When is it appropriate for a white person to use Spanish with Latinxs?

In my last post, I examined the raciolinguistic underpinnings of discussions of the bilingualism of vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine. I explored the double standard that exists in US society where the bilingualism of white people is celebrated in ways that it is not for Latinxs. I was also not arguing that Tim Kaine should never use Spanish. However, just because a white person like Tim Kaine knows Spanish doesn’t mean that they should feel entitled to use it with any Latinx that they meet. This begs the question, when is it appropriate for a white person to use Spanish with Latinxs in the United States

If you a white person who finds this question offensive I challenge you to reflect on what it is that you find offensive. The question does not imply that the use of Spanish by white people with Latinxs is never appropriate. It simply implies that there are times when it might not be appropriate. To feel offended at the thought that you might need to adapt your language choices to accommodate Latinxs is a product of the logic of white supremacy that is premised on people of color having to adapt their behavior to accommodate white people with white people never having to adapt their behavior to accommodate people of color.

In the spirit of challenging this logic of white supremacy, below I lay out 5 guidelines for white people who speak Spanish to consider when deciding when it may or may not be appropriate for them to use Spanish with Latinxs in the US. It is possible that some of these guidelines may also be helpful to non-Latinxs people of color who speak Spanish in the US. However, the intersection of bilingualism and whiteness is the focus of my response here.

  1. Mock Spanish is not Spanish. The first point to consider is whether you actually have proficiency in Spanish. I don’t mean that your Spanish has to be perfect—nobody speaks any language perfectly. What I mean is whether you have adequate proficiency to respectfully engage in social interactions. If your Spanish abilities end at the ability to sprinkle words such as “no problemo,” “papi,” or “comprende” you are not really using Spanish but Mock Spanish that is used to denigrate Latinxs. The general rule of thumb here is if you have never actually studied Spanish and/or had any authentic opportunities to engage with Spanish speakers and only know a few simple words then you are probably using Mock Spanish and should stop immediately.
  2. Not all Latinxs speak Spanish. This fact is not surprising considering that many Latinxs currently residing in the United States can trace their ancestry on the lands currently known as the United States to before it was the United States. Just as you wouldn’t assume that somebody whose great-grandparents immigrated from Italy speaks Italian you should not assume that all Latinxs living in the United States speak Spanish. To use Spanish with a Latinx who doesn’t speak Spanish might be offensive to them in that it associates them with a language that they and their family may not have spoken for generations. Alternatively, it is possible that a Latinx who doesn’t speak Spanish is embarrassed by their lack of Spanish proficiency and resents being reminded of this. The general rule of thumb should be to use English as the default language when engaging with Latinxs living in the US unless you receive indication that they speak Spanish.
  3. Not all Latinxs who speak Spanish want to use Spanish with white people. Of course even if you confirm that a Latinx you encounter in the US does speak Spanish it doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to use Spanish with you. There are many reasons why this might be the case. For one, unlike with the bilingualism of white people, the bilingualism of Latinxs is often denigrated in US society. This can lead to feelings of shame about one’s bilingualism that may make Latinxs reluctant to use it outside of familial contexts. In a similar vein, a Latinx who speaks English as a second language may have insecurities about their English exacerbated when a white person tries to use Spanish with them in ways that may imply that their English isn’t good enough. In addition, both US and non-US born Latinxs may prefer to use Spanish as a way of connecting with others in the Latinx community and may simply not want to use it with white people. The general rule of thumb should be to follow the lead of the Latinxs you encounter. If they indicate a willingness to engage with you in Spanish go for it. If they do not give any indication of a desire to engage with you in Spanish then continue using English.
  4. Don’t expect Latinxs to be your Spanish teacher. It can be disappointing to want to practice your Spanish with Latinx people you encounter and have them either explicitly or implicitly refuse to engage with you in Spanish. But disappointment is not the same as oppression. On the other hand, feeling entitled to free labor from Latinxs is oppression that continues in the long history of exploitation of the knowledge of people of color for the benefit of white people. If you are truly interested in practicing your Spanish join a local Spanish conversation group, take a class, watch the Spanish media or volunteer in a Spanish-speaking community. The general rule of thumb should be to receive consent from a Latinx before practicing your Spanish with them and when possible compensating them for their time and effort either monetarily or in some other way. They are doing you a huge service and you should give them some token of your appreciation.
  5. Being bilingual doesn’t automatically make you an ally to the Latinx community. A discussion of the bilingualism of white people should not occur outside of a discussion of the broader policy agenda that you stand for. Knowing Spanish does not give you an automatic pass. You must also actively work as allies in the struggle to improve the lives of the Latinx community. This means listening to what Latinx people are saying—both in Spanish and English—about the issues that impact our community and supporting us in confronting these issues. If you are using your bilingualism more in the service of your own professional goals than the empowerment of the Latinx community you are not being an ally. You are maintaining white supremacy.

In a society where most of the population is monolingual English speaking, anybody who is bilingual, regardless of what their racial background, should be proud of this accomplishment. However, in a society that has historically and continues to be shaped by structural racism, white Spanish-speakers must be willing to directly confront the privileges afforded to you as a product of a white supremacist society. One way of doing this is for you to become comfortable with allowing Latinxs in your lives to dictate the terms and language of your interactions.

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4 comments
  1. Daniel B Heiman said:

    As a “white bilingual” I find this very powerful and a must read for all of “us.”
    Using our bilingualism to forge alliances as opposed to increasing our human capital.
    Critically-framed and social justice oriented two-way dual language programs, as they become ideologically gentrified by “us”, also have great potential be generative spaces that foment critical consciousness, compassion, and alliances (in Spanish or English)!
    Thanks for getting this out there!

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    • Thanks for your comment! I agree that this conversation has important implications for how we conceptualize dual language education.

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  2. Nelson, this is helpful. I would love to read more about the other language skills: listening, reading, writing, and pragmatics. Listening, most obviously. When is it appropriate for a White person proficient on Spanish to listen to one or more Latinxs having a conversation in Spanish without identifying themselves as someone who can understand what’s being said? There’s a kind of eavesdropping, or linguistic voyeurism, that takes place in that scenario, which gives power of access, information, and the element of surprise to the White multilingual. Are there rules of the road for White Spanish listeners, as well as speakers?

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    • That’s a good question. I would say that nobody should ever feel like they have to hide bilingual proficiency. If you are part of a conversation where people begin to engage in Spanish and you understand I see no reason why you shouldn’t indicate that you understand. If it is a random conversation that others are having in a cafe or another venue you happen to be at then I don’t think there is a need to indicate that you understand them. Hopefully they aren’t talking about something too personal but that would be on them for assuming nobody understands them! LOL

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