Fear.

That was my first thought when I read the New York Times headline: “More Hispanics Declaring Themselves White.”

Apparently the preliminary data from a new study show that 2.5 million Americans who identified as Hispanic and “some other race” in 2000 changed their identification in 2010, reporting that they were Hispanic and white. With disturbingly sweeping conclusions Nate Cohn asserts that the data “call into question whether America is destined to become a so-called minority-majority nation, where whites represent a minority of the nation’s population.”   “It is particularly significant,” continues Cohn, “that the shift toward white identification withstood a decade of debate over immigration and the country’s exploding Hispanic population, which might have been expected to inculcate or reinforce a sense of Hispanic identity.”

What about fear?

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In 1989 I was working in Washington, DC, which made me the official public policy analyst for my family. I was not surprised when my sister called long distance, wanting my advice on what was her first Census.

“Should I check ‘Hispanic’?” she asked.

“Yes,” I answered. “Why not?”

I could picture my sister, hundreds of miles away, with skin darker than mine, who was often mistaken for Chippewa or one of the other Native American tribes in Michigan where we grew up. My skin was lighter, so people assumed I was Chaldean, part of the large Christian Iraqi community in Detroit. No one ever guessed Ecuadorian.

“I’m just kind of scared,” she said. “Like maybe they’ll use that against me somehow. I mean, could they use it to discriminate against me?”

I assured her that she would be okay and that checking the “Hispanic” box would be helpful for Latino communities needing government resources.

But I was struck by her question and her fear. While my public policy brain could dismiss her concerns, I knew they were real. From FBI surveillance of Cesar Chavez to Department of Homeland Security data used in millions of deportations, I knew that being Latino in the US was never without risk.

“White Supremacy kills,” writes Blanca E. Vega in Latinidad Without Latinos: In Response to the Question: “Will Hispanics be The New White?”

 …it is insignificant to ask how many White people there will be in 2050 and how Latinos will contribute to this number if we don’t consider that the values, beliefs, and practices that uphold White Supremacy are much stronger than our mortal bodies. Yes – we are all carriers of these values, beliefs, and practices. Thus, Latinos “choosing” White could only mean something when we consider what we are taught about Whiteness and the mechanisms that are still firmly in place that make people desire Whiteness and reject Latinidad.

Whatever the numbers are and however we ask the questions, let’s not forget that stepping forward as a person of color in this country has always been a dangerous act. Let’s not forget that courageous organizing – like Mujeres Unidas y Activas, Puente Arizona, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, and so much more – is what brings safety and strength to our communities, and allows us to nurture an identity of leadership for a loving and equitable world.