This “The Ethicist” column appeared in the Sunday New York Times.
My mother is from Central America. She came to the United States for college and met my American father. I am, therefore, 50 percent Latino genetically, but I don’t identify as Latino. There were (to my regret) no Central American influences in my upbringing — no Spanish language, no Latino relatives, no foods from “the old country.” There was also no discrimination directed at me or my mother (we look “white”). Is it ethical to identify as Latino in social situations and on the census? Name Withheld
Our ethnic and racial categories drape loosely around the realities of our complex lives. I am the son of an English woman and a Ghanaian man. I am an American citizen. Am I a black American? African-American? Anglo-American? Anglo-African? “Latino” is a word that hovers uneasily between a category defined by culture and one defined by descent. The latter conception makes you Latino. The former doesn’t quite. There’s also a notion that ethnicity should be defined by your own sense of identity — by whether you think of yourself as Latino. But whether you think of yourself as Latino is shaped by ideas about culture and descent. There isn’t a single correct view about that. Still, here’s a solution: In cases in which you don’t have the time or space to explain your situation, probably the least confusing thing to say to people in the United States is that your mother is Latina. (As far as forms go, if they permit you to check two boxes, I’d do that. If they don’t, I don’t believe it matters much what you do.)