Working as an administrator in an elementary school in the Bronx was a formative experience for me, as it was my first time working in an organization that was largely made up of other Latinos.  Both the staff and the students largely came from the surrounding community, which was largely Dominican. Unfortunately, that’s not how the community often saw me, a light-skinned Puerto Rican — whether it was staff prodding to know where my parents were born, or students just not believing me, it was hard for them to accept that I was Latino like them.

What I experienced speaks to the heart of being Latino, which is one that goes deeper than physical appearance. As an ethnicity, being Latino in the U.S. comes with a myriad of different details, and the ones that are most focused on within the field of education are language and citizenship — and for good reason. Undocumented students face tougher challenges in higher education, and there is growing awareness finally being given to improving outcomes for English learners, of which 80% identify as Latino. But what I want to talk about is one factor that is often overlooked when talking about Latinos: race.

Latinos are categorized as an ethnicity, which is largely based on cultural background; in this case, heritage from Latin America. Even though competing racial identities existed historically between the European White settlers, the Black enslaved people brought over to work the land, and the subjugated indigenous populations, these groups eventually created their own shared identity after Spain relinquished its hold of the continents. As such, Latinos encompass people with a wide range of skin tones and physical features. This means there are widely different experiences within Latino groups when it comes to racism.

According to one survey, Latinos with darker skin color have experienced at least one form of discrimination (such as being treated as less smart or being criticized for talking in Spanish) at a higher rate (64%) than Latinos with lighter skin color (54%). When asked about experiencing discrimination by someone who is also Latino, there is an even bigger discrepancy based on skin color: only 25% of lighter-skinned Latinos report discrimination compared to 41% of darker-skinned Latinos. This factors into their education, where lighter-skinned Latinos have better academic outcomes compared to darker-skinned Latinos, even when extra factors like socioeconomic status and immigrant generational status are controlled. In the end, skin color still matters.

These disparities are often overlooked, and unfortunately not enough data is collected or reported on the race of Latinos to make any equity analysis from a policy level possible. One of the main problems is gleaning this information from Latinos in the first place: more than 40% of Latinos either did not answer the race question or chose “Some Other Race” in the 2020 Census, and Pew Research Center found that Afro-Latinos show differences on how they self-identify in surveys. The reason? Latinos feel more Latino than anything else, and marking down “White” or “Black” might speak to an experience that they don’t feel is accurate.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) seems to recognize this disconnect as it has released an initial proposal for how the federal government might update its standards for collecting race and ethnicity data. Currently the federal government asks two questions; first, a standalone question for ethnicity (i.e., “Are you Hispanic or Latino?”), followed by a question asking for race (i.e., “What is your race?”). Under the proposed changes, these two questions would be combined into one question (i.e., “What is your race or ethnicity?”). In both versions, the race question allows respondents to check off more than one race.

While these changes do a better job of fixing the confusion among Latino respondents who solely identify themselves by their ethnicity, it also saddles the question of race alongside it. Given current trends, it is likely that this change would make it less likely for Latino respondents to report their race in addition to their Hispanic ethnicity. It’s a unique situation to be in — on one hand, researchers should design their surveys in a way that makes sense to the average respondent, but what do we do if redesigns change the potential information collected?

Policymakers should be able to look at the data and make sure that all Latinos, White and Black, are receiving equitable results — and the only way to see that is if more of an effort is made to collect this race data. To achieve this, future surveys may consider alternative ways of obtaining race data to directly capture this information, and to make sure that we are not placing one Latino experience over another.

When talking about groups in aggregate, it is easy to miss out on the subtleties that go into the definition. Taking race into account is important, and that doesn’t apply any less when discussing Latinos. As the U.S. and its schools become more and more diverse, it’s crucial to actively address factors such as undocumented status and English language proficiency. But first and foremost, we must also understand that race is relevant — not just for our nation — but for the benefit of students’ education.