Jul 25, 2014

Who gets whiter where?

I’ve been busy settling in to a new job (Assistant professor of geography at York University and a new home (in the fantastic West St. Claire neighbourhood of Toronto) and haven’t had much time to blog, so please forgive me for responding way late to a media tizzy back in late May and early June about increasing numbers of Latinos identifying as white on the US census. 

In case you missed this, the basics are that the New York Times published a piece by Nate Cohn under the headline More Hispanics Declaring Themselves White. Julio Ricardo Varela, over at Latino Rebels, argues that the article was made sweeping generalizations based on someone else’s blog post, that was based on a third person’s conference presentation of unpublished research.  Wow, academics, just imagine where your next power point could travel! Crazy. Perhaps in response to Varela, Nate Cohn seems to have later actually interviewed the author of the original study and published a second clarifying article: Pinpointing Another Reason That More Hispanics Are Identifying as White.  Here he clarifies that perhaps more are identifying as white in part because of a major change in the way the census asked the question, but argues that would only explain about half of the change.

What is strange to me about both Cohn’s two pieces, and Varela’s two responses, are that neither mention that the long and sordid history of blanqueamiento in Latin America.  Cohn writes as if Latino immigrants suddenly gain a desire for whiteness once they arrive in the US, and Varela seems indignant and deeply disagree that people are trying to become white. 
But what of the terrifying prevalence of whitening creams throughout Latin America? (I found them in every major drugstore and grocery store in Bogota, for example) What of hair straightening and dying? And blue and green contact lenses? Or ‘ethnosurgery’ for ‘whiter’ noses? And what of the long history of policies across Latin America to promote  ‘white’ immigration, supposedly as a way to become more ‘modern’? It’s a creepy history, and one that I detail for Colombia in particular in my article “Mona, mona, mona!” Whiteness, tropicality, and the international in Colombia. In it I try to think about how this history shapes the ways international solidarity is done and read today in Colombia. It’s still a draft and I’d love any comments and suggestions. 
It all sent me looking for the mona lisa photo above, which is a play on the word mona, Colombian slang for white girl.  Well, I discovered there is also a version circulating that says this is what happens after a week in the US.  Hmmm.
 (Note, this scuffle also led to the hashtag #whatlatinoslooklike, which seemed to be about denying claims to whiteness, but then, strangely, the colorlines article that collates some of those starts with a pic that features a girl who appears to be albino.)

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