Even as this year’s Academy Award nominations were being criticized earlier this week for their lack of diversity, a related social media controversy broke out when some US media outlets described Spanish actor Antonio Banderas, who is in the running for an Oscar, as “an actor of color.”
Many people in Spain were surprised by the term used to describe this native of Málaga. And in social media, some users called the publications “racist” and “yokel” for viewing the star of Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory as anything other than a white European. The online controversy about Banderas as a person of color extended to the other side of the Atlantic.
The online film industry publication Deadline has since deleted its tweet about “two actors of color” – Banderas and the African American actress Cynthia Erivo – while Vanity Fair deleted a sentence saying that “while Spaniards are not technically considered people of color, it should be noted” that Antonio Banderas has been nominated for his lead role in Pain and Glory.
There was a similar controversy in September of last year at the MTV awards, where the singer Rosalía, who hails from a small town in Barcelona province, was categorized as Latina, Hispanic and European.
Adapting the census
In the United States, ethnic labels have carried a political weight for decades, and they have been used to fight discrimination and increase the visibility of various communities. In the 1970s, the US Census included a “Hispanic” category to group people from Spanish-speaking countries. Before that, Mexican-Americans had to describe themselves as white, but groups of activists fought to include a new category that would acknowledge their origins.
Race is a social construct that varies depending on where a person grows up and the country where they live
Clara Rodríguez, Fordham University
But the term Hispanic did not satisfy those who did not identify with the legacy of Spain’s colonial past, and “Latino” emerged, which also included indigenous people and Brazilians.
Clara Rodríguez, a sociologist who specializes in racial and ethnic categorization issues, says that the first thing she asks her students at Fordham University, in New York, is: “What are you?”
“Race is a social construct that varies depending on where a person grows up and the country where they live. In Puerto Rico I am white, but in the United States, I am not,” she notes.
Asked whether Antonio Banderas could be considered a person of color, her answer is simple: “Ask him. Ricky Martin is not dark-skinned, but he identifies as a person of color because of his Puerto Rican origins.”
The writer Ed Morales, author of Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture, notes that language is also a very important racial determinant in the US. “If a police officer arrests you and you have a strong Spanish accent, his perception about your race, independently of how you see yourself, could change,” he says in a telephone interview.
Morales adds that before World War II, no American would ever have considered Antonio Banderas to be a white man – not him nor any other southern European. “When they fought with us, the definition of white changed.”
A key tool to understand the United States’ relationship to race and ethnicity is the US Census. The survey began in 1790 with just three options: free whites, other free persons, and slaves. The latest version, from 2010, makes a distinction between Hispanics, Latinos and people of Spanish origin; it also specifies Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans and other origins.
“Thirty years ago, the majority of people believed that each person’s race was obvious, and that this was a genetic and biological issue. But now a lot more people feel that it’s a social construct. And that’s progress. Now we better understand the complex idea that race depends on the perception that we each have of ourselves,” explains Morales, who has contributed to The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Ramón A. Gutiérrez, who teaches history at Chicago University, says he is amused by the Banderas controversy. “Some media used Banderas’ photo as evidence that Hollywood is not racist, but the result was racism and exclusion,” he says.
Like most scholars on the matter, Gutiérrez defends that race is subjective, and that, paraphrasing the African-American activist Malcolm X, “racism is like a Cadillac, they bring out a new model every year.”
English version by Susana Urra.