Race-work, Race-love

Latina — a story of continued racial/ethnic construction

In Uncategorized on November 3, 2010 at 11:06 am

On November 1st, 2010, I posted this message on Facebook:
Dear world: Please stop calling people of Latin American descent “Latin”. Latin is a language not an ethnic designation. Just like I don’t call people who speak English “English”. Same goes for Spanish. Some of us have never been to Spain. Thanks world for listening.

On November 2nd, I received this response:
“This post is wrought with contradictions. Latin is used as a noun and an adjective. One of the definitions of Latin is “n. -A member of a Latin people, especially a native or inhabitant of Latin America.” Which you effectively admit when you call them people of Latin American descent. As an adjective it describes the same people as in “adj. -of or relating to the countries or peoples using languages, especially Spanish, that developed from Latin; of or relating to the peoples or countries of Latin America”
Though not ethnic, English IS, in fact a designation and so is Spanish. Which you concede by the implication that some of us have never been to Spain and are therefore probably not Spanish. The contradiction exists in your distinction between language and geography. A distinction which you affirm in one sentence and exclude in the next.
Another contradiction exists in the claim that your term is based on heritage one moment but then not in the next.

It would be wrong to call an Albanian a China-man. It would even be more silly to call him a kangaroo. Ultimately what you are dealing with is language. What word do you use to describe any given group of people and based on what criteria? No one deserves to be called something they are not and it is certainly wrong to offend anyone by calling them something derogatory, but if you’re going to argue purely on the basis of semantics I just think you need a better case”.

At an immediate glance, this response is a provocative one. The respondent’s use of the dictionary as his source of authority, use of derogatory descriptions such as “China-man”, and the ways in which he interpreted a short Facebook message to be an argument based on semantics while at the same time claiming I used other factors to support my request (i.e. language, geography, heritage), makes for an interesting attempt of a well-thought out response. This response, while limited, is probably a reaction or response many would have on this topic and why it is useful to continue exploring. Particularly because, semantically speaking, conversations on definitions of particular terms such as Latino/a or Hispanic during times of racial, economic, and political changes in our society are useful debates to have – a limitation of all dictionaries.

Despite all of this, the respondent does identify some interesting points. The respondent relays three important areas that can help address the Latino/a experience: language, geography, and heritage. The respondent uses these issues to say that these reasons, although not explicit, were ineffective because they contradicted each other. Then he concludes by reducing my request to not be referred as a “Latin” person to an issue of semantics. Semantics, in the respondent’s mind, is the wrong reason for my personal request to not be identified as Latin.

Essentially, I am being asked to provide a case to define myself (and others in my racial/ethnic group) using someone else’s standards. Broadly, this poses interesting questions: how does one define a Latino/a? How do Latinos/as define themselves? According to the respondent, Latinos/as should not define themselves, at least not by standards Latinos might want to attempt to create. No. Instead, we should look to the dictionary and find out how “they” define “us”.

The respondent continues the process of oversimplifying the power and perhaps importance of designation. He uses the example of an Albanian who shouldn’t be identified as a chinaman (a derogatory racial term) and then an animal (kangaroo). The extremes between a racial slur and being categorized as an animal is very historical. The founding fathers felt the same way about Black people in the U.S. Black people were defined by a derogatory term (the n-word) and being 2/3 human and 1/3 animal. So are these the parameters we should use? And if we do use these parameters should we ignore all the factors in between?

Or should these be the precise reasons why people who have been historically oppressed in this country have the ability to define themselves, before a dictionary (or the people who wrote it) can?

Ultimately this is a perfect example of how people in dominant cultures or populations want to define, create parameters for that definition, and impose this thinking on others.

Rather than allow us to define ourselves, we are told “Go ahead define yourselves, but make sure that definition matches OUR standards and meets OUR approval”. But who has the authority to define a people? Who has the power to create designations? A dictionary? Perhaps we, those of us who want to think and create our own labels, should start asking people “Who makes you the authority in defining us?” Maybe I should start requesting ID’s.

“Let us see your ID” says Ice Cube to a campus police officer in Higher Learning.

This respondent might then argue and state that he has no political power. He is not a politician and he didn’t write the dictionary. Right?

And here we meet the power of education. This is the precise moment where education comes in and reminds us who is in power and who is not; who historically has had the power to define and who has not; who can say who is a human and who is not. So that one does not have to hold that power per se, but simply be aligned with, look like, talk the same way, and express similar sentiments as those who do.

Education provides the tool of language, for those in dominant populations, to assert power without overtly doing it. The respondent exemplifies this when he says “No one deserves to be called something they are not and it is certainly wrong to offend anyone by calling them something derogatory, but if you’re going to argue purely on the basis of semantics I just think you need a better case”.

So the question is why not? I could provide a historical, economic, political, racial perspective on why the term Latin is not appropriate. Perhaps that will be for another paper (and here begs another question – will people take the time to read such a paper?). But before I do that, I would like to know why Education has empowered certain groups of people and certain books (e.g. dictionaries) to be authorities in how I wish to define myself or how I may propose we should designate a group to which I belong?

Here are my parameters: Tell me what you have done to advance a population of Hispanic/Latino people. I hear some people say “Well what more can I do — I know some words in Spanish, learned a few dances, and eat some “Latin” food, and some of my best friends are Hispanic. What else is there?”

Contributing to the political, economic, educational uplift of Hispanic/Latino/a people. Exploring with others ways to provide better opportunities for historically disenfranchised, and the continued disenfranchisement of this group. I think it is ok to start there.

Maybe I should start requesting ID’s. The same way we are asked to prove our credentials. How well would that work?

The difference between those of us who quote the dictionary and those of us who use the dictionary as one of many sources, is the ability to create new thoughts, new knowledge. I respect the dictionary. But I also respect the works of Latino/a intellectuals who have argued for and defended against the oversimplification of a racial/ethnic designations. Some thinkers believe that Latino or Hispanic is still not good enough because the term provide allegiance to European influence and domination while neglecting African and Native heritages. In this debate, many others would prefer the term Hispanic and not Latino/a. It is time to put all these thoughts together and continue the conversation. Continue the knowledge. Continue the race-work.

To begin, it is important, and perhaps easier, to identify what we are not.

I argue that the term Latin is being dangerously used as Oriental was once used. As an ornament, a rug, a salsa dance, a latin dance, a latin food, a latin people – objects in our society. I am not saying I am right or wrong, I am just calling it like I see it. And I am not comfortable with what I see.

I argue that Hispanic/Latino is still not a good enough term. Neither of these designations give visibility to my African and Native heritage. Instead I am being miseducated about what it means to be Latin American – that we can only possibly come from a people who speak Spanish, Italian, or Portuguese. What about Quechua, Nahual, Aymara? What of the African languages lost due to Spanish and European domination?

For now, Latino/a will do. For now, Latino/a helps identify people with some common experiences in the United States, often descendants of Latin Americans, often speaking Spanish, very often being identified by Others.

And if none of that helps, in Spanish the letter “o” is used to designate men, and “a” for women. Hence Latino or Latina and not Latin. Of course — for simplicity’s sake.

There are no final answers in these questions. But as the Latino/a population continues to grow, there is a continuing need for more Latino/a intellectuals to enter this debate. Other allies who can contribute to the discussion. Other thinkers to educate us on this argument. That is the beauty of scholarship.

But for now, if you are going to identify me by a racial/designation, don’t call me Latin. I am not a food. I am not a dance.

I am ok with Latina — until my colleagues and I get together to come up with a better term. And we may entertain dictionary entries, but understand we are going to question who wrote that dictionary and will consult other sources as well.

That is how I do race-work.

That is what I mean by race-love.


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