On being white in a minority-run organization

It’s summer break and I just finished my first-year internship. I was saying goodbye today to one of the residents and told her that next year I’ll be moving on to a non-profit organization that serves the local Latino community.

The lady looked at me funny and replied, ‘‘Cuz you’re so Latina?’’

She was puzzled, because I’m white, oh-so-white, born and raised in Michigan, lived in rural/suburban areas my entire life.

Now, I’ve done a lot of volunteer work with Spanish-speaking immigrants, spent some time volunteering in Mexico, and I had Spanish-speaking customers at my old job, and have never once had any problem. While people usually are first very surprised, they generally seem delighted that I speak Spanish and just happy and appreciative for whatever service I’m providing.

But the internship I’ll be assigned to next year will be different than anything I’ve ever done, because it’s a grassroots advocacy organization in a major city, run for and by Latinos in that community. I will probably be doing a lot of policy, programming and community work.

I’ve been thinking about it, and I guess it’s one thing to provide a service and another thing entirely when you’re working to represent the interests of a specific group of people. I’m beginning to worry that if I work in this area people might view my race as a liability.

And by ‘‘people’’ I mean potential employers. I’m interested in leadership and professional success. I wonder, could the fact that I’m not Latina hold me back in that regard? It makes sense that interest groups generally like their leaders to be like them, but I wonder if there is an important role for me in this work? I want to help any way I can.

I mean the crux of the matter is that I definitely believe that in these kinds of organizations the people should have the power and set the agenda, so I’m not even convinced I should have any significant degree of power because it’s not my interests being serviced. At the same time, I’m not dropping $100k on a Master’s degree so that I can spend the rest of my life shuffling papers.

Any Dopers have experience working as a white minority in this kind of advocacy organization, or any kind of organization at all? Did you feel you had a meaningful role in what was happening or did people seem put off by you? Any trouble moving up within the organization? Any interpersonal issues come up? Cultural misunderstandings, etc?

Also, I know next year will be all about learning, and that I’ll be a lowly intern and all. I’m speaking about this more in the long-term, because I have a genuine passion for addressing issues faced by the Latino immigrant community and would want to make a career out of advocating for this population if feasible.



I would imagine that you would never be allowed to occupy a leadership role with any visability.

I mean, would you take a job working for the NAACP? Agreed that you’re only going to get so far. Remember: it’s still OK to discriminate against white people.

Check you PM.

I have had this experience many time, the only white guy among a lot of black or Latinos.

I don’t think I’ve ever experienced outright racism, but a lot of “why is this guy doing this?”

But since you’re white and speak Spanish it’s even a bit more unsettling for some minorities.

Look at it from their point of view. In the largely white corporate world, they would have a hard time getting work. By you working at a minority company, a lot of them feel you are taking a job from the community. After all you can get a job in the white world.

Think of it like this, how would you feel if your grandma had a business and instead of giving it to you said “Well you can do the job but I want to see if anyone’s better.”

You would think, “Geez, how much better could they be? Shouldn’t you help your own family first?”

Minorities communities view themselves as part of a “family” so to speak and the thinking is to “take care of your own.”

A white girl, even 100% qualified is viewed as taking a job and making it harder for a minority person who has to compete in the “white world” when you could’ve been over their in the first place.

So these experiences you had–were they ever resolved? Were you eventually accepted? Did you find a way?

The reason I want to do the work is very simple. I must do something about the conditions immigrants face in this country.

Most of the work to that end does not exist in the ‘‘white world.’’ Generally speaking, the organizations advocating for Latinos are Latino organizations.

Thus my dilemma.

ETA: This is in the context of my ‘‘doing social policy on the ground’’ career option. Another option I am considering is ‘‘doing social policy in academia’’ and that might solve my dilemma but I haven’t made that decision yet.

My experience is probably not relevant but I’ll share anyway. A big change in acceptance happened after I married a local Chinese women. Moreso with children and doubly when those kids speak better Chinese than English and went to local schools.

The perception really did change based on being a visible committed member of the community.

That’s probably not practical for you and may not be the experience in the US.

I would certainly hit a glass ceiling working for a local chinese company. In fact, it is something I’m cognizant of at the MNC I work for in china.

Well, being married to an Italian, I can’t marry a Latino, but living in the community where I work is certainly an option for the future–I’d consider it ideal, actually. I find your input very helpful here

Aah, the beauty of communautarism :rolleyes:.

Is there an organization that cater to vertically-challenged, left-handed transsexual Sikhs ? No ? You fascists !

Tell everyone you’re Argentinian.

What is your problem? You want to serve that community, start a nonprofit. That is indeed the beauty of communitarianism.


How Spanish-sounding is your last name? My mother has had people mistake her for Latina for years even though she doesn’t look it solely on the basis of her Hispanic-sounding Italian last name.

It’s very possible you might be more accepted than you think.

This reminds me of the time I told someone I live in Gary, Indiana and they looked at me all puzzled before blurting out “But you’re not black!”. Um… no, I’m not. There ARE white people living in Gary. Besides just me. There’s no local ordinance saying “Your skin must be this dark or darker to live here”.

In actual fact, there are some very white looking Latinas. Anyone who actually looks at Latino communities will figure that out. Yes, most of them look “typically” Latino but not all of them, the faces range all the way out to white, black, Asian, and Native.

That certainly could happen. You will have to work harder to be accepted. You will be the minority in that situation, and that’s a problem all minorities face. The difference here is that you are choosing to move into an area that gives that status, you’re not having it forced on you.

When my oldest sister was still alive she was quite active in local Latino affairs. We’re of Russian descent so she didn’t look “Latina”, she looked Slavic. She spoke Spanish so fluently, though, that people used to try to figure out where in Mexican she’d been born (She was born in Missouri). She was familiar with the culture. It’s not impossible for a white girl to find acceptance in the Latino community, just a LOT of hard work. And the realization that there will always be a certain slice of people who just don’t like or trust you, even if the majority of the community does.

For some jobs… yes, almost certainly. It’s not impossible for you to get to that position, just very very very difficult.

Are you fluent in the language?

Do you love the culture?

Are you “going native” - that is, have you adopted Latina culture and customs?

If you’re “immigrating” into the culture, that is, you love it and are adopting the language and everything else because you like it and it’s a better fit than the one you were raised in then I think you can sincerely become part of it and do this work. If you’re doing this from a “save those poor downtrodden souls!” perspective maybe not so much (I get a vibe you’re more the former than the latter, but I’m trying not to assume). There are some roles it is extremely unlikely you could ever play in that community, but there are other roles you can do very effectively. People have crossed over cultural lines before, but it’s not easy.

Justin Bailey my last name is Italian, and it does sound a little bit Hispanic.

Thanks for your feedback.

I’m definitely more of the culture-loving person than the ‘‘saving the downtrodden souls’’ person. From what I have witnessed this is a culture with some serious strengths, which is what attracted me to it in the first place. When I studied Latin American literature as an undergrad, I was blown away by how such intense suffering could produce such beautiful art, such powerful, reciprocal communities, such strong people. And the more I learned about the history, the political instability, the U.S. meddling, the corruption, the poverty, and the realities that pushed immigrants out of their own countries, the more pissed off I got and the more moved I became to do something about, in the very least, those who suffer exploitation here.

I love the culture. I love it with all my heart and soul. I love the music, the sense of community, the unshakeable faith, the crazy television. And I love speaking Spanish. Just speaking Spanish and hearing it and being around it makes me feel so good.

I am fluent in the language. My grammar isn’t perfect, my vocabulary not immense, but my accent is pretty good, good enough that people sometimes ask me if I’m a native speaker. Some accents are more difficult for me to understand than others–I will have a hurdle there, because a large number of the people in this particular community are Puerto Rican. That’s a tough one.

I don’t think I’d qualify as ‘‘going native’’ at this point, but I could see that happening down the road (minus the religion part.) The truth is, if my husband didn’t like living in the U.S. so much, I would be living somewhere in Latin America. God forbid if something happened to him, my first order of business after they released me from the mental institution would be to go do the work within the countries to help ensure people never had to leave their home country in the first place.

I just could never call myself Latina, or claim that experience, because I’m not. I do have some ideological differences with this culture as a whole – I’m not Christian and I’m not socially conservative. (I’m not claiming all Latinos are Christian and socially conservative, but in my observation the church has played a significant role in providing a sense of community and solidarity as well as providing for basic needs, and I’ve had more than a few awkward conversations about, say, homosexuality or gender roles.) But I am capable of respecting people with all sorts of different viewpoints, and others are capable of respecting mine too.

I know some Latinos look very European–when I was in Mexico my host father looked very much like your average white guy, and I was invited to a Saturday afternoon cookout by a red-haired, freckle-faced mother of one of my students. (One of the best days of my life, actually. Lounging on the lawn, drinking margaritas, eating steak and talking about everything from TV to racism… I’d go back in a heartbeat.)

You realize that the U.S. population is 15.4% Latino, right? And that Latinos, particularly in urban areas, are disproportionately affected by poverty, ill health, unemployment, and a number of other social conditions that give them a serious quality of life disadvantage? And you know that the brains of impoverished children have been shown to have stunted growth and development, thus putting them at a level of serious disadvantage in education and increasing the likelihood that they will be impoverished adults? So your insinuation that this is some kind of needless niche organization is kind of… blatantly false.

Some people just won’t let reality get in the way of the chip on their shoulder. In my city we have an annual small but growing Puerto Rican festival. Every year I hear people grumble “imagine the outrage if we ever tried to have a festival for white people!”. Unremarkable, right? Probably happens everywhere there’s a festival like that. Except each year in the exact same location, 3 months later in the year than the Puerto Rican festival, we have one of the largest Irish/Scottish/Celtic festivals in America. I happen to think they’re both really awesome.

Danged Puerto Ricans, trying to hold a festival in our country. We should deport all the ones that aren’t citizens.

Your passion is enough to do a lot of good for the organization. Don’t worry about colors worry about what you can contribute from the heart. I volunteer and I do it out of love for all. Love can break through any barrier.

Would it be possible to use a latino last name on the job? Become Olive Gonzales while you work there if the bosses are amenable and it smooths things with the public.

Hell, I used to work with a Japanese woman with an anglo first name and a Norwegian last name, and I’ve worked with plenty of Asians and Africans who have adopted anglo names just for dealing with the public.

Too fishy, Latinos have way more names than that. Her Latina name would have to be more like: Olívia Peréz Chinchilla Gutierrez de Las Palmas.

OK, so you’re Latina by adoption. Do you need a certificate? Will one from this white latina suffice? You should be fine, same as you were in Latin America. You probably won’t get to be CEO (or equivalent title) in La hermandad de la Raza, but… do you want to? And, if you discover you want to be CEO of your organization, would it hurt you terribly if it was one that worked “con, para y por” Latin people but which didn’t have a “if you’ve got cochlear implants you’re not deaf enough” approach?

Rigamarole, latinos have more names than that, but nowadays it is very unusual to run into a woman using four lastnames; most people use only one lastname or a part of a lastname in everyday conversation (someone whose first lastname is López de Ayala is likely to go by Ayala, for example).