TIME to Think in Full Color About Race & Ethnicity

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

...full text also available at Huffington Post and Kirwan Institute's Race-Talk


TIME Mag 0224 cover Colorlines    
TIME Magazine's latest cover story (Feb. 2/24) is called "Yo Decido. Why Latinos will pick the next President." It reports that about 9% of all voters in 2012 will be Latino, up 26% from four years ago. While the Latin@ vote is definitely an important and interesting and game-changing political development, the most interesting thing about this story isn't the headline or the article's statistics. It's the cover (left).

The cover claims to feature 20 portraits of Latin@s with captions. Some are individual or occupational descriptions like dancer, DREAMer, nutrition undergrad, car aficionado and immigration activist. Other descriptions are nation-oriented, like Mexicans, Hondurans and Guatemalans.

Here's the problem: In reality, the cover features only 19 portraits of Latin@s and one man who passes as Latino but actually identifies himself as multiracial -- half Chinese and half White. According to Michelle Woo at the OC Weekly, "That man is Michael Schennum, is the short-haired gentleman in the top row, center, behind the letter 'M.' He is half Chinese and half White. Not Latino. Not even a little bit."

After Woo's revelation Colorlines magazine did some more digging and found that "The best part is Schennum, who is a staff photographer for The Arizona Republic, says 'they never told me what it was for or [asked] if I was Latino.'" It astounded Schennum, and many others, that TIME could not find an Asian Latino. Representatives from TIME allegedly identified Schennum as Latino based on his appearance and snapped his photo without giving him the opportunity to identify himself.

After Schennum called TIME "out," the magazine made a statement apologizing for the mistake on its February 24th cover. Representatives from the magazine said that "Over the course of three days TIME photographed 151 people for the current cover. We took steps to ensure that everyone self-identified as Latino, that they are registered voters and that they would be willing to answer our questions. If there was a misunderstanding with one of our subjects, we apologize."

TIME's apology and story then spread like wildfire within Latino and multiracial communities on social networking sites like Twitter (see below). As result, an opportunity for thinking and talking about racial and ethnic identities in new ways has been created.

For the record, this image was produced and marketed carelessly. But it's equally careless for us to read this story without paying attention to some very real differences between racial and ethnic identities, profiling and politicking in the US today. To begin with we need to make clear that race is a symbolic social construct. That means it's a way of thinking based on shifting categories that we try to pin down based on physical appearance. While race has been made meaningful in predominantly Black and White terms, social forces like immigration and intermarriage -- while not societal cure alls -- do reveal the need for us to think differently about race today. Is That Your Child blogger and activist Michelle Clark challenges us to update our paradigm by thinking in "full color."

Full color thinking means that we need to understand the difference between race and ethnicity. While race is a construct, ethnicity is has more to do with national origins, language and cultural practices from a particular place. In the case of TIME's cover, failure to understand that difference led to a case of mistaken identity. Hopefully this case of mistaken identity can teach us that Latin@s are less easily identified by appearance and more easily identified by statements they make about values and origins.

Full color thinking also means that we need to understand the racial side of things with more nuance and sensitivity. When discussing the multiracial demographic we need to understand how it too is enabled and constrained by racial thinking.

Sociologists have identified two patterns emerging in US multiracial communities. Asian / Whites and Latin@ / Whites tend to acknowledge and celebrate all aspects of their backgrounds but live life as Whites, especially if their fathers are White. Black / Whites and Black / Asian, Black / Latin@s tend to celebrate all aspects of their backgrounds but live their lives as Black.

These lifestyle patterns not only respond to how multiracials are perceived but also have to do with the way intermarriage works and the way racial identities have been defined historically by law and social custom in the US. While we can clearly see some real truth here, the two sociological patterns are reductive. What's more, these new trends fail to account for an increasingly "full color" global perspective. A perspective which includes the experiences of those who don't necessarily define themselves by the US's White or Black standards -- like Cuban / Chinese, Palestinian / Panamanian or Native American / Jewish.

Although the press often talks about Latin@s as if they are only a race, we must understand that in the US they constitute an ethnicity that also identifies in racial terms. And we must note that each individual Latin@ may identify differently from everyone else in the ethnic group, including members of his or her own family. Consequently, as the latest Census reflects, Latin@s are part of a group that also identifies as multiracial.

As with multiracials, what's most politically relevant about Latin@s is that they call into question the Black and White racial categories we tend to think of as obvious and stable. And they create updated definitions of American ethnicity. So, when a case of mistaken identity like Schennum's comes up we are able to see how unreliable appearance is as a form of identification. We also see how all the groups we now think of in racial or multiracial terms were once thought of as ethnicities as well. And, finally, we see why media and political representation continue to be critical civil rights issues.