It doesn’t matter that my father is Afro-Latino. Or that I grew up in East New York. Or, as one of my friends recently pointed out, that I have “ethnic features.” It doesn’t matter that that I firmly stand with the Black Lives Matter movement. Or that my closest friends are Black.
The reality is: I’m a light-skinned Latina and I have benefitted from racist structures.
This does not make me less of a Latina, less of a minority. Nor does it make me a bad person.
Owning the identity of Latina and furthermore, of feminist, writer, and ally does mean that I have a responsibility to be aware of my own privileges. It is only through this self-awareness that we can begin to uplift and empower all Latinxs, people of color, and marginalized individuals.
My mother is a white Latina – pale skin, green eyes. Growing up she had blonde hair, though now she chooses to wear it jet black. She met my father in East New York, Brooklyn in the mid 80’s when she was 20, and it must’ve felt something like love. To say that I never thought about race growing up would be a flat out lie. Race politics existed early on in the comfort of my home.
I spent the majority of my youth and adolescence around my mother’s family. Mostly white Latinxs, and generally very willing to assimilate. And I remember as a child when my mom would say to me coyly, “we’re visiting your father’s family today,” when in fact we were heading to the zoo.
I would laugh. Because I was 6 or 7 or 8. And because I thought that this kind of joking was OK. I didn’t understand how insidious the words were because in my 6 or 7 or 8 year-old mind, I knew that my mother loved my father. He was our hero, the family bread-winner. We built our lives on his back. What hurts me most now as an adult is that I have no recollection of my father’s reactions to these comments.
Throughout my adolescence, these kind of underhanded remarks continued. My mother would say things to relatives or friends about “mejorando la raza;” about her “contributions” to bettering the “Colombian race.” With time, I’ve learned to call her out on these jokes – or rather, her poorly veiled racism. To be clear, I don’t blame my mother. This is how she was raised. This was socially acceptable — a vicious cycle I’m here to break.
The ways in which the Latinx community turns its back on Afro-Latinxs don’t stop with white Latinxs. In fact, I was recently having a conversation with my father around his blackness. He started the dialogue by saying:
“Soy negro…pero no tan negro.”
I’m black…but not that black. His immediate reaction was to distance himself from blackness: a learned self-hatred that — for lack of better words — broke my heart.
In addition to the colorism, and outright racism that I grew up around, I also grew up with my own identity constantly affirmed. Racism exists in the Latinx community. Being a “minority” does not exempt anyone from participating in racism. In many Latinx communities, whiteness is glorified, which goes hand in hand with the historic and violent erasure of black bodies. And simultaneously, mestizaje has been fetishized. Being mixed – brown skin, loose curly hair, “ethnic features” has been hailed by media outlets as “exotic,” “sexy” … all of the words that come to mind when you think of J.Lo or Maluma, for example. I cannot begin to imagine all of the ways that I have unknowingly been affirmed while others have been denied their identities. I know that on the novelas – there were always women who resembled me (even if it was Betty la Fea). I don’t remember longing to see a Disney princess who looked like me. I rarely felt invisible growing up (if anything, I felt all too seen, a topic I’ll explore in the future).
Why is any of this important? The experience of being a minority is not monolithic. Being Latina does not mean that I will “get” everything about being a woman of color, and it absolutely does not qualify me to speak to all of our experiences. Last year, Salma Hayek was involved in a brief but heated controversy involving Jessica Williams (see Amy Kaufman’s take on the account here). I’ve always been a huge Salma Hayek fan, and her exchange with Jessica Williams was a serious eye-opening moment for me. Because I’ve been Salma. And I have made the mistake of trying to speak on behalf of, and even speak over marginalized populations, of representing Black and Brown voices, of being the optimistic voice of reason when it comes to issues of racism.
I am guilty of participating in the very problematic politics of white feminism; of inadvertently silencing others and thinking that I have the answers, when in fact I don’t even know what the question is.
And I know that so many women who look like me, and women who are blonde and blue-eyed are out there shouting JUSTICE! when in reality, we are part of the problem.
Recently, I read an article on whiteness and Latinidad (I’m Blonde, Blue-Eyed and Tired of Defending my Latina Identity), where the author explores how a racial slur (“spic”) towards one of her classmates launched the exploration of her identity and ultimately her career. Never once does she talk about her classmate’s response to the epithet. Instead she takes the time to tell us about all of the ways that she has contributed to the Latinx community, how she’s been there to listen to the stories of Latinxs like Julio when no one else cared. Massive eye roll. I’m glad that Serena is able to embrace her Latinidad and that she’s found a way to give back, but I couldn’t help but feel that this article only served as an ego rub (“my tia ensured that I can cook riquisimas empanadas better than the best of them”). This kind of self-indulgence coupled with the very real conversation around uplifting Latinxs feels whiny and tone-deaf to me, especially when Afro-Latinxs are actively denied not only their Latinx identities, but in many cases their humanity (ever hear of Trujillo, Serena? Please tell me again about how the “bro” calling you white hurt your feelings).
And THIS is the biggest problem: women like Serena, like Salma, like me — we’re quick to make these conversations around race, around identity, around social justice all about us. Like somehow we’re the experts, but in fact we’re co-opting other people’s stories, while at the same time we ignore, and even silence their voices.
It has taken me a long time to admit these truths to myself. And it’s a process that I’m not done with yet. In the words of Roxane Gay: ‘Privilege is relative and contextual. Few people in the developed world, and particularly in the United States have no privilege at all…It may be hard to hear that, I know, but if you cannot recognize your privilege, you have a lot of work to do; get started.”
Ignoring our privileges, and even denying them, only serves to perpetuate existing structures of oppression. We cannot claim to be supporters of social justice movements without acknowledging the ways that we have individually benefitted from social injustice.
I firmly believe that in order to enter productive dialogues around the difficult topics of politics and human rights, we need to first take a long, hard look in the mirror and be honest with ourselves. This doesn’t mean comparing your experience to the person next to you, or trying to figure out who’s had it worse. But instead, it’s admitting that we don’t have all of the answers, and sometimes the best way to fight is to listen.