Skin Color Discrimination: The Latino Case

Results from a Pew Research Center survey show the persistence in the United States of an association between Latinos’ skin color and their experiences of white (and other) discrimination.

Sixty-four percent of dark-skinned Latinos reported they had experienced discrimination or unfair treatment from time to time whereas the corresponding figure for those with lighter skin was 50 percent. Dark skin was associated with stereotypes. Fifty-five percent of Latinos with dark skin said that people have reacted to them as though the Latinos were not smart, vis-à-vis 36 percent of those with light skins. Additionally, fifty-three percent of Latinos with dark skin stated that they had been victims of slurs or racist jokes, while the comparable figure for light-skinned ones was 34 percent.

The survey also asked Latinos what race people would assume they were if they walked past them on the street. Seventy-one percent said others saw them as Hispanic or Latino, 19 percent as white and approximately 5 percent as members of other races (the report does not mention the remaining 5 percent, although it is safe to assume that they were survey non-responders).

Among Latinos who reported being seen as People of Color, 62 percent stated that they had experienced discrimination while the corresponding figure for those saying they were perceived as white was 50 percent. Finally, Latino respondents said that when they are perceived as People of Color, individuals were more likely to view them with suspicion or treat them as not being smart. The question arises whether the effects of skin color and speaking Spanish might be cumulative. However, the Pew survey does not report such data.

It is important to emphasize that although dark-skinned Latinos were more likely to be victims of discrimination or arouse suspicion, both light- and dark-skinned Latinos reported substantial rates of negative experiences. Thus, while lighter-complected Latinos might manage to escape discrimination more frequently than darker ones, they are still Latinos and their skin color is not sufficient to save them completely from the consequences of white racism.

And note too the direction in which this racialized colorism always operates: Lighter/whiter is always better than darker/browner-blacker. White racial framing–prizing white/lightness in physical look–has affected how most people frame and think for centuries, in the US and abroad.