Story/Video posted April 22, 2019 in Best of CommMedia by Jillian Cartwright.


STATE COLLEGE, PA--White passing has been around for centuries. Abolitionists used the idea of fair skinned slave children as a means to rally people together in the cause against slavery. Their thinking being, if these children look white and are enslaved, what’s to stop slave owners from coming for your own children.

White passing is not a thing of the past. It still occurs today in various communities of color. Penn State students Laura McKinney and Brittany Perez experience the effects of white passing.

Perez, who is 100 percent Puerto Rican, passes for white. She talks about struggles she faces being white passing both from peers and from her own family.

“Sometimes we would meet different family members...and they wouldn’t believe I was actually my mom’s daughter.” Perez said.

McKinney, who is 50 percent Puerto Rican, is also white passing. Oftentimes when she tells someone she’s Puerto Rican they don’t believe her.

“It’s something I’ve gotten my whole life ... however it’s a part of my blood and it’s something I take a lot of pride in.” McKinney said.

Both McKinney and Perez have achieved high positions in their respective groups. McKinney will be the 2019-2020 president of The University Park Undergraduate Association, while Perez is the current Program Operations Manager for Penn State Lunar Lion.

Choosing race can be complicated by the options people are offered. According to the United States Census Bureau website, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) only requires five minimum categories for census forms. Those categories are; White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaskan Native and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.

The website states that people can choose more than one race as an indicator of multiple racial backgrounds. When it comes to people of Latinx or Spanish descent they could be of any race.

The breakdown of Latinx and Spanish people is a topic of its own. According to the Huffington Post, Hispanic is based on if you and your family speak Spanish, Latino refers to more of a geographic location and Spanish is anyone from Spain.

Tracing back their ancestries McKinney and Perez both said they have direct ties to Spain going back a few generations. More recently, both women said that their families have lived in Puerto Rico and identify as Puerto Rican. 

Because of this, both Perez and McKinney struggle when filling out census forms.

“When I have to put white [on a census form] it makes me feel kind of like an imposter ... it just makes me feel like I’m not being true to myself.” Perez said.

Not all surveys allow people to check more than one box, McKinney said that sometimes she can only check one box and she chooses to check Puerto Rican. For McKinney she only has to choose between Latinx and White. However, since most Puerto Ricans are largely a mix of European, African and Indigenous decent their choice has more options involved. 

According to the Pew Research Center, many people are starting to change what they put on census forms. Between the 2000 and 2010 census forms they recorded changes in racial groups. Some people who had selected a certain racial group in 2000 elected to change their race in the 2010 census.

The Pew researchers speculate that one of the reasons people may have decided to change their racial background information is because they think there are benefits (such as college admission) in including themselves in a certain racial group.

Perez and McKinney both recognize the reasoning behind switching racial backgrounds.

Perez said she feels fine with it but she has experienced problems. She said people who have less of a percentage Hispanic than she does but look more the part expect to gain more, and think they deserve more out of the system than she does.

McKinney feels that if someone checks that they’re of Hispanic descent then some part of them identifies with that.

According to the Pew Research Center, the U.S. Census is looking to improving its race and ethnicity data. The Pew researchers say that one of the problems is that more and more Americans are selecting the ‘other’ category on census forms. The vast majority of those Americans were of Hispanic descent.

Groups such as Hispanics, Arabs and people of mixed races say that they’re unsure of how to identify themselves on census forms, according to the Pew Research Center website.

Video: McKinney's Spanish Heritage 


Laura McKinney says there's a recognizable name in her family tree.