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

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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

References:

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

153 Comments

  1. Hi everyone,

    I am light skin Latina ( Ecuadorian) there has been several times that people would assume I was caucasian and after I tell them where I come from some of their reactions are ‘ wow your English is good’, ‘ you don’t look Ecuadorian’…. and there is plenty more. People don’t really talk about microaggressions as a graduate student I want to have my voice heard regarding this topic.

    Thank you all for sharing!

    Mary

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  2. I am hispanic I have accent but I understand and communicate well with others in english
    i have noticed is they dont take me in count for important events at work where if they would like to I could have chance to network with important people at work I offered my help to different events and they ignored but even people new to the company have been added to those events Also chance for promotions none! to others yes is very obvious what s going on they dont like my accent or dont want us to advance first over them
    I m US citizen but latina

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  3. Hello Mary, I’m also Ecuadorian, but I’m in Canada. Yeap, the reality is that they will never treat you as their equal. I’m from Guayaquil, with a bit of darker skin but they over here they treat me as a first nation (indigenous)….. that just makes you a second class citizen. I’m also a graduate student and I always get “politely” moved to a corner for everything. I stopped trying to make friends a long time ago…… microaggressions are really my everyday. They always treat me like if I was stupid.

    Like

  4. Pres. Trump stood in front of a crowd of Puerto Ricans in PR, who are dealing with a disasterous situation, and threw paper towels at them.
    Trump, being a racists and having vocalized that Puerto Ricans are just lazy and want others to do for them, is getting more brave with his insults.
    What is the specific message Trump is sending to PR and all Americans?

    Like

  5. “Latinos” experience far more of this “microaggression” than “Latinas,” since they are regarded as more “threatening” and subject to more negative stereotyping. In fact, I find that Latinas such as this person go far out of their way to ingratiate themselves to “Anglos”–especially males. It is just a fact.

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  6. I’ve been on the outside in Houston all my life being that I’m white. I’ve felt soo racially profiled for being white ever since I was a kid. It felt as almost as if I was a alien from a outside world living in Houstons’ ruaial area growing up as a kid. I was never a racist until I experienced all the shit that is being the only white boy and I do try but the shear lack of morals and ethics leave me attuned to a hardened heart on the matter and I hope trump wins.

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    1. David, I am so sorry to inform you that reverse racism does not exist, you can not be racist to a white person, I know you never directly said they were being “racist” to you but it was implied. I’ll break it down to you, because I know that you will probably try to dictionary definition it to me (but let’s be clear the dictionary was made by old white cis men who have never felt SYSTEMATIC oppression) as Edin lee ( i think) said racism in the united states is based on the ideology of white (european) supremacy and is used to the advantage of white people and the disadvantage of people of color. also said that racism is defined as racial prejudice and discrimination that are supported by institutional power and authority. the critical element that differentiates racism from prejudice and discrimination is the use of institutional power and authority to support prejudices and enforce discriminatory behaviors in systematic ways with far reaching outcomes and effects. so basically,, racism is backed up by oppressive and systematic power, white people do not experience systematic oppression for being white. and to even dumb it more down racism= prejudice + power. a white person has never faced systematic oppression for being white. When you say ” i was never a racist until…” You know what it feels like being the only race in a other race heavily populated area, Idk about the kids you grew up with but as a person of color and being around white people it is very discomforting but me and other of my poc friends had a discussion and something that was said “you have to be mean to them (white people) before they be mean to you.” I am not saying it’s right but it is built in us that white people are against us and we are just trying to protect ourselves. you are in the wrong place you should find a page for tr*mp loving ass licking republicans and talk about how you experienced microaggression. No one on this page is going to comfort your hillbilly racist ass, this is supposed to be a page for latinx people to talk about and read about and understand microaggressions against us. I am so tired of white people coming into our spaces and trying to come up with excuses why they are a racist and why it’s ok, the gag is its not ok and you can take your ass somewheres else. I can’t wait for tr*mps ass to be out of office. I can’t wait to make racist afraid again we will take you down get your old ass views out of here,, white people really scared of brown and black kids cause we got melanin like damn bitch it not our fault we poppin and you aren’t, get your pasty ass out of this discussion about and for “microaggressions for LATINx people”

      Like

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