not so black and white

What makes someone a ‘person of color’ or ‘white’ in America?

Elena Scotti/FUSION

I had seen his face on screen so many times before, yet I never knew his name, nor that he was a person of color. I never knew he was an Egyptian-American. I never knew that he identified strongly with his heritage, and spoke out about how Middle Easterners are negatively portrayed in the media.

When Rami Malek, star of the television series Mr. Robot, recently became the first “non-white” person to win an Emmy for best actor in a drama since 1998, the accomplishment was rightfully celebrated. Yet there was—in my mind, at least—a profound irony at play on the occasion. How can he be a person of color if at first glance I assumed him to be white American?

For days, I ruminated on the subject because it’s a question I’ve long asked of myself: a light-skinned Cuban American who strongly identifies with Latinxs and the brown experience of growing up in the U.S., but who you could easily mistake for a white dude until you hear me speak Spanish.

It’s hardly a new subject, but is one that’s been under-discussed, even as the umbrella of who’s considered “non-white” has grown over the years; Latinxs of any race have been considered non-white by the federal government since 1970, which means a black Dominican, an indigenous Colombian, and I all somehow fall under the same not technically racialized, yet totally racialized, linguistically based category.

Like the Spanish language, Islam has steadily been racialized under American law since 9/11, despite the fact that Arabs and North Africans—often Muslim—are technically white, according to the federal government. Many Asian Americans have also opted in to the “non-white” fold, even though they’ve been told that they don’t have to, really, carry the burden of being a “person of color.”

We attach claims of racism to things that are other types of bias; religious bigotry, classism, and discrimination against country of origin being the most prominent (think American conservatives refusing to allow Syria’s refugees who are Muslims come to their states, while declaring that its Christians neighbors are okay). This broadens the umbrella of the term “non-white” even further.

“The English language seems to lump the colors together and treats white—the noncolor—as a race and a word apart,” wrote New York Times language columnist William Safire back in 1988. “It strikes me, then, that people of color is a phrase often used by non-whites to put non-white positively. (Why should anybody want to define himself by what he is not?) Politically, it expresses solidarity with other non-whites, and subtly reminds whites that they are a minority.”

“White” is being used as more of an ethnic and class marker, rather than a strictly racial term.

Yet in recent years, “white” is being used as more of an ethnic and class marker, rather than a strictly racial term; over time, non-white people have become white. Indeed, we’re seeing Latinxs increasingly choosing to identify as white regardless of their skin tone, and multiracial Asian Americans are doing the same. Asians “who have achieved the educational and financial success of whites, equate whiteness with economic prosperity and prestige,” wrote authors of a Stanford paper on biracialism published this year. Latinxs are likewise following suit, while biracial black and white people hold on to their African-American identity across generations, according to the same paper.

The researchers attribute this phenomenon to the fact that “black heritage has been a much stronger determinant of the individual’s life chances than ties to other racial and ethnic minority groups.” In other words, black Americans often see the limitations they face as intrinsically linked to the “experience of deprivation and suffering” of black Americans in general. With Latinxs and Asians, not so much.

“The preference for whiteness among Hispanics parallels a flight from blackness” and towards more economic opportunity, William Darity Jr., professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University, wrote earlier this year.

Together, this all suggests that the terminology of the non-white/white binary is less about melanin, and more about identity politics, class mobility, and being perceived as anything but black than is commonly acknowledged.

In the most cynical sense, being a person of color is only a stopover or place of refuge for a broad swath of ethnic and racial groups—to the exclusion and erasure of black American issues.

Take how these current trends in identity politics are affecting black immigrant groups. Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University, told me that black immigrant groups are “choosing to keep their immigrant status over generations, which we’ve never seen before.” In the past, they would’ve likely assimilated into black America, she said, but they now see an advantage in choosing to identify as “person of color” and not “black.”

“Before, it was whites vs. non-whites, and whites were keeping out all these other people, and deciding over time who could become white,” Greer told me. “We’ve reached a moment in time where it’s blacks vs. non-blacks, and other immigrant groups are trying not to be in the black category, including black immigrants.”

So, how does this affect black Americans?

“They’re perceived as being in last place in a country of immigrants, even though black Americans are the only non-voluntary immigrants to the country,” she said.

“People of color” emphasizes solidarity over precision, and there’s value in that.

Which brings me back to the question of whether I, or Malek, are really people of color. Or rather, the question of where we really fit into this minefield of American racial discourse. Does it really make sense that I—a son of Spanish-speaking immigrants who’s never dealt with real discrimination in his life, and who might have very well benefited from white privilege—consider myself in the same group as black Americans who live such a dramatically different racial experience?

It’s a loaded question, and yet I recognize the inclusive reasoning behind the urge to do so. After all, there’s a reason why Martin Luther King Jr. referred to “citizens of color” in his “I Have a Dreamspeech. As a phrase, “people of color” emphasizes solidarity over precision, and there’s value in that. The perceived polarity between white and non-white people is millennial shorthand for the ugliest part of the liberal-conservative divide: Do you stand for inclusivity and diversity, or do you reject them?

But when there are only two flawed parties to choose from—one consisting of a loose coalition of minorities and the other a self-homogenizing group—there’s really no room for a third, more honest option for those of us who fall somewhere in between. After all, you don’t join a coalition because you want to join a coalition; you join it as a temporary way to further your own goals, until one day you’re strong enough to set out on your own. That’s the paradox of President Barack Obama’s historic presidency: He’s faced constant criticism for not doing “enough for black people,” yet going too far out on a limb for black America could undermine the coalition that helped put him in the White House in the first place.

As we move forward into the impending reality of a majority-minority United States, the “non-white” coalition is portraying a united front that makes up the “other” American experience, and not a fractured summation of all the parts.

So again: Am I, a light-skinned Cuban American, a person of color? There’s no gatekeepers to this club, and that’s the most confusing part. But thinking about it really hard, I’d have to say that yes, I am. America doesn’t give me much a choice in the matter.