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Yes, LA Mayor Hopeful Rick Caruso, You Are A White Guy
Source: 150 years of American history.
On Tuesday, during the Los Angeles mayoral debate, billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso made some pretty weird comments about how he is not white, but Latin, on account of the fact that he is Italian.
Telemundo anchor Dunia Elvir said: “The next mayor of Los Angeles will be either an African American woman or a white man."
“I’m Italian,” Caruso interjected.
Elvir responded, “Italian American," as Caruso insisted that his racial identification be stated on his terms.
“That’s ‘Latin,’ thank you,” Caruso said.
Caruso said he has for decades led efforts to bring more education opportunities and health care to Black and Latino communities in Los Angeles.
"I connect with the Latino community, but quite frankly my job as mayor is to connect with every community — the Latino community, the Black community, the Asian community, right? The Jewish community," said Caruso, who is running as a Democrat.
This is not the first time I have heard this. Hell, it's not the first time anyone has heard this. There are approximately 85,000 questions on Quora about it.
There are people who will say that Italians aren't white in a way meant to be complimentary or neutral, as well as in ways very clearly meant to be extremely racist . There are absolutely people who are so white supremacist that they only count Aryans and Northern Europeans as being truly white.
There are also people who will insist forever that Italian-Americans "weren't always white." There are people who believe that Sicilian people and Southern Italians are part Black due to proximity to Africa (there is a very racist saying about this which I will not repeat).
So how about I, an Italian-American lady (half, anyway), break this all down for you. And Rick Caruso.
Are Italians White?
Well, that depends, doesn't it? I am a white person. However, there are people of color in Italy who are also Italian. Like hilarious TikTok guy Khabe Lame.
It is also entirely possible to be both Italian-American and Black or Italian-American and Latin-American, just like I am Irish and Italian. But Italian-Americans are not, as a group, non-white.
Are Italians Latin?
Yes! Caruso is correct here. Italians are Latin, as are Spaniards, Portuguese people, French people and Romanians. These people are also all white. (Yes, Spanish people from Spain are white. It's not like the whole continent of Europe is white except for just this one country.)
Are Italians Latin American?
No, because this is a term we use to describe people from the part of the world known as Latin America rather than Americans of Latin descent.
Do Italians consider themselves white?
Yes but a lot of people will probably identify as being Italian-American first, mostly because we rarely shut up about it anyway. I also think there's a certain amount of rhetorical safety in doing that because it absolutely is weird when someone says "You're not white, you're Italian." Which happens! It didn't happen to me before I moved to Chicago, but it's definitely happened more than a few times here and I would like to avoid it happening again whenever possible. It's hard to say "that's not right" without sounding like you would find it personally offensive to not be considered white.
But I do not think that is what Caruso is doing here. In this case, it seems pretty clear that he is appropriating non-whiteness for personal gain and that's ... gross.
Didn't Italians used to be non-white though?
This is a complicated question. Race is a social construction (as opposed to ethnicity), so it would stand to reason that if people thought we were not white or believed we were at least part Black, we weren't really white. From what I have heard, this was perpetuated in part by people from what is now the Northern part of Italy who came to the United States before Southern Italians and Sicilians came here in droves after unification and didn't want to be associated with any poor huddled masses.
We're also not WASPs and we experienced discrimination as an ethnic group. My great-grandfather was listed as being "brown" on the Ellis Island check-in sheet bearing his name.
All of this being said! Race in America was, at that time, a legal status and legally we were white people. And that mattered. Italians could vote, could marry other white people, and were not subject to Jim Crow laws or any other type of legal discrimination. WASPy American men may not have liked to see their ladies swooning over Rudolph Valentino (known as the "Latin Lover") but the Hays code did not bar him from kissing white ladies on screen, whereas Anna May Wong, for example, could not play the romantic interest of a white man on screen which is why she ultimately went to Europe to make movies there.
It is true that the largest (recorded) mass lynching was of 11 Sicilians in New Orleans in 1891 and that this led to lynchings of other Italian people across the United States. It's true that future President Teddy Roosevelt called this "a rather good thing." But it is also true that the families of those victims got reparations, which the Black families of lynching victims did not get.
The lack of legal barriers is what allowed Italians and other immigrant groups to assimilate and become more, as some of my older relatives might say, Medigan .
Just so all of this is clear — Italian-American people are currently white and were always white. They just happened to also be immigrants and America also really hates immigrants.
What is the problem with saying Italians "became white"?
It suggests that whiteness is something aspirational rather than something stupid and made up, that racism is something it is up to those who were discriminated against to overcome rather than something those who discriminate need to stop doing and upholding. It also implies that ethnic groups that have failed to obtain this "whiteness" are just not working hard enough when we know that's bullshit. It is really not a coincidence that all of the various ethnic groups that supposedly "became white" also happened to, you know, be white.
The problem wasn't with us being weird and foreign and swarthy and superstitious, the problem was with xenophobic assholes who only stopped being terrible once we didn't have accents anymore and they found a new group of immigrants to get angry about.
But you season your food, "have a culture" and are on occasion darker-skinned than some actual people of color are?
And yet we're still white because we are the recipients of white privilege, which is the thing that matters here. Culturally, I think I probably do have more in common with my Latinx friends than my friends who are Swedish or German. That may also be the case for Rick Caruso. It doesn't take away from the fact that we still walk through this world and experience it as white people.
Is it really that cut and dry?
Yes and no? Racism is not logical and race is what we have collectively decided that race is. Whiteness is a made-up thing, so there are always going to be complications and things that don't fit neatly. This is why people end up inventing terms like "spicy white" (please do not call me a spicy white, I have no good facial reaction/words with which to respond to that) or "white but not quite" or "white but not like, white -white" to describe non-WASP white people like Jewish people, Mediterranean people, and Eastern Europeans.
That being said! We don't get to say we're not white people. That's fucking weird and Rick Caruso should not do it. I get the impetus to want to separate oneself from the grossness of white privilege (though, come on dude, you're a billionaire), but in order to challenge it we have to acknowledge where it exists and where we benefit from it.
Also too — VOTE KAREN BASS!
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