Applying Psychological Science, Benefiting Society

“But You Speak So Well”: How Latinos Experience Subtle Racism


By Silvia L. Mazzula, PhD (Asst. Professor of Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY). Dr. Mazzula is also the President-Elect of the Latino Psychological Association of New Jersey.

Last month marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and across the U.S., many Americans proclaimed that Dr. King’s dream had indeed come true. Perhaps many people believe this because overt acts of racism aren’t as common and are typically frowned upon. However, covert forms of racism are all too common.

These more subtle forms of racism are called “microaggressions” and communicate hostile and racial insults. Microaggressions are things said or done – many times unconsciously – that reflect a person’s inner thinking, stereotypes and prejudices. They are difficult to recognize because they are brief, innocuous, and often difficult to see.  Why are they important to talk about?  Because microaggressions are pervasive and have a detrimental impact on people’s psychological and physiological well-being.

What kinds of microaggressions do Latinas/os experience?

If you are Latina or Latino, you may have heard comments such as, “Wow, you speak so well… You are not like them… You are really smart… OR You are different and they will really like you.” You might even be asked repeatedly where you are from if your first answer is a city or state in the U.S.

The take away messages from these simple statements are clear for many of us who study microaggressions and racism: You are not acting like those Latinas/os who don’t quite behave like the “norm” – which essentially is referring to White Anglo-American.  After experiencing a microaggression, you might wonder, “Were they giving me a compliment or telling me that people from my culture are less than” or “Were they really curious about where I live or were they telling me that I don’t belong – that I’m not American?”

As a Latina, I have heard similar comments over and over again- as a student, as a professional, and as a faculty member.   When you bring it up to someone, you might get responses similar to the ones I received in the past –  that you are overreacting, thinking too much about a simple statement, or bringing up the ‘race card’ when it wasn’t there.

Research tells us microaggressions are an all too common experience for Latinas/os

My colleague, Dr. Kevin Nadal, and I recently presented a paper at the 2013 APA Convention on Latinas/os’ experiences with microaggressions1.  Our findings prove microaggressions are very real experiences for many Latinos/as living in the United States. Almost all of our participants, 98%, had experienced some type of microaggression within the last six months! We also found that when people experience microaggressions, they tend to experience mental health issues like depression and a more negative outlook of the world.

When examining gender, ethnic background and place of birth, we found the following:

  • Latina women experienced more microaggressions at work and at school than Latino men,
  • Latinas and Latinos of Dominican descent experienced being exoticized and treated as a sexual object more than other Latinos,
  • Puerto Ricans experienced being treated as second-class citizens or as criminals, more than any other Latino ethnic group,
  • Young Latinos/as, and those with lower levels of education, experienced being invalidated more than older Latinos and those with more education, and
  • Latinos/as born outside of the U.S. were more likely to be treated as inferior compared to Latina/os born here.

Our study highlights how very real microaggressions are for Latinos/as and how having multiple oppressed identities can increase the impact of these insidious acts. The challenge to end microaggressions is a difficult and often painful task.

Because we all have biases and prejudices, we can start by asking ourselves one simple question. How do I participate in microaggressions in my day-to-day interactions and conversations? When we start to reflect on this question honestly and deliberately, we will begin put a stop to microaggressions.  But, it must start within each one of us first.

How I personally check against microaggressions

I  am conscious to not laugh or participate in racial or ethnic jokes that demean, stereotype, or “other” groups that are different than me (even like me).  When I’m feeling a little bold, I even point out to the “jokester” that they are being microaggressive.  This also includes ending racist and microaggressive jokes at my own dinner table. It may not be much, but it’s one simple thing that I can actively do.

What you can do to address microaggressions

Addressing microaggressive acts can be difficult and taxing to your emotional well being, especially with your loved ones and in your professional lives.  Sometimes, it’s helpful to first process the experience with someone who understands.  Speaking to someone who understands will not only help you think through what happened, but also help validate that what you experienced was real and that there is nothing wrong with you.

We want to hear from you – Tell us in the comments:

  • What do you do to stop microaggressions in your day-to-day interactions and conversations?
  • What do you do to take care of yourself if you are a target of these insidious and harmful acts?

You may also be interested in:

The Shared Impact of Immigration and Acculturative Stress for Latino Populations

Is It You or Is It Racist? The Insidious Impact of Microaggressions on Mental Health


1 Microaggressions were assessed with The Racial and Ethnic Microaggressions Scale (REMS; Nadal, 2011).

Nadal, K. L. (2011). The Racial and Ethnic Microaggressions Scale (REMS): Construction, reliability, and validity. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 58(4), 470-480. doi: 10.1037/a0025193

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127 Responses »

  1. From a professor at FIU “I am surprised so many good students come out of Miami Coral Park High School, which is in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood” #racism


  2. This not just a phenomena experienced by Latino/as, as a African American male, I continue to these experience both inside and outside of the academy. Microaggressions are felt across racial-ethnic lines, even from other so-called racial-ethnic minorities.


  3. I had to endure subtle and actual mocking of my native accent at the University of Texas, at the Odessa Texas Branch.
    Four bigoted Professors and a mexican-american one mistook my accent for being a dumb Mexican. Never mind my 3.0 GPA-
    This happened at UTPB in Odessa in 76 77 & 78.
    This bastards thought I was going to have an accent forever.
    well I dropped my accent 13 years ago.
    And yes white people just stare and some say you speak so well.
    An accent many times is mistaken for someone being a dumb person.
    This bastards did not allow me to complete my chosen program and offered me another degree instead.
    I threw it back at them, and went to another University.
    Raul Jimenez Salazar


  4. This very topic inspired me to write this poem about a year ago.

    I am more than the story you know

    What do you see when you look at me?
    Do you a see a person who is different?
    Am I your equal?

    I am more than the story you know.

    I am a person who has history.
    A person that has an honorable ancestry.
    Your stereotypes are part of a story that is incomplete.

    I am more than the story you know.

    I wear my ethnicity proudly.
    Not because I am better than you, but because I am different.
    My ancestors were kind, but died extending their hands.

    I am more than the story you know

    I am of a strong working class, intelligent and articulate.
    I can express my thoughts and ponder the secrets of our universe.
    I can read Shakespeare and write my own poetry.

    I am more than the story you know.

    I can love with a passion that is deep and pure
    I can grieve for those I have lost
    My story is more complex than the one you possess.

    I am more than the story you know

    I am a human being just as you
    When spilled my blood runs red just like yours
    So when our path cross do not judge me for

    I am more than the story you know

    -by Jose Raul Rivera (Puerto Rican)


  5. Whatever your background, if you are the target of this hostility, the most important thing is to call it out and let the person know in no uncertain terms that this is not acceptable behavior. If you’re worried about getting fired because it’s your boss, let them know that lawsuits are bad publicity it is a legitimate business.


  6. Where are Black Latin@s or African Descent Latin@s in your research?


  7. Obviously there are a lot of people who ascribe stereotypes to Latinos, but I think there are many occasions when curious, well-meaning people come across a bit clumsily. I am someone who speaks Spanish and is very interested in Latino/Latin American cultures, thus, if I ask where someone’s from, I am really interested in their cultural heritage beyond the fact that they are from St. Paul, MN or wherever they may have grown up. Continuing to repeat “where are you from?” may come across as a little ignorant, but it may come from a place of curiosity and interest rather than from aggression. Saludos.


    • I think curiosity should always drive us to connect with others. That is always my state of mind. However, the most common feelings that I have experienced are precisely the reactions to my thick accent, and the way I look (Brown skin, Mexican female). I have been the object of rejection in a very subtle way and I haven’t been given the same opportunities as a professional as other white folk have. From a group of 6 doctorate graduates I am the only one who hasn’t been asked to teach, with almost a perfect GPA, and with a degree to teach undergrads and graduate students, I am the only one with no classes and everybody else will be teaching 2, 3 or even 4 classes. Do you think that is microagression? It feels openly racism and discrimination. The school I graduated from is in Denver, Colorado, a very racist State, and I am struggling to make my
      degree worth…I just have so much pain.


    • Curiosity is a good word. . . in California the pop. of Latinas’/Latinos’ is humongous and yes they are very proud to state where they originate from.
      I try to be polite. . .. sometimes their names on their work badges may offer a clue. . . I just try and show respect and make them laugh.


  8. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been asked where I’m from repeatedly. Then again, I’ve also been told “Yes you are!” after responding no to some seemingly white person’s assertion that I was Native American. Sigh.


  9. you look good, have you lost weight.


  10. Thank you for writing about something that is difficult for many to acknowledge. I was encouraged to reply with a blog post on microaggressions I’ve observed as a model minority in this culture.


  11. I Think a few things should be also taken in consideration.

    First, there are Latin@s and “Latin@s”.
    If your parents were born and raised in Latinamerica and you in USA, you are NOT a Latin@ but a USAmerican with Latin roots. (You might be even concidered “Gringo” in the country your family comes from for having an US-English-Latin accent and vocabulary).

    Second, if you are originally from Latinamerica, but have been living long time in USA, you are also not a Latino, you are a Mix (both intellectually and culturally). No matter how many flags of your (Latin) country you have and how many memories from back ‘home’ you have, what you are now is a Mixture.

    Third, we live in a globalized world where roughly 5% of its population is mixed and even less are trans- or multicultural: (The reference for almost everybody in the world, is still your looks and your language/accent) – and it is not going to change in the next 100 years. Get used to it. – Clichés are here to stay. – Not ‘knowing what to do’ with a blonde latin@, a black asian or an indian looking european does not mean one is being “microagressive” or racist when communicating “curiosity” by asking further about once background, it is purely ignorance and the will to continue to learn or get clarification.

    Fourth, yes there is racial preference and discrimination in the work environment and in the sociopolitical structures (they exist EVERYWHERE). But it is in its majority not based on hatred, but on “fear of the unknown” (remember: 5% tops) again: ignorance.

    Fifth, no matter how much we try as humanist, progressivists or vanguardists to fight for equal opportunities, beauty factor (your looks and presence) is still going to play a roll in the selection process where a physical environment is given. This has to do with our tastes (social preferences). – it is not fair, but it’s just part of our emotional circuitry -. So if you don’t seem to be getting the feedback you deserve, think with honesty if it is your looks, eyes expression, body language and tonality which are making you stay back or if it’s really the color of your skin/eyes or your accent.

    You can either choose to be a victim or make the best out of the globalized idiosyncrasy. But as long as almost the whole world isn’t mixed and melted together, as long as a person like myself, with family from 3 different continents, speaking 4 different languages and with completely different cultures are not the standard, expect to be asked 2 times where you are from.
    Because the problem is not to be asked twice this same question, the problem is how you respond it the first time.

    Understand that your response to the question “who are you?” or “where do you come from?”, should not be a word, but a phrase that tells a story. (Your Story)



    • It sounds like you are in the other side of the grass that is why you invalidate how we feel. If you come from European ancestry in us. You are lucky that things were given easy to your ancestors like free soil and free tickets to North America with citizenship included. Also employment was added to package.Like now many Asian come with jobs, free rent for a year, and visa. Latinos and blacks are never given such opportunities instead after whites robbed from Mexicans we are given discrimination


      • I dont get it?!! You start off your comment by saying what is and isnt Latino and then you say that people should identify with how they respond to the question the first time? I was born in USA but I am still Latina and whether or not anyone else acknowledges it is their problem, not mine. No one should tell anyone what they are or arent.


  12. I have many friends from all over the world and one thing I’ve come to notice is how much more interested my “American” friends are in questioning individuals about their ethnic background than my international friends. It could be that they experience different nationalities withing this heterogeneous society that it’s become easier to unconsciously stereotype and in a way categorize physical traits, so when they encounter someone who fits those physical expectations but perhaps doesn’t sound like them, or vise versa, they are thrown off. I’m Mexican and are constantly being questioned as to why I don’t “look Mexican” but I’m always very happy to explain that “Mexicans” are also a very heterogeneous culture and if they’ve never visited the actual country they may never know how incorrectly they use and think, of the word Mexican.


    • Karen,
      What I enjoy tremendously is traveling to Israel, Italy, Indonesia, Japan or Germany or wherever…there, I’m not anything but American. :-)
      Here, we have our curiosities, microaggressions, plain-old idiots and racists, Twitter trolls that come after me after I publish a positive story about Latino entrepreneurs on the Huffington Post, etc…

      What was that quote that Mark Twain said? “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” He was right! When I encounter a mean, narrow mind, I simply ask if he has ever left the country. When the answer is no, and I simply reply that he is not qualified to have this conversation. Easy…peasy….:-)



  13. I’m not trying to be ignorant, but this is what I have learned from living in South America. Latino is not a race, since there can be white (Italian, French, white South Americans) Latinos, black Latinos, and native Latinos (Mapuche and native peoples of South & Central America and Mexico). How can it be racism if Latino is not a race? My husband is Chilean (not of Chilean descent, we live here in Santiago), and his race is white because many Chileans are descended from Europeans. Some of my husband’s relatives are blond with fair skin and blue or green eyes.
    Am I ignorant or am I being too technical? I don’t know, I’m not trying to be and I understand where you’re coming from since when we go to the US, I am a bit afraid of my husband bing discriminated against for being from South America.


  14. We created a funny video that talks about this very issue.


  15. It may be incredible to believe but when I came to Rhode Island in 2002 someone told me that I had an accent. My response was “Really? Well, I was born in New York City so I must have a New York accent. we pronounce our “r’s” and they do not have an “h” sound. Oh believe me, that is not the worst I’ve heard told to Latinos. I mostly use them as opportunities to teach or simply walk away.


  16. Furthermore, I have finally finished my bachelors in psychology around five children surviving multiple years of partner abuse, graduated with honors and awards, and have helped to write and perform an award winning play about abuse as well. And I am not done yet. we are very far away from being incompetent!


  17. I was extremely pleased to find this great site.
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  18. , they think theyre doing good. How do you drop not 1 but 2 atiomc bombs on innocent civilians in Japan and then turn around and pay reparations to them to try and appease. They did the same with the Vietnamese refugees after the war. How about the Native Americans? Everyone seems to have gotten some sort of consolation except for the African Slaves who literally built industrial America as we see it today. Wheres the hook ups for their oppressions and sufferings? Lynch mobs and Klanmen, etc.An ugly past that white America, not all just alot, doesnt want to deal with. I teach my children of the real Black heroes that i studied in Compton Unified School District like Dr Charles Drew, Murcus Garvey, Crispus Attucks,Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, etc. They can see Kobe and Lebron and Tiger anytime but when I tell them of the older heroes, they are amazed at the contributions to society that Blacks have made and that someday we will have more Blacks at church with us. I say the same things to my co workers and they give me an empty,blank stare.


  19. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an very long comment but after I clicked
    submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m
    not writing all that over again. Anyway, just wanted
    to say fantastic blog! – ABC102D.


  20. Its not my first time to go to see this web page, i am visiting this web site dailly and take good facts from here every day.


  21. Excellent post however I was wanting to know if you could
    write a litte more on this subject? I’d be very thankful if you could
    elaborate a little bit further. Thanks!


  22. I experienced harrassment in workplace and constantly displaying comments like, ” but you speak english very well ” I was discriminated because my degree wasn’t from United States and much more stuff! the point is that I addressed everything to Human Resources. And YES it does affect tour emotional health.


  23. Please let’s not stop writing/talking about this. I was openly attacked as an instructor by three students on a master level program. These three students are white, they made derogatory comments and were dismissed by me from my class; however, the school gave them “independent studies” to finish their class. I felt offended as their behavior was rewarded, and my feelings were dismissed by the institution. My spirit has been struggling…and my soul too…But I have been dancing, exercising, and using self affirmations and good friends to heal from this. I have never been treated so poorly by people on this (master) level.


  24. Awesome! Its really amazing piece of writing, I have got
    much clear idea concerning from this post.


  25. It’s very interesting that you are making research in that topic. A lot of American people think that because is common to hear racist jokes, it doesn’t bother to the ones they are referring. I was looking for information or other Latinas that have been victim of these kind of aggression after talking with my boyfriend and suggesting him to look for somebody to help him clean his house, he said, you are the one who should help me with that, when I said, what do you mean, cause I don’t live in usa I live in Mexico, he answered “don’t you have mexican relations in the United States? ” I tried to make him understand why this is aggressive buy he keeps telling me I have to adapt to this kind of jokes if I’m planning to live here one day. I don’t feel confortable at all. It implies we just do that? Is it referring to me as a lower level?


  26. Microagression is as malignant as it is because the United States government sanctifies it. It does not take much to extrapolate from questionnaires and all facets of identification that being a “minority” says a lot without saying anything. This is a defacto discrimination and nary a whisper is raised. Martin Luther King would be ashamed of how little we have come. Tell a child, of any racial makeup, ethnicity, and tell them, ad nauseum, throughout his/her life that they are a minority. A minority in college admission practices, at being the first minority at the law firm, the first minority as President of the United States. It is a stigma that no other group, no ethnicity is subject to. Indeed, it would be preferable to have experienced the “no Irish wanted,” of the 19th C. Think of this example: a person from Irleland, Finland, and an American of Hispanic descent, with a Cuban father and Nicaraguan mother, in appearances Caucasian, applies for a job. Were the employer asked to submit the stats, as it now stands, and were the job given to the the person of Hispanic heritage, the tally at the end of the column will read: white employees (?), minority (1). Is this microagression? Yes, very subtle microagression. Indeed, the other two applicants did not secure the job. Yet, all things being equal, in the tabulation of race that this country so highly prizes, they will never be counted as a minority. Ridiculously, ex post facto, they are in the majority. That is to say, they are white, the privliedged moniker. No account of the fact that they are not from this country, that they might be here illegally, that they do not speak the language (finnish?). They are not a minority. I am the minority.

    Discriminate all, or discriminate none. Thousands of tongues occupy this space, thousands of surnames occupy this space, why is mine made haste?

    Why do you not allow me to be an American?

    This skims only the top layer of vile putrescence that is our history of racial hierarchy and preference. Lady Liberty teems no more with caucasian huddled masses of lore. And so, to keep the luster of yesteryear aglow, call me a minority and succor your supremacist heart to full galore.


  27. I have to agree and the reason is I am a Mexican America Instructor at a College. All too often I gotten these comments not only by my fellow staff in you want to call them but by those caucain students that have taken my classes. I get unset like comments like this by a white faculty member; your here right now what time does your class start or why are you here in school now? I’ve been butting up with this for years. Have thought of hiring an attorney to sue these individuals. Need your advise.


  28. As a Puerto Rican American born and raised in the United States, I never learned how to speak Spanish because of a learning disability as a child. As a result, I experience micro aggressions from everyone. “Hey, you speak Spanish, right? What do you mean you don’t speak Spanish?” People have called me a traitor to my own people, or I have been used as a cautionary tale of what happens when you try to be “too American.” It’s depressing. Hispanics consider me White and Whites consider me Hispanic. I’ve never felt like I “belong” anywhere.

    I just wanted to share. Remember this the next time you assume too much about anyone.


  29. You don’t look latino.
    Hmmm, what does that mean?


‹ Older Comments


  1. “But You Speak So Well”: How Latinos Experience Subtle Racism | Oppression Monitor
  2. Race Fact #39: Microaggression | THE DAILY RACE
  3. Subtle Racism, or Just Curiosity? | Daydreaming in California
  4. Miley Cyrus Dresses Up As A Sombrero-Wearing Taco—Are People Calling Her Racist?
  5. Counting Down Our Top 5 Blog Posts | Psychology Benefits Society
  6. Black (Women’s?) Lives Matter: Microaggression and the Erasure of Violence Against Women of Color | Psychology Benefits Society
  7. But you speak so well: How Latinos experience subtle racism – Dr. Silvia Lorena Mazzula
  8. History and Personal Experience | racismisnotokay
  9. USA: The Many Facets of Racism | BroadyESL

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