Friday, December 09, 2022

Real Life Awakenings – Debunking Latines’ Racial Innocence

Guest Blogger

For the Balkinization symposium on Tanya K. Hernández, Racial Innocence: Unmasking Latino Anti-Black Bias and the Struggle for Equality (Beacon Press, 2022).

Berta Esperanza Hernández-Truyol[1]

I am delighted to participate in this important conversation about Racial Innocence – a book about an awakened existence presented through Tanya’s sharp, multidimensional lens. The work utilizes personal experience, cultural narratives, and case reports, to provide snapshots of daily racialized existence in the land of Latines’[2] claimed racial innocence – a land where consciously or unconsciously, race always matters. 

Racial Innocence is an awakened obra that is not only about law – the intellectual enterprise, the mind; it is also about the Latine multidimensional identity, body, and soul. I was born in Cuba and raised in Puerto Rico, so I am no stranger to the intra-Latine racial biases that the book so brilliantly not only exposes, but also engages. To any Latine, the book must hit home. But the book should hit home for everyone involved and interested in the pursuit of racial justice. It is revolutionary and evolutionary – it is awakened[3] – and much needed for the justice project.

I remember being on the hiring committee at St. John’s University when Tanya first tossed in her hat into the teaching ring. We interviewed her, we hired her. Her very bright shining light was palpable. I was delighted that another Latina would be on the faculty. That very reality gave way to some interesting conversations, such as the myriad occasions on which I had to explain that no, this is not nepotism, we are not related (not that we couldn’t be). I was just another faculty member, not in any position of power. Hernández is a very common name. In fact, were we to time travel, we would find that the surname Hernández took up as much space as the most common Anglo names such as Smith in the big fat NYC phonebooks.

On the direct topic of the book, let me share one vignette from Tanya’s first semester. One day she walks into my office, not calmly and, handing me a paper, asks, “Madrina, que se supone que yo haga con esto?” (What am I supposed to do with this?) I look at the form, a personnel form seeking demographic information. Tanya had checked both the “Black” and the “Hispanic” boxes. The administration had returned the form informing her could only check one box. Racial Innocence.

One of my early awakenings was moving to the U.S to attend college and learn that I am an “other” because I am Latina. Arriving in upstate NY from Puerto Rico with a Paris, France mailing address the administration housed me in the international dorm with Latine students from abroad. An early example of the homogenizing of identidad Latina by the majority that results in the invisibility of diversity within the group and allows not only the othering of Latines from the so-called normative, but also hides the othering of Latines among themselves. This inter- and intra-Latine othering replicates and reifies the racial hierarchies historically established by the group in power.

It is significant that colonization brought with it the institutionalization of racial hierarchies in América Latina. From the Latine historical position, the desirability of “Whiteness” represents the internalization by the colonized of the colonizers' predilections.[4] In comunidades Latinas, race-based distinctions, imposing a hierarchy where "Whiteness" is the coveted hue, is traceable to early Spanish colonizers' views on race. In New Spain (Mexico) where the Spanish were a White minority, Spanish attitudes toward the Native population paralleled the Spanish xenophobic expulsion of Jewish and Arabic persons from Spain.

Following this historical pattern, in the new land Spaniards sought to identify those with “purity of blood”[5] in order to create a social hierarchy that privileged “Whiteness.” To establish a racially driven socioeconomic structure during the colonization period, the Spaniards in Mexico (as well as in other places) established a complex system of racial categorization that included the prohibition of public office holders from having a “taint” of Indian, Arabic, or Jewish blood.[6] Those with “tainted” blood were denied entry to schools and universities, and mestizos/as were specially targeted for discrimination.[7]

The Spaniards had a detailed structure of race and class-based hierarchy to go along with the system of social, economic, and educational stratification and segregation. In fact, the ordering is plainly marked in graphic charts reflecting the social order[8] and confirming the social and economic value attached to “Whiteness” that persists to date.

As critical theoretical conversations have unveiled, the U.S. notion of race is exceptional. For one, whiteness is tied to Anglo-Saxon origins. Consequently, the “phenomenon” occurs – confirming the notion of race as constructed – of Italian persons[9] and Jewish persons,[10] for example, “becoming” White, and of Spaniards losing Whiteness and becoming Hispanic.[11]  

The governing paradigm for racial construction in the United States is the one drop rule: one drop of Black blood renders one Black. Latines, as Tanya notes, have a one drop rule of sorts, but it exists in the inverted context: “blanqueamiento” – Whitening – the idea that one drop of White blood puts one on the road to whiteness. Hence the notion of “bettering the race” by marrying White (or light) that Tanya examines.

The desirability of whiteness, of course, is but the flip side of the undesirability of not-whiteness. To his dying day my papi, like Tanya’s abuelita, struggled with the U.S. categorizations. When filling out forms he always checked the White box, instead of the Hispanic box although the White box provided “White, not of Hispanic origin,” ranking Whiteness over Latinidad and giving life to Tanya’s observation that a racial/ethnic conflation results in the revelation and confirmation of the existing racial hierarchy. The very conflation resulted in the rejection of Tanya’s forms in that fall semester. Moreover, conflation detrimentally promotes the erasure of the intra-Latine tensions while embracing the hierarchy of racial values.

If one is conscious, one sees these slights and racial and ethnic subordinations daily. Sometimes they are so subtle they may be difficult to perceive; as we awaken they dislocate. In one anti-subordination talk I gave at a law school I addressed both race and gender issues. In considering the supposed “model minority” label attached to Asian persons, including high economic achievement, I called attention to the many Hmong persons who at the time were struggling with poverty. In engaging gender, I exposed the cultura Latina’s subordination of women. After the talk two Hmong students thanked me; it was the first time they heard about themselves in a law environment. Latine students also approached me. Yet, while they appreciated the talk, they took exception to my “airing our dirty laundry.” Without airing, I told them, there can be no change. All communities should be deeply grateful to Tanya for this exceptional broadcast.

The concept of racial innocence, the idea that Latines can be racists, is part of daily life. Tanya’s book serves to open society’s collective eyes to obscured racial injustice. It is a powerful example of the need to awaken the law to its role in subordination, the reality of multidimensionality, and the imperative of centering the marginable for justice to prevail.

Racial Innocence is an Awakened book. Awakening signifies attaining a critical consciousness[12] -- a concept widely embraced in myriad disciplines such as religion, psychology, education, sociology but nonexistent in law. Across disciplines, the ongoing process of awakening entails questioning the status quo by recognizing and naming, reflecting upon, and resolving the problem.[13] In the context of law, there is the need to identify, analyze, and reject injustices as well as take action to eradicate them. Racial Innocence is a work of critical consciousness. It recognizes the problem and names it: Latine anti-Black bias; reflects upon the myriad levels at which the bias is deployed; and acts to resolve the problem urging Latines to be at the forefront of racial equality in the U.S.

Those questioning the status quo must be aware of and acknowledge their own biases. The analysis must locate the site of power and examine who is excluded.[14] This is precisely what Racial Innocence does – Tanya is cognizant of and exposes the anti-Black bias in the comunidad Latina and how, in the context of the “Anglo” majority within the U.S., that bias works to subordinate all Latines.

Awakening entails the realization that each one of us is guided by our perceptual playbooks[15] – the collection of systems of beliefs,[16] cognitive scripts,[17] created and passed down by families, religious traditions, cultures, the societies in which we live. Each of our perceptual playbooks is imbued with ideas, theories, and tropes that define us and delineate how we see the world. Operating based on the perceptual playbooks that are ingrained in us, define our thoughts and are the foundation for our viewpoints, requires that we engage in a critically conscious analysis: a) identify and name the myriad foundations for the perceptual playbook; b) interrogate their consequences; c) take action as necessary to reveal and resolve the tensions in the foundations of inequitable beliefs. Racial Innocence is unique and effective because Tanya knows first-hand all the layers of the perceptual playbooks that she engages, exposes them, in particular the anti-Black Latine conception of racial mixture, and in so doing creates a path for justice and equality to prevail.

In providing an awakened narrative in Racial Innocence, Tanya presents a critically conscious analysis that exposes the series of assumptions, and patterns of behavior embedded in Latines’ perceptual playbook. Once conscious of our perceptual playbooks, we can arrive at a truth that eschews learned racial hierarchies and dualities of good/bad; right/wrong.[18] For example, in the process of awakening, we may reach awareness that our individual culture is not the “truth.” For Latines, it could be the racialized fault lines of White and Black hierarchies within la cultura Latina and the realization that these are *not* the “correct and only” way to be, that racial binaries are constructed to control, that many racial and other tropes that set up hierarchies are simply the heteropatriarchy asserting its power and our bowing to it reflects our internalized oppression. Tanya exposes the racial fault lines within la cultura Latina that replicate the unconscious, albeit intentional, racial hierarchies created and imposed by those in power not only today, but throughout history.

To awaken is to accept what we do not know and to resist filling in that knowledge gap with the created knowledge of our perceptual playbooks. Tanya tells us, Latines and non-Latines alike, that we need to flex our brains to eschew the misinformation on race that exists within the cultura Latina as well as that believed by the majority.

Awakening allows us to pierce the veil of our individual perceptual playbooks, expose the myths based on the inherited tropes, interrogate the patterns and the sources, systemically challenge and dismantle the belief systems, and create new narratives/counternarratives. It is a life-long process of critical deconstruction of learned perceptual playbook thoughts; a process of truth and reconciliation, imbued with continuous cycles of progression and regression.[19]

Racial Innocence pierces the veil of racial innocence within la cultura Latina. The book raises awareness of the cultura’s racial biases and dismantles its flawed foundations. Consequently, it enables the formulation of a path to justice, a location in which all Latines’ voices, interests, positions are acknowledged and embraced.

Significantly, because of the heterogeneity of Latines not only culturally, linguistically, racially, religiously, socio-economically, in ranges of ability, in sexual identity, educationally, etc. anyone/everyone could be Latine. Thus, Tanya’s book can be a roadmap to justice for all vulnerable, marginalized, subordinated peoples. Racial Innocence is an Awakened tour de force. Thank you Tanya for that amazing gift.


[1] Berta Esperanza Hernández-Truyol, Stephen O’Connell Chair at the University of Florida, Levin College of Law. She can be reached at

[2] I will utilize the term Latine rather that the other, perhaps more popular ways of addressing the population that is the subject of the book. While Latina/o, because it is gender inclusive, non-binary identifying persons; Latin@ could be viewed to include the genders as well as symbolically the non-binary, but it is unpronounceable. Thus, my choice of Latine is to promote a non-gendered, non-binary inclusive way to address the people about whom Tanya writes. There is not enough room in this conversation for me to explain why I opt not to use Latinx.

[3] See Berta Esperanza Hernández-Truyol, (2022) "Awakening the Law: A LatCritical Perspective," Seattle Journal for Social Justice: Vol. 20: Iss. 4, Article 9 (introducing the concept of awakening to the law) available at:

[4] Luz Guerra, LatCrit y la Des-Colonizaci6n Nuestra: Taking Colon Out, 19 Chicano[/a]-Latino[/a]] L. Rev. 351, 355 (1998).

[5] David Hayes-Bautista, Identifying "Hispanic" Populations: The Influence of Research Methodology Upon Public Policy, 70 Am. J. Pub. Health 353, 354 (1980).

[6] Id. at 354.

[7] Id.

[8] 1 Levi Marrero, Cuba: Economa y Sociedad: Antecedantes Siglo XVI: La Presencia europea 3 (1976).

[9] See, e.g., Brent Staples, How Italians Became White, Opinion, NY Times, Oct. 12, 2019, available at

[10] See, Emily Tamkin, Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities (2022); Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks (1998).

[11] See, José G. Soto-Márquez, “I’m Not Spanish, I’m from Spain”: Spaniards’ Bifurcated Ethnicity and the Boundaries of Whiteness and Hispanic Panethnic  Identity, Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 2019, Vol 5(1) 85-99, available at; see also,  Jaime Gonzalez, I’m white in Barcelona but in Los Angeles I’m Hispanic? October 28, 2015, available at

[12] Alexis Jemal, Critical Consciousness: A Critique and Critical Analysis of the Literature, URB. REV. 602, 603–06 (2017). See PAULO FREIRE, PEDAGOGY OF THE OPPRESSED 35 (30th ed. 2000).

[13] Melissa Summer, “You Are a Racist”: An Early Educator’s Racialized Awakening, 105 SOC. STUD. 193 (2014).

[14] Id.

[15] Hernández-Truyol, "Awakening the Law," supra note 3, available at:


[17] Anna Welpinghus, The Imagination Model of Implicit Bias, 177 PHIL. STUD. 1611, 1622 (2020

[18] Peter Amato, The Theory of Awakening: A Classic Grounded Theory 99 (2016) (Ph.D. dissertation, Saybrook University) (ProQuest).

[19] Hernández-Truyol, "Awakening the Law," supra note 3, available at:

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