Ethnically Ambiguous – America’s Band-Aid for Racism

I still remember the first time I went to an American diner. My older cousin Briana, my younger cousin Gabriel, and I did not see each other often back then. Briana and I lived in Costa Rica, while Gabriel was a local. We were famished and were not too meticulous about the choice of a diner. It was a generic little place, like thousands of those along the road, meant to offer cheap meals to truck drivers and people coming home after a hard day at work. As we occupied a seat, the waitress approached. She stared at me expectantly as I struggled to figure out what was it I wanted. Meanwhile, my cousins were already set on their meals.

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“Can I please order a French toast?” – My cousin, Briana, asked, trying to get the waitress’s attention. However, there was only silence. The woman acted as though I was the only person at the table. I exchanged bewildered stares with my cousin, in confusion, while Gabriel looked away, ashamed and as if about to cry. Being a local, he knew what was going on. Briana and I, at the moment, did not.

“Hello, miss. Can I please order a French toast?” – Briana repeated her request. The waitress continued to demonstratively ignore her. Eventually, Gabriel looked up to me and said:

“Gabriela, your order.”

“But she did not take Briana’s order yet!”

“Just do it.”

The waitress had no trouble taking instructions from me. I had to order for my two cousins and myself. In five minutes, the woman was back with drinks. I was utterly confused about why the waitress ignored my cousin. As Gabriel explained to me later, it was because, out of the three of us, I was the least Hispanic-looking person. I had never lived in the U.S. before, whereas Gabriel was born here. The reason why I was served over others was that my features were thinner and less prominent. I was, as the title of the paper suggests, ethnically ambiguous. This did not happen during the Age of Segregation in South Carolina. This was in 2017, Orlando, Florida.

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The history of the USA is riddled with examples of institutionalized racism, the base of which can be found in the very founding of the country. For centuries, we brought slaves in from Africa to do the hard and dirty work for us, be that the backbreaking labor out in the cotton fields or hauling crates and boxes at the docks. The idea of white masters and black slaves runs deep through the nation’s history and identity. It is something most Americans like to think of as “ancient past,” without caring or realizing how deep the root of the corruption goes. White pride took two major blows throughout the history of the U.S., the first one being the abolition of slavery and the second – the end of segregation. However, no laws can prevent people from exhibiting their inherently racist tendencies in subtle ways.

Despite the U.S. being considered as the “American melting pot,” where anyone, no matter their race or heritage, has an equal opportunity for greatness and success, the reality is different from the myth of the American dream. The issue of racism runs deeper than a mere incident with the rude waitress in Orlando. White Americans or “true Americans” still have a tendency to enforce racist perceptions of minorities.

As a group, they tend to have superior wealth, education, and social standing compared to minorities. Whites use ethnic ambiguity as a way to mask their treatment of other groups. Although made to exclude a certain group of people from racism, its very existence intrinsically suggests that foreigners deserve to be targeted and persecuted because of their heritage. In this paper, I will prove that the concept of “acceptable blacks” and “acceptable Latinos” is inherently racist.

Here are a few examples to demonstrate the point. An article about fashion titled “Ethnically Ambiguous” by Ruth La Ferla from the New York Times states that “generation Y is the most racially diverse population in the nation’s history” (La Ferla). To celebrate this diversity and inclusion, more ethnically ambiguous individuals were rising to take a spot as top models, actors, sportspeople, and performers.

Looks are very important for the white majority in America. Meghan Markle, Jessica Alba, Vin Diesel, and Leo Jimenez are extremely popular and celebrated in the U.S. It does not matter to most whites if they are American or come from other countries. What matters to them is the fact that they seem, look, and act as “almost white.” The article observes that the majority of people who consider themselves as “inclusive” prefer ethnically ambiguous individuals to genuine representatives of a particular race or ethnicity (La Ferla).

There is an ethnic bias towards individuals who look whiter than their root ethnicities. Elise Koseff, the wise president of J. Mitchell Management in New York, states that the general entry criteria for new recruits into the modeling business for African-Americans and Latinos are a light complexion in order to appeal more to the (mostly white) audience (La Ferla). I think that fashion companies use ethnic ambiguity so that they can still promote their exclusively white agenda while keeping the facsimile of racial inclusion.

The idea of ethnically ambiguous individuals being genetically superior is also being pushed in the scientific community under the guise of “research.” An article in Psychology Today states that those who have a mixed racial background are supposedly more resistant to certain diseases and produce an objectively more physically fit and beautiful individual (Adams). The idea behind this favoritism of ethnic ambiguity is masked by stating that a hybrid of two genetically diverse populations can produce stronger, more resilient, and more physically attractive offspring. However, I believe these statements to be inherently flawed.

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There is no standard for beauty or physical attractiveness. Major parameters, such as weight, figure, and facial forms, have changed constantly throughout history. In addition, data about a predisposition towards certain diseases is incomplete, as acknowledged in the limitations section of most research articles. From how I see it, the article trying to push the idea of white blood “enhancing” inferior ethnic individuals is being passed off as science.

The U.S. has made incredible progress in the past 70 years or so. We went from a country that segregated minorities and imposed discriminating laws against them to a country where the majority of discriminatory laws have been abolished and where a discourse regarding racial and gender discrimination is occupying the first pages of the tabloid media. Many companies are afraid of being branded as racist, so they have imposed quotas on hiring individuals from racial minority backgrounds. Being frightened into submission, however, does not stop these companies from acting on their inherently racist subconscious biases. Just like in the modeling realm, ethnically ambiguous individuals are in high demand in the corporate world.

Laer and Janssens state that subconscious racial bias in recruiters enters in conflict with their conscious knowledge of the demand for ethnic minority employees (202). As such, they find individuals who look more like themselves to be more viable candidates than those with prominent ethnic appearances. Rosenblum et al. state that skin color in black and Hispanic populations affects not only employment rates but also wages (88).

To me, the situation is as clear as daylight. Subconsciously, many white individuals see Hispanics and blacks as inferior, prone to crime, poorer in skill and dedication, and through other offensive stereotypes (Rosa and Eschholz 87). Faced with the necessity of hiring people from racial minority backgrounds, they choose the ones that “do not look like criminals.” In most situations, these individuals are those who possess white traits.

These facts have been proven by my family history. My mother used to work for North-Western Airlines when she was young. The recruiter seemed very impressed with her and called her racially ambiguous as a compliment. The feeling of her accomplishment was diminished later when the recruiter woman was fired on the grounds of racism. As it turned out, she marked interviews by adding information about individual appearances, such as the tone of the skin, the form of the nose, hairstyle, and so forth.

My mother had the privilege of looking less Hispanic when, in reality, issues of racial appearance were not supposed to have been a factor at all. It clearly demonstrates how racial ambiguity affects individuals in the workplace. There are thousands of recruiters throughout the U.S. that do this on a daily basis and feel there is nothing wrong with the practice.

Nowadays, many scholars and politicians tend to dismiss these issues of ethnic ambiguity as pointless and not deserving attention. In a time when a person can be arrested, pulled over, or even deported based on their name and ethnic background, the concept of ethnic ambiguity suggests the question: “Where do we draw the line between what is and what is not ethnically ambiguous?” Such logic is inherently flawed, as it changes the question from “Why should we tolerate racism towards any individuals?” to “How could we distinguish between acceptable and non-acceptable blacks/Hispanics/Asians?”

I care about this issue, as it directly pertains to my family and myself. We are living in a society that stands on a knife’s edge between equality of opportunity and racial inclusion and the dark age of racism and discrimination that the USA has just barely gotten out of. Many white people, who have never experienced racism toward themselves, tend to dismiss the issue as non-existent. Conveniently, these same kinds of individuals usually dominate the fields of research and public discussion. They give the nod to the contemporary realities of politics by choosing ethnically ambiguous individuals to cover up the fact that intrinsic biases in their judgments have not disappeared.

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Ethnically ambiguous people are a band-aid to hide America’s racism. This is not a new phenomenon; it has gone on for generations and will continue through to our children’s generation if nothing is done about it. This attitude towards ethnic ambiguity allows individuals like Donald Trump and many others like him to pretend to be inclusive while celebrating their white heritage and subsequently suppressing other races. What can you, a generic member of the white majority, do about it? It is very appealing to adopt a “neutral” stance on this issue and claim ignorance of the fact that minorities in the U.S. are still treated as second-class citizens.

After all, you are not racist towards anybody, are you? This should be a contribution enough, right? History knows plenty of examples where institutionalized evil was committed on a large scale with the silent approval of the majority. When Hitler and the Nazi regime arrested millions of Jews to be exterminated in concentration camps, good German people did nothing. They did not personally persecute the Jews, but they did not do anything to help them either. In doing nothing, they became complicit in the greatest crime in the history of humankind.

You are not in Nazi Germany. You do not have the sword of Damocles over your head, ready to swing down upon you for speaking out or doing something to prevent others from being treated the way they are. The only thing required from you is to acknowledge the fact that you might subconsciously view ethnically ambiguous individuals as superior to those who do not look that way. Once you acknowledge this, you must consciously be guided in your decisions by this fact. If you do not do this, if you pretend that everything is fine as it is, then your crime against my family, others, and I are much greater. If you are reading this, you can no longer claim ignorance. You have been informed, what you do with this knowledge is now up to you.

Works Cited

Adams, William L. “Mixed Race, Pretty Face?Psychology Today. 2006. Web.

Laer, Koen Van, and Maddy Janssens. “Agency of Ethnic Minority Employees: Struggles Around Identity, Career and Social Change.” Organization, vol. 24, no. 2, 2017, pp. 198-217.

La Ferla, Ruth. “Generation E.A.: Ethnically Ambiguous.New York Times. 2003. Web.

Rosa, Alfred, and Paul Eschholz. Models for Writers. 11th ed., Bradford/St. Martin’s, 2012.

Rosenblum, Alexis, et al. “Looking through the Shades: The Effect of Skin Color on Earnings by Region of Birth and Race for Immigrants to the United States.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, vol. 2, no. 1, 2015, pp. 87-105.

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