Labeling people by their race is often a controversial subject of debate in political and social circles. Why classify people as Hispanics, Latinos or African-Americans when they can all be simply called Americans by virtue of them being citizens of the United States. However it appears that there is some political gains to be made by the use of ethnic labeling and often this kind of classification is very damaging or restricting. For example a person who comes from a Spanish speaking family and is labeled a Latino is expected to behave in certain race-specific manner. he/she is expected to be really 'hip', an expert in salsa or other forms of dancing, not really good in academics, coming from a poor family and supporting a certain political party. But what if that one individual wants to defy all these restricting attributes because he/she is not a Latino but an individual with his/her own beliefs, values, ways of thinking, social approach, political affiliation etc. However it is not always easy to behave in what is seen as uncharacteristic of the race you belong to when there are ethnic labels attached to you. A TV show on NPR (Talk of the Nation) featured Professor Harry Pachon, president Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, Claremont Graduate University to discuss "Latino and Hispanic identity in the U.S." The show was aired on 30th September 2002 in which a caller entered the conversation with this insightful observation about ethnic labeling and its impact:
I'm a little concerned whenever I hear the term 'Latino' or 'Hispanic,' particularly in the context of the United States 'cause these are labels that I find that most of us immigrants only learn once we immigrate into the United States. Now what happens with these terms is that they're oftentimes used by an elite who is the elite in the Latin American countries of origin. They come here and they use these labels to wash over many of the differences -- racial and quiet differences that exist in those countries. Now people are asked to vote and support a particular representative or leader because of their national origin, oftentimes ignoring the fact that their interests conflict with their own. And this is something that's terribly upsetting to me, particularly when you consider that racism and classicism in Latin America is alive and well like it has never been before. (NPR, discussion with Prof. Pachon, 9/30/2002)
Hispanics, or Latinos whatever the political groups choose to call them are just like all other racial minorities, victim of political manipulation. They do not refer to themselves as Hispanics or Latinos and some are probably ever confused about these classifications because they do not seem to fit any of these. We must understand that Latinos and Hispanics are simply ethnic labels used by the government and that too strictly within the UIS borders. These very people will never hear being called Latino or Hispanic when outside the U.S. In all likelihood, they would either be called Americans. Their race is not an important issue around the world by for the U.S. government this appears to be the most important problem and for this reason, so many racial classifications exist.
These labels are political ones used almost exclusively within a U.S. context. "Hispanic" was a label adopted by the federal government in the 1970's for the purpose of classifying census data and administering federal programs....The term "Hispanic" is used to refer to people from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Central or South America, as well as to people from other Spanish cultures or origins. In parts of California, the preferred term is "Latino"..."Latino" is the term of reference that best fits the criteria of respecting the diverse national origins of Latin American populations..."Latino" also connotes cultural pluralism by virtue of being a Spanish word. Alternatively, the term "Hispanic," an English term, is assimilationist to the extent that it connotes an incorporation into mainstream U.S. white European values with some degree of cultural distinction (legacy from Spain)...." (Bernal et al. 1994)
It is very easy to see why these labels are inappropriate. When these labels were first created, they defined a group of people who spoke a certain language, came from a certain financial background and were mostly uneducated and poor. With the passage of time, even though things changed somewhat, the basic attributes of a Latino group remained the same in people's mind mainly because of these labels. One interesting observation is that it is because of the labels that people start behaving the way they are expected to. Labeling theory suggests that when we label people, they consciously or unconsciously start behaving in label-specific manner, making themselves victims of social or political classifications. These Latino and Hispanic labels originated in 1970s and actually referred to group of people from Latin America who were mostly uneducated and unskilled. Now even after three decades, we still have the same perceptions about Latin American living in the U.S., thanks to the political labels.
In the 1970s, we gained an awareness of the new social reality that Spanish-speaking groups from Latin America had become the largest foreign-language community in the United States. Soon they are probably to become the largest class of minority groups, surpassing the size of the black population. Many of the new immigrants were poor and unskilled, and many of these newcomers were strikingly unassimilated. The new reality needed a new word. Bureaucrats, academics, and the press wanted a generic term specifically for the masses of unassimilated Latin Americans, so the name Hispanics was coined from the adjective Hispanic and soon was in wide use. Latinos, also straight from the adjectival combining form, competes, but is not heard as often as Hispanics." (Allen, 1990: 82-83)
Labeling in many cases leads to development of anti-social behavior as well. This happens when we regularly label people and expect them to have certain characteristics for example African-American youth has often been labeled as aggressive, violent and hostile etc. Thus we notice that many young African-Americans residing in poor areas develop these attributes. Similarly when we label people as Latinos or Hispanics, we urge them to exhibit the same traits that most people of their race are expected to have.
Labeling theory explains this connection. This theory mostly discusses criminal activities and anti-social behavior and maintains that rigid social rules or expectations are directly responsible for the development of 'eccentric' personality traits. Calhoun writes, "Labeling theory also helps explain the longer-term consequences of a deviant label on a person's social identity." In other words, this theory says that people indulge in socially unacceptable activities because they suffer from certain labels from a very young age. In short, it is important to understand that certain type of behavior exhibited by people of certain race is normally linked with social factors because it is believed that family, peers and environment have a profound impact on people's behavior and personality. This helps us in understanding why people of certain cultures and social groups are more likely to develop anti-social personality traits. Apart from criminal and immoral activities, there are certain non-criminal behavior patterns that emerge from wrong social expectations arising from labels. These activities may include disinterest in studies, emphasis on activities that people under that a certain label are usually found involved in, dressing up in a certain manner etc. Race as such has no real significance especially in a multiethnic society of America but this is where it is used and abused most often. We classify people by race simply because it helps us put them into certain categories according to general social perception. For example a Latino would be the last person to be elected for school debates or academic activities while he would be given preference over others when it comes to dance competitions. Assistant Professor at Harvard Mica Pollock, author of forthcoming book, "Colormute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School" explains in an interview:
Race groups have no genetic validity; they were first created to facilitate slavery and colonialism, to classify people and distribute privileges and freedoms using visible but genetically insignificant traits (skin, hair, noses, etc.). Since then, we have continued to make race groups socially real, by organizing job opportunities, resources, marriages, and friendships around them. We do this in all sorts of everyday ways. Indeed, every time we use a race label to describe someone, we reinforce our own tendencies (and the tendencies of those around us) to see and classify people in genetically bogus racial terms."
So while the people may tell us that labeling others according to race is nothing serious and thus not to be considered political issue, it is important to be aware of the impact of this type of labeling so we can effectively counter such attempts. We need to understand that people especially those of younger generation who grew up in the United States and have little or no idea of their roots as Latinos or Hispanics…