By Dr. John Johnson, vice president for diversity and inclusion

Today marks the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month. At first glance, this may generate positive thoughts of diversity and inclusion. We may think that Hispanic Heritage Month is similar to other heritage month celebrations (Black History Month, Women’s History Month, PRIDE Month, etc.), as an opportunity to celebrate and acknowledge the valuable contributions made by one of the many communities that comprise our nation. In part, that is precisely what Hispanic Heritage Month is, an opportunity to reflect, affirm, and bring those too often relegated to the margins to the center, even if just for four weeks.

Hispanic Heritage Month also provides us with an opportunity to interrogate and expand our understanding of pan-ethnic supercategory classifications like “Hispanic”. The common application to Whitman asks prospective students to indicate if they are “Hispanic/Latinx” in a manner similar to the U.S. Census. Like the Census, individuals are asked if they identify as “Hispanic” and then are asked to select from a predetermined list of pan-ethnic racial categories (White, Asian, Black, American Indian or Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander). The U.S. began collecting data on race starting with the first census in 1790. Data on “Hispanic” or Latino origin was collected for the first time in 1970, more than 150 years after the first decennial census, and respondents to the census were able to select more than one race for the race category for the first time in 2000.

The Whitman College Factbook reports that 9% of all enrolled students during the 2020-21 AY were Hispanic. Whitman uses the demographic categories prescribed for use with the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and in order to generate an unduplicated headcount, a student can formally be counted in only one of the reported racial/ethnic identity categories. If a student selects Hispanic/Latinx and Asian, they will be counted in the Hispanic category. If a student selects Asian and Black, they will be counted in the Two or More category. If the student is an international student, they are in the International category regardless of response to the Hispanic or race question. 

The federal government’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) uses census data to make decisions about apportionment for the House of Representatives. Using the OMB guidelines, the U.S. Hispanic population count from the 2020 census is 62.1 million people and includes people of any race. In the absence of a Hispanic/Latina/o/x racial category option, some census survey respondents wrote in a response to the race question indicating that they identified as racially “Hispanic” or “Latino/a/x”. But according to the U.S. Census office, “Hispanic responses to the race question are tabulated as part of the Some Other Race category, as Hispanic or Latino is not considered a race in the 1997 OMB standards.” 

So faced with a choice between being White or being literally “Othered” many Latinos checked White for their race. U.S. Census population estimates from 2019 indicate that 76.3% of the nation’s population is White. When those who indicated that they were Hispanic or Latino were excluded from those who selected White, the White population dropped from 76.3% to 60.1%. In one 2014 study by the Census, they found that “for Latinos, those who checked white did not identify with the term.” When asked why they selected white they said, “Because there was nothing else. I don’t fit anywhere else. There’s nothing else to put.”   

Census and IPEDS data can be useful in our efforts to quantitatively measure general outcome disparities, population growth, and other valuable data points that can help us evaluate our progress, but the data is only useful if we are asking the right questions. So as we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, let’s also think about where the term “Hispanic” comes from and if it helps us answer important questions about inclusion, marginalization, representation, and identity.