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January 16, 2020

What Makes Someone Latinx? Identity, Part 2

identity

Camila and Susana are two Latinx professional women.  Also, they are not Latinx – there is more to them than meets the eye or ear.  Camila grew up in Buenos Aires with an Argentinian mom and a Guatemalan dad, but as the Jewish granddaughter of European immigrants, she feels most connected to Israel.  Susana is biologically White, but as a fluent Spanish speaker with decades of close ties to Mexico, and cultural comfort with Latinos, she often passes as Latinx.

Since most organizations strive to categorize people into simple identity boxes, intersectional multi-identity people like Camila and Susana present challenges we’ve already discussed. “Intersectionality” was coined by scholar and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe how interlocking systems of power affect marginalized people through the combination of our various identities – for example a woman of color’s experience is different from that of a man of color because of her gender. And while there are concrete practices others can adopt that create more inclusive environments for multi-identity people, those like us who live intersectionality every day often struggle with existential questions: What makes someone Latinx?  And who has the right to claim a Latinx identity?

Is identity a choice?

While others can adapt to be more inclusive of multi-identity people and reap the rewards, intersectional individuals have to adapt by engaging the questions our multi-identity raises. When the world constantly asks us to choose between our multiple selves, or regularly dismisses one of them, how do we identify in a way that makes sense and feels right? What do we have the right to identify with?

The individualistic answer would be: you have the right to identify however you wish. This approach is tempting because it’s simple and empowering. However, identity has always been co-created with one’s group because it functions to identify a person as a member of that group and bestow the corresponding benefits and responsibilities. The individualistic answer can be dangerous precisely because of those benefits and responsibilities. 

Is it ok to claim a Latinx identity without biological Latinx heritage?

While “passing” as White or male is an historic strategy that women and people of color have long employed to enjoy greater physical safety, work opportunities and social access, proclaiming membership in a community of color without the corresponding genes presents an entirely different dynamic because it represents a “power-down” rather than “power-up” move in the social hierarchy. Doing so at one’s own discretion can confer unearned benefits without taking on the responsibilities. Responsibilities include assuming the duties and disadvantages of the identity. Individuals who claim membership in a community of color only when it’s convenient, and do so without “permission,” are rightly accused of exercising white privilege or cultural appropriation. One need only look to Rachel Dolezal’s infamous “passing” as an African American for an example of the destruction such identity appropriation can cause.

However, if a community confers their identity on an individual, that is another matter. Susana has only identified herself as Latina twice – both in superficial social situations just to see if she could get away with it. On official documents she identifies as White, “other” or “it’s complicated.” However, many Mexicans, Latin@s and Chicano@s have identified her as Mexican, Latina or Chicana for three decades. It’s through an interplay between others’ perceptions and Susana’s own sense of belonging in Latinx culture that her multi-identity was forged. Read the rest on American Diversity Report!

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