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The Race vs. Ethnicity Debate, and Resisting the Urge to Define Others

“But you don’t really look Hispanic.” – This is a comment I would hear all the time growing up.  And it didn’t stop when I was an adult either.  I’ve heard it from colleagues in graduate school, from strangers, and I even heard it from a friend’s husband just a couple months ago.  When people say this type of comment to me, I try to understand the context of where it is coming from (usually after I spend un poquito amount of time stewing about it).  I look at myself in the mirror every day, and I still can’t figure out what the mystery is.  These words are almost always said by a White American of European ancestry - usually someone whose family has lived/occupied the U.S. for many generations.  As a psychologist, I’ve learned through studying emotions and behavior that people generally have discomfort with ambiguity.  In the United States, there’s a historical context of White people being at the center of “cultural and social norms”, even though this is rarely the case in reality, and even though there is evidence to suggest otherwise.  People tend to feel safer knowing they are surrounded with people who mirror them and are like-minded; people who understand them.  It also saves them the discomfort of having to look outside of themselves and potentially face the fact that they do not fully understand something about me, something that they believe they should know.   Afterall, how can I really be Latina if I just went out for bagels and lox?  (Stereotypes are still a real thing, FYI).  This type of cognitive short-cut certainly does not only exist for White Americans, however, the need to have a clear answer to the “race question” seems to be fueled by fear and intergenerational patterns of racial oppression in this country.  Despite my understanding some of why this happens, it does continue to sting every time.  Like many BIPOC individuals, I’m then faced with deciding whether I should educate this person or not.  It’s a constant internal debate.

One of the biggest areas of confusion that exists when it comes to culture is differentiating the concepts of “race” and “ethnicity”.  While social scientists know that both race and ethnicity are social constructs (which I agree with), these concepts are still essential for understanding a person’s individual, family, and social context, and important for how people define themselves.  These identifiers also continue to have definitions imposed upon them by other groups; it can be a challenge for to fully define oneself and have others respect your own definition. Given this, let’s clarify what we mean when we talk about race and ethnicity:

Race can loosely be defined as physical and biological differences that groups and cultures consider to be socially significant.  This can include skin color, facial features, hair, and other attributes.  Ethnicity on the other hand has a broader context and is more about a person’s cultural expression and their place/country of origin (either by birth or by lineage), which includes (but is not limited to) language, mannerisms, food, dress, music, and in some places, includes cultural practices such as religion.

Because I cannot speak personally about any group’s experience other than my own, I think it’s important to highlight how the concepts of Race and Ethnicity can be regularly misunderstood in the U.S.  There’s a large portion of people that believe that there is a Latinx or Hispanic racial group.  I want to dispel this myth - there is not.  Throughout the U.S., Mexico, Central America, South America, and the entire rest of the world, Latinx and Hispanic people exist and regularly identify within many different racial groups.  I personally can identify my racial groups as White, Black, and Native South American.  I was born in the United States, although my father was born in South America.  This makes me a multiracial person with Ethnic heritage that is European and South American.  Many Latinx and Hispanic people throughout the world typically identify as multiracial, given the historical context of their countries of origin and colonialism.  Most people from Venezuela identify as mixed race, which is where my father is from.  There are also people that are fully Latinx or Hispanic that are not mixed race.  Race means something different in each country and on each continent.  In the U.S. because Latinx and Hispanic people sometimes share a language (of course they don’t share the exact same language, but it can seem that way when “Spanish” is referenced), ethnic groups are often lumped together as a racial group.  Also, many Latinx and Hispanic people don’t speak Spanish, however, this does not actually change their race or their ethnicity.  Coupled with the fact that many U.S. Census forms focus on all people living in the U.S. as being “Hispanic” or “Non-Hispanic” in Ethnicity, there can be a lot of confusion about what all this means.

Given the massive amounts of misinformation out there, here’s how you can best support your partner(s), friends, family members, coworkers, and others in your community.  It’s crucial to allow people to define themselves and their own identities without questioning it.  It’s time to let go of the fears of the unknown and allow people their own experiences.  Trying to figure out someone’s background by looking at them or defining who they must be based on very limited information you have, ends up invalidating that person.  Some people might brush it off, and for others it may have a lasting impact.  It is easy to make assumptions about people based on categories; in some ways it’s how our brains were trained to learn about the world around us.  It maybe even feels safer to do this, because it can feel terrible inside when you don’t know something that you think you “should have known” or have made a mistake, however, what’s worse is when your self-protective instincts end up hurting those around you.  It can take more effort and courage to be curious and to allow space for things we don’t know.  Educating ourselves, owning our mistakes, and having compassion for ourselves and others when we do mess up is how we can best deal with ambiguity, and how we can be the best versions of ourselves.

Dr. Amanda Rios, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist & Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist

CORE – Center of Relational Empowerment, PC

[email protected]

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