardashian an “Honorary Black”?
    what are Native Americans aside from invisible?
    when a mixed race couple I knew had to fill out some school forms for their children, they were told to identify one as “Black” the other as “Caucasion”;
    Jewish comedy writer Larry David has more Latin DNA than Jessica Alba, who has said she plans to raise “beautiful Latino babies” in spite of the fact that two of their grandparents are white, one is black;
    and finally…
    what the hell difference should it make?
    And V. Stiviano?
    She’d say she was from Neptune if TMZ would pay enough for the exclusive.

  17. This is an awesome post. I am white, and my significant other is dark skinned, although not 100% positive on his heritage. When we started dating, we had a conversation about what our families, and he told me his [dark skinned] mother would actually prefer that he bring home someone white. I was definitely surprised to hear that people still had an opinion on race! It’s absurd to me that people, both whites, blacks, and anyone in-between, care.

  18. There is no such thing as “whiteness” or “white people” this whole idea is flawed, there are german/english/irish/italian/polish etc… americans, who are all very different and come from different cultures and traditions and histories and religions. Looking at America through the lens of “whiteness” is distorting, many Mexican-Americans and Mexicans do consider themselves mainly European, they are not being “whitified” they are descendants of Europe. Genetic studies on Mexicans show that they are on average 68% European, and their culture is very European, they aren’t becoming anything they already were more European than not in terms of ethnicity, culturally America is made of many cultures, there is no “white culture” because there are no “white people” I am an Irish American, I am NOT English or anglo-saxon. I won’t be lumped into “white.” The problem is that america is grouped into “white” and minority categories, did you know that minority is defined as “anyone who is not non-hispanic european,” so even if there were only 20% European Americans, the other 80% would still be consider a minority, ha! There is no “honorary whiteness” because there is no “whiteness” There is no collective blackness unless people really think that way. Because “white people” don’t think of themselves as a group, we are just perceived that way because we have the same skin color, I don’t just randomly identify with anyone with light skin anymore than an african american would automatically just identify with dark skinned people, even when our cultures are different. I’ve never met a south asian who identifies as being part of a collective “black.” The idea of a “white” identity is a misconception, since no people actually identify with this title other than as a simple description of skin color, it is not a cultural identity or anything but a misconception caused by the way various European americans have been perceived by other groups.

  19. This really encapsulated some concerns I have felt about the way that Latin people are depicted in society. As a black woman, I believe I have a tendency to see brown skin as blackness and feel betrayed when I see brown people seek whiteness. I worry about how things change as the population changes. Talking to Dominican people has been very eye opening for me: people who look so much like me and so many hate the idea of being black. It is a complex topic but I was very taken by your take on it. Thank you for this.

  20. Blackness, whiteness and everything in between was created by lazy economists who sought for easy ways to classify humans and in so doing, to link behaviour and quality of life to skin colour.

    The Japanese fought against being labelled “yellow,” arguing that it is an insult to be classified by skin colour in their culture. That’s how the fight against racisim and this needless categorisation should be.

    If we want to classify people by colour, then there’s no white. Am angered when men of pink skin tones are referred to as white and when men of brown or darker skin tones are referred to as blacks.

    Till this categorisation of people into these wholesale skin-colour brackets is fought against, racism will find ways to rear itself up and continually entrench divisions. There are Germans, and there are the Swedes, there are Ghanaians and there are the Nigerians, there are Japanese and there are the Chineese, there are the English, the Irish, the Spanish descent etc. etc. but there is no white and there is no black because colour does not determine taste nor culture nor any other categorisation useful in describing humans.

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