The Problem of Anti-Blackness in the Latinx Community

Angelo Franco

 

The renewed calls for racial justice in the United States don’t seem like they will be losing steam anytime soon. The protests throughout the country are taking us all to task to actively confront the racism the permeates all aspects of American life, requiring a dismantling of entire systems that for too long have been used to oppress people of color, especially Blacks. And when I say “us all” I mean us all, including other POC and minorities that are subjugated to those systems of racism and white supremacy but experience that oppression differently.

 

The distinction here between POCs and “other minorities” may be important, because the way “white race” is categorized in the U.S. is unique, and some minorities who would generally identify as white, like many Latinx immigrants, don’t quite fit that American mold; and racism is not just a white American problem.

 

This is critical to understand because we cannot tackle racism in the Hispanic-American community without addressing anti-blackness. There is a type of anti-blackness that is exclusively American, to be sure -- one rooted in racist ideologies, from the birth of this nation through its history with slavery and systems of oppression. But we have this misconception of white supremacy being a particularly American problem, and we associate it only with the most distinctive expressions of it, like the KKK or the Aryan Brotherhood, when in reality white supremacy is an entire system of oppression. And those systems of white supremacy and the enslavement of Blacks, of course, are not unique to North America.

 

 

Our obsession with whiteness started as far back as colonial times. The Atlantic Slave Trade was responsible for bringing millions of African slaves to French, Portuguese, and Spanish colonies in Central and South America. Half of all slaves that crossed the Atlantic landed in Brazil, and this former Portuguese colony was also the last country in the Americas to end slavery.

 

It did so officially in 1888, and while it managed to avoid a civil war as in the United States or a slave revolution  as in Haiti, it ended the institution of slavery mostly because the economic system it was based upon could no longer be maintained. With other countries now refusing to trade slaves, Brazil saw a shortage of labor. The institutions and systems of slavery in Latin America are the reason why there is such a large population of Afro-Latinx throughout the continent (Brazil still has the largest population of Afro-Latinx); and why most of us can count ourselves as either mulatto (mixed with black and white European ancestry) or mestizo (in this sense, mixed with indigenous and white European ancestry).

 

And just as in the U.S., though in different connotations and contexts, there exists a toxic anti-blackness in Latin America that can almost rival the hatred and discrimination toward Blacks in the United States. And I don’t mean just colorism—although there is plenty of that as well—but a genuine distaste of dark skin, of full lips, of kinky hair.

 

I myself am a mestizo, probably with as much as a quarter of indigenous ancestry. But I was not raised as a mixed kid, I don’t speak a word of Quechua, and the one time I was taken to visit the Andes when I was a child I almost passed out because of the change in elevation. Instead, every time a cousin or second cousin was born, my family placed bets on whether the kid was going to have the luminous green or gray eyes of my elders. They were regularly disappointed when most of us, inevitably, began being born with our dull brown eyes; or bemoaned their luck when an infant’s orange-blossom-honey eyes changed to a darker, tree bark brown. Never mind the fact that all of us—as far back as we can trace our ancestry—were some kind of mixed, and who has time to discuss dominant genetic traits anyway.

 

 

And I cannot fathom the number of times I heard or was told that we must “mejorar la raza” - improve the race. A whitening of us: a blanqueamento. That I should find myself a white girl to marry, not only so that our kids turn out better-looking but also so that our tainted mixed blood dilutes a bit more and hope that we can at least start betting on green or gray eyes again. To “improve the race” so that our kids and grandkids can actually have a chance at being white-passing; they may not turn out with Nordic pale skin, but at least they won’t have my own cinnamon complexion either and that’s an improvement. I really cannot emphasize enough how casually and how often this phrase is thrown around, and how it carries this incredibly racist ideology that is so ingrained in us that we barely recognize it for what it is.

 

I may have disappointed a few in my family when it turned out I wasn’t going to marry any girl after all, but being in the U.S. was supposed to raise my chances of finding a white girl to settle down and have kids with. And if we are being brutally honest, being white-passing definitely has its benefit given the state of it all; so thank goodness that I was going to provide my offspring with unbroken English speech and lighter but perpetually sun-kissed skin. But the need of being white-passing as a survival mechanism is the issue in and of itself. Like code-switching, or straightening our wavy hair, or speaking English in public even when everyone in our group speaks Spanish, “mejorar la raza” for the sake of having white-passing offspring is in itself not just a racist principle but an anti-color one as well and, perhaps above everything else, anti-black. These are the ideologies that migrate with us wherever we go.

 

And so here we are, in the American landscape of race wars, with many of our (mainly older) brethren trying to contend with the fact that here in the U.S. they are people of color, condemning racism while holding racist beliefs, and screaming at the top of their silenced voices that we too are white --please love us, America! We can be almost white-passing if we hide our mestizo and mulatto heritage an ignore the plight of other non-white POCs, while actively repudiating Black skin the way we are already used to doing anyway.

 

 

This is probably one of the biggest culture shocks for Latin immigrants, who in the U.S. find themselves not quite at the bottom of the barrel but definitely don’t float around the top either, with our slightly less dark skin and wavy-but-not-kinky hair. Because for so long, we have considered Afro-Latinx as lesser, fully purging ourselves of that ideology is probably tantamount to a being a reformed white supremacist. 

 

This might sound a bit outlandish, but I imagine that being Latin and anti-black in the U.S. is a little (a lot) like being an anti-Semitic white supremacist, in that the whole thing must be a weird dilemma. Anti-Semitism starts with the idea that Jews have too much power and are sneakily exploiting it. And if that seems weird and contradictory for being a tenet of white supremacy and anti-Semitic ideology, it’s because it is.

 

But we know of other groups who also live in this strange juxtaposition of contradictions. The ubiquitous Karen, for example, is a white lady who has the disadvantages of being a woman and living under the patriarchy, but the advantages of living under white supremacy which she uses to keep people of color down, whether consciously or otherwise. Similarly, “white Hispanics” in the U.S. experience systemic oppression but still benefit from these same systems that are used to oppress Black people.

And so, for the professional white supremacist, Jews cannot be white because they need Jews to explain the world. Jews are subhuman and devoid of the sanctity of the white race. (Interestingly and to add to the weirdness that is anti-Semitism, Black luminaries like James Baldwin argued that anti-Semitism in the Black community exists because Jews are white).

 

Likewise, Latinx cannot be white because how would they then explain that white people are lazing around wearing a sombrero and getting drunk on tequila on the daily the way Latinx do. I think a bit of these same sentiments run through the underbelly of anti-blackness in the Latin community in the U.S. We cannot be mulattos, or mestizos, or any kind of mixed because how would we explain black on black crime, or gang violence, or having children out of wedlock, or whatever other myriad racist stereotypes we hold dear in our attempt to distance ourselves so thoroughly from an irrevocable fact of our actual existence -- that in America or anywhere else, we are not white Spaniards (because yes, Spaniards are white Europeans). You can’t “mejorar la raza” with a “moreno” after all, so we can’t be non-white; that would defeat the entire purpose of our own re-whitening.

 

 

If you’re Latinx, then I would bet anything that you still have an aunt or a grandfather or an in-law talking about “mejorar la raza” and casually supporting this whitening of you around the dinner table during la sobremesa. And frankly, like any other form of prejudice, this holds us back. It’s a lamer version of “not all men” and “all lives matter,” when we see Black bodies being defiled and killed on the streets and turn a blind eye at best, and at worst are complicit with this anti-blackness by saying, “That’s them; that ain’t us because we’re actually white. But hey, can you give us some more ESL classes in our schools?”

 

It’s pretty vexing and gives me a bit of whiplash to see and experience this in my Hispanic-American community. We treat anti-blackness like a binary, where we think we must either be Latinx and troublemakers, or assimilate to the American way and accept the ways things are. Except it’s apparently not a problem because we also experience racism in America, so we can’t be racist, can we? We must love our culture and “mejorar la raza” is just a thing everyone says. This call for our whitening we throw around is not a big deal; it’s just a harmless cultural expression every Latinx uses and we must remain close to our roots, right?

 

We continue to do the same thing Spaniard colonizers did when they arrived at Hispaniola island (now Haiti and Dominican Republic), by placing whiteness at the top of everything else as a form of domination, giving us a white god and Catholicism, Eurocentric educations, and erasing our indigenous histories.

 

We still hold whiteness as the ideal in everything, in our sense of beauty, of worth, or goals to attain. We are so worried with distancing ourselves from our Black brothers and sisters and their plight that we forget that the true villain is the systems of white supremacy that have been instilled within us since the capture of Atahualpa.

 

And maybe assimilation is the easiest route to take: If whiteness is perceived as something with power and agency, then who wouldn’t want to try to identify or present as white? But it robs us of our true identities and, tragically stops us from creating bridges of shared cultures with other communities of color. And, at the end, we’re all still stuck under the proverbial knee of white supremacy pressing on our necks.

 

Author Bio:

 

Angelo Franco is the chief features writer at Highbrow Magazine.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

 

Image Sources:

 

--BigBossBlue (Wikipedia.org, Creative Commons)

 

--Wellcome Images (Wikipedia, Creative Commons)

 

--QuinnTheIslander (Pixabay, Creative Commons)

 

--William H. Johnson painting (Wikipedia, Creative Commons)

 

--Kheel Center, Cornell University (Wikimedia.org, Creative Commons)

 

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