Archive for Race & Ethnicity

Let’s stop segmenting people by race!

Photo by Kacey LópezIt is not unusual to use race as a demographic classification in the U.S. Marketing campaigns; government plans; segmentation studies; social programs- everyone pays attention to the race classification! For years, however, I have contended that race is not an appropriate demographic characteristic in the segmentation of population groups for marketing purposes. Maybe it was at one point in time; but our world today is demographically very different from what it was as recently as the beginning of the 20th century. Today there are no clear race divisions that correspond to typical group behaviors like there used to be many years ago.

To see my point here it may help us to think about what we mean by race. Race is usually defined by the physical features and characteristics of a group of people. Hundreds of years ago people that shared similar physical characteristics also shared the same social and ethnic makeup and tended to live in the same region of the world. People were not able to travel like they do today and there was hardly any interracial mixing. The colonization of the Americas started to change things a bit; but even in the United States, a country that was formed with a foundation of diversity, there was great social pressure for race segregation. For years people kept themselves divided by race. Things, however, started to get a bit confusing.

As centuries went by the Black African people that were brought in as slaves to Caribbean Islands became an integral part of the population of those islands. In some of these islands, like in Puerto Rico, the Blacks mixed with the Whites (mostly from Spain) and the native Indians resulting in the mixed race characteristics of the Puerto Rican people. Other Caribbean countries, like Jamaica, stayed mostly Black; yet the Blacks there have a completely different culture from Blacks in the United States. The same holds true for other races. Maya and Aztec Indians mixed with Spaniards in Mexico and Central America to form the characteristics we see in the people from those regions.

This is a good time to remember that Hispanic or Latino is not a race. This is a big area of confusion in the U.S. because Hispanic has been listed and often continues to be listed as a race classification in all kinds of government, business, and academic forms. Latinos with predominant Indian physical features in the U.S. do not know how to classify themselves on these forms and see Hispanic as the most obvious classification. In reality, the Hispanic classification was created partly to define this group of people that we were unable to classify otherwise. This is not all necessarily bad. Great historical accomplishments were achieved by Mexicans in Texas who set out to legally prove that they were not really white. Until the U.S. government began to recognize this distinction (by a ruling of the Supreme Court no less!), Mexicans who were accused of a crime in Texas were judged by a jury “of their peers” that did not include any Mexican. But I digress…

The fact remains that Hispanic or Latino is not really a race. When people in the Southwest say that someone looks Hispanic they are probably seeing native Indian features that are common in many Mexican immigrants. Likewise, when people in New York say that someone looks Puerto Rican they are recognizing the typical Puerto Rican race mix characteristics. Now, you would think that it would be appropriate for people from Guatemala who have a rather pure Maya heritage (many do) to say that they are of the Indian race. Not so. For one, saying that you are Indian in Latin America is still considered derogatory; a belief that comes from Spanish colonial times when Indians were at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. And more importantly, when any business, government, or academic form lists Indian as a race they mean American Indian; which surprisingly is not seen as inclusive of Aztecs and Mayas (let alone Caribbean or South American Indian natives).

In the United States, anyone with a mix that includes Black is considered Black. I never understood the reasoning behind this but the definition is very well documented. In other countries the definition is a bit different. In the Dominican Republic, for example, it is customary to consider a person White if there is White in their heritage or if the family is mostly of lighter skin. I have met many Dominicans with dark skin who are adamant about classifying themselves as White. In Puerto Rico there is a complete spectrum of skin tones between black and white; yet most Puerto Ricans will say they are White. Who is to judge what the race is when they are mixed races? This becomes worse as people continue to relocate and intermarry. It is becoming so confusing that the census now has a whole battery of questions regarding race mixes and Hispanic ethnic heritages in an effort to include all the options; but what we need to do is to simply give up on this whole race classification nonsense!

From a marketing perspective knowing a segment by their race is of little use. A Black person from Haiti has little in common with a Black person from Atlanta; let alone a Latino Black. To define African American as an American ethnic group (not a race) is valuable. Blacks who share the U.S. American heritage share the same cultural traits and exhibit similar behaviors. In defining African American as an ethnicity, however, I would not include Latino Blacks or newer Black immigrants from other countries. Marketing to Asians as a race is even more ludicrous. They do not even share the same culture or language. Marketing to Asians is only valuable when separated into the specific country segments. BUT… marketing to Hispanics as a whole works! Why? Because Hispanic is NOT a race.

While I will not argue that there are many differences among Latino segments, the fact remains that there are some very strong commonalities. We do (for the most part) share the same language, very similar values when it comes to family, a tendency to be religious or spiritual, a passion for food (even if our foods are different), a Latino wit or sense of humor that is often very different from that of Anglo Americans, a similar immigration experience, an emotional nature, and a unique way of connecting with one another that relies heavily on instincts, emotions, and non-verbal communication. Marketing to the commonalities exhibited by all Latinos does work!

My advice to marketing researchers is to forget about the race because it does not really matter; what we are trying to get at when we segment people by race is their ethnic background. Let’s segment by ethnicity, not by race. And let’s stop believing that we are different because of the color of our skin. The physical features are not what make people different; their attitudes and opinions, which stem from their culture and upbringing, do set them apart.

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We are Hispanics, we are Latinos, we are Americans!

I am proud to be Latino, or Hispanic, or whatever you want to call me. A while back I wrote a booklet that was intended to help new Latino immigrants. In it I spoke about the importance of embracing our U.S. Hispanic or Latino classification. The name is not really as important as recognizing that we are members of a group of more than 45.5 million people. We are a community that has managed to integrate into the American society while at the same time maintaining our roots and culture. As opposed to other groups of immigrants who previously arrived in the United States, the Hispanic community has not become Americanized in the same way. Many of us feel very proud to have achieved this type of integration.

For many new Latino immigrants to feel Hispanic is also an easy and immediate way of belonging to the American society without repudiating our own culture and heritage. Americans have already accepted Hispanics as members of the American community. In fact, Hispanics are many times recognized simply as an American segment – and not necessarily as foreign. This recognition gives us a feeling of solidarity with the Hispanic community, and at the same time, with the American culture. Hispanics are an “American” minority- and the largest of all minorities at that!

We are Americans! Perhaps the largest obstacle in the search for Latino success in this country is the tendency of Latin Americans to maintain themselves separate from American culture. For those Latin Americans that have become citizens of this country it takes hard work to “feel” American. The interesting thing is that, with the small exception of the Native Americans, all people in the United States are descendants of foreigners. This country was formed with the idea to establish a union based on the diversity of its members. To this day, American coins carry the motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” that is to say, “one made out of many.” We Hispanics are part of the American plurality.

There are several reasons why a number of Latin Americans prefer to maintain segregation from “Americans.” The term “American” carries with it the image of an Anglo-Saxon person of origin. That is one of the reasons why it may be very difficult to be identified as part of the American population. On the other hand, there are also many Latin Americans that are in this country transitorily and think that they will soon return to their native country. They obviously see themselves as citizens of their country of origin and not American. Many others simply refuse to be accepted as Americans. For many Hispanics, to say that they are American signifies the abandonment of their Latino inheritance and roots. Nevertheless, this way of thinking has many drawbacks. Primarily, to be American does not mean that they are blonde and have blue eyes! This should be abundantly clear by now (just look at our President!), but many Latinos still feel that they do not look the part.

As I said before, Hispanics are a segment of the American population. Hispanics live in this country just like any other person. What is important is to recognize that it is not easy to achieve success in the United States while staying segregated from the rest of the country. To do this causes the loss of many opportunities that otherwise would be attainable for all Hispanics. Certainly, this advice is not limited to Latin Americans. Many other minority groups in the United States also maintain segregation from “Americans,” and this causes them the same loss of opportunities.

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Hispanic or Latino?

Today I was asked the question again; do you say Hispanic or Latino? My response is usually quick; I use the terms interchangeably. But the reality is that there is more behind the question; which is why it pops up so often. The term Hispanic as it is used in the United States was introduced to classify a group of people that we had difficulty classifying otherwise. It started appearing in the U.S. census and other government forms in the 1960s and was picked up by researchers as a standard demographic characteristic. Businesses also began to refer to the Latino consumers target as the “Hispanic market.” In contrast, the term Latino has different roots. In Spanish we have always used the term to describe an individual from “Latin America” and it is a commonly used Spanish word worldwide.

I like using the term Hispanic in business because I feel that it more clearly identifies the Latino consumers who live in the United States. In fact, I often say that there are no Hispanics outside of the United States. In Mexico there are Mexicans, in Puerto Rico there are Puerto Ricans, and in Cuba, well… Cubans, you get my drift. But in this country Latin Americans are very often classified as Hispanics. I learned to be Hispanic in the United States!

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