Since the issue at hand is about how to refer to people in the US of Latin American origin or descent, and since I am deliberately not favoring any particular word, in this post I will use “Latino/x/e” to describe this group.
In a previous post, I discussed why we grant members of a group special authority to talk about issues related to that group. In this post, as a case study, I examine the word “Latinx”, a contentious gender-neutral term for people of Latin American origin or descent. It’s commonly argued that this word should not be used, on the basis that Latino/x/e people themselves don’t like it, and presumably they have special authority to speak on the matter. I’ve also heard people say that “Latinx” must be coming from misguided non-Latino/x/e people.
As an example of these arguments, there was a recent NYT essay that argued that “Latinx” fails because it is rejected by 97% of Latino/x/e people in the US.
But something that the essay completely ignores, is that “Latinx” has strong associations with specifically queer Latino/x/e people. This is acknowledged by the Pew Research poll that the essay is based on:
The first substantial rise in searches [for “Latinx”] (relative to all online searches) appeared in June 2016 following a shooting at Pulse nightclub, an LGBTQ dance club in Orlando, Florida, that was hosting its Latin Night on the date of the attack.
I’m not Latino/x/e, but I was participating in queer student groups from 2009 to 2014 or so. Latinx was a term I heard in that context–although I more frequently heard Latin@ (“Latinat”), which I know to have declined in popularity since then. How popular is “Latinx” among queer Latino/x/e people today? I don’t know the answer to that, but at least I know enough to ask the question. Which is more than I can say of the NYT essay, or Pew Research for that matter.
I noticed an interesting pattern in works cited section of the essay. Of the 5 works cited (other than Pew), 3 of them are negative on “latinx”–and those are precisely the same three that never mention the queer association at all. The two citations which are positive or ambivalent about “Latinx” are precisely those which directly discuss the queer associations.
As a non-Latino/x/e person, I avoid taking any definitive stance on the matter. If for some reason I had to make a decision, I would defer to the opinions of people in the affected group. But who is the affected group? Is it Latino/x/e people? Or is it more specifically queer Latino/x/e people?
In the “direct expertise” framework I’ve discussed, the reason we defer to opinions of people in the affected group is that they have a sort of expertise over issues that affect themselves. This expertise is not necessarily based on personal experience, but may also come from talking to other members of the same group, or performing activism. Direct expertise, however, has multiple limitations. For instance, how often does the typical Latino/x/e person interact with queer Latino/x/e people?
As an outsider, I can plainly see that queerness is a significant factor. So if a Latino/x/e commentator talks about “Latinx” without even mentioning queerness, I have to conclude that in fact they are not experts on the subject.
It’s also worth thinking about this in comparison to other language changes pushed by activists in the name of inclusivity. Take for instance the creation of gender-neutral occupational terms, like “firefighter” rather than “fireman”. At some point that must have been very unpopular. And how popular do you think the singular “they” is? How popular is it to avoid the use of “you guys” when addressing groups of mixed gender? I don’t think it is correct to defer to popular opinion in any of these cases. Rather, we try to understand whose needs they are meant to serve, and we go to those people–especially expert activists–for an opinion on how effective it is.
And what is the opinion among queer Latino/x/e people? Based on the two previously linked articles,* there seem to be some mixed opinions. I should also point out a common viewpoint that Latine is a better alternative, because it’s more intelligible in Spanish. Note that this conversation is centered in the US, and I don’t think people in Spanish-speaking countries have the right to restrict the language usage of Latino/x/e people in the US… but it seems that some people in the US appreciate a word that is intelligible in Spanish.
*one of the authors identifies as queer, but I couldn’t tell about the other author. She seemed to know about queer stuff though so we’ll count her.
It sounds like we’ll have to wait for more of a consensus. For now, I accept whatever words people use for themselves. If I had to make a choice, I’d probably lean more towards “Latinx” in specifically queer contexts, but maybe hold off in other contexts.
“Latinx” is by no means an urgent issue that needs resolution right now. But I hope this illustrates how intersectionality can complicate direct expertise. Understanding intersectionality is crucial to being literate in issues affecting groups we are not part of.