Coconuts in Texas: Tensions between avowed and ascribed identities


implicit bias; microaggressions; cultural identity; intersectionality; self-identity; white-washed; othering: Mexican-American


This case takes place in a public middle school in Texas between members of first generation Mexican American immigrant community who are discussing what it means to be “white-washed.” The term is used to refer to someone whose culture has been “Americanized” or erased by whiteness. In addition, being referred to as a “coconut,” means that an individual is brown on the outside and white on the inside and is used to point out when a minority has appeared to have forgotten about their culture’s roots.

This case addresses the identity struggle many immigrants face when trying to gain membership within a social group and how immigrants grapple with their intersecting identities. It takes us through a scenario where the overlapping of self-identity, perception of others, and stereotypes are important for understanding a sense of belonging or Othering.


Being born in Mexico and raised in a Hispanic household in Texas, like so many other immigrants who were brought to the United States at a young age, Mateo always struggled with naming his identity.

Relocating because of his dad’s work, Mateo’s entire family was granted residency until eventually becoming U.S. citizens when he was 15 years old. He lived in an apartment when his family first moved to Texas, but soon moved to a new house in a predominantly white, upper class neighborhood. Both of Mateo’s parents obtained a degree in Engineering from a university in Mexico and maintained a stable income since graduating. Growing up in a state with a large Hispanic population, Mateo never felt like he was fully isolated from his roots. He met several Hispanic immigrants throughout his life and was aware of the close-knit communities in his city. But as Mateo got older, he observed that not all first-generation immigrant families were like his. He started noticing that there was not much in common between them because of one thing – they came from different economic classes. The parents of the majority of his Hispanic classmate’s parents did not receive the formal education his parents had, many of his Hispanic peers were in ESL (English as a Second Language) courses or programs, and a majority of them came from families of undocumented immigrants.

Before middle-school, Mateo went to a predominantly white elementary school. He was one of the few Mexican-Americans in his entire school. Even though he looked different, he never gave much thought to his identity. To him, he was one of the many Mexican’s who just so happened to live in Texas.

It was not until middle school, where people from different neighborhoods started to attend the same school, that Mateo was exposed to more diversity. Mateo’s classmates, who were also of Mexican descent and had immigrant parents, tripled. Mateo’s group of friends was a mixture of different people from diverse backgrounds. They had been close friends since elementary school and stayed that way when they went to middle school. His best friend, Kayla, was a white American. His other close friend, Aaron, was African American. They usually sat at a table with a group of kids who were first-generation children of Hispanic immigrants.

It was during the usual lunch-time banter that Mateo became aware of how his Hispanic immigrant friends perceived him. The conversation moved to talking about music they liked to listen to. Many of them started naming Norteñas, music that is predominantly listened to in the regions of Northern Mexico. Mateo contributed little to that conversation, as his parents grew up in a different region that has an eclectic music taste of Cumbias, Rancheras, Mariachi, and 80’s rock in both English and SpanishWhen he tried to explain what type of music he liked, they laughed and shrugged off his suggestions.

“I know why you like that type of music,” one of them retorted. “It’s because you’re white-washed.” Mateo was confused. “Whitewashed?” He had never heard that term before. He looked around the table and noted that the only white person there was his friend Kayla. Not only was he fluent in Spanish, but he was one of the few Hispanics that was actually born in Mexico and was not a second or third generation immigrant. He asked the table what it meant and one of the kids explained that he was liked a coconut, “Brown on the outside, white on the inside.”

Mateo grew physically uncomfortable. He felt offended, and desperately tried to think of something to say to prove his Hispanidad. Should he take a picture of his birth certificate, his residency card, or his passport to prove his nationality? Should he start listening to musica Ranchera? Was it because he didn’t fit into the Mexican immigrant stereotype? Why did he care so much about how others perceived his identity? He looked to Aaron for help, but he also seemed to be grappling with this new term. He looked to Kayla and noticed she was laughing along with them. Not really seeming to notice his discomfort.

The rest of lunch continued without Mateo saying much. He went home to discuss what happened with his parents.

Discussion Questions

As you consider this case, discuss:

  • What is an authentic identity and who authors or decides that?
  • How would you explain identity to a child if they came home and told you this story? How would you approach that conversation and what would you highlight?
  • Do you think Mateo’s Hispanic classmates meant to insult him? What do you think was their intent?
  • Would the situation be different if a white American, or someone who does not belong to the Hispanic community, had called Mateo white-washed? Why?
  • Would this scenario have different implications for self-identity formation for different ages?
  • How does perception of identity affect one’s membership or sense of belonging to a community?
  • Are there other terms, like “coconut” that you are aware of and how are they used? 

Additional Resources

Additional recommended resources to explore the central themes in this case are available.

  • Johnson, K. R. (1997). “Melting Pot” or “Ring of Fire”?: Assimilation and the Mexican-American Experience. California Law Review, 85 (5), 1259–1313.
  • Rendón, M. G. (2015). The urban question and identity formation: The case of second-generation Mexican males in Los Angeles. Ethnicities, 15 (2), 165–189.
  • TEDx Talks. (2017, February 1). I’m Mexican. Does that change your assumptions about me? | Vanessa Vancour | TEDxUniversityofNevada.
  • Vallejo, J. A. (2012). Barrios to Burbs: The Making of the Mexican American Middle Class (1st ed.). Stanford University Press.

Corresponding Author

Marin Nuñez de Arce, Andrea, American University, School of International Service, D.C., United States. Email: