“Really? Oh wow. You don’t look Latina.”
My entire life, I’ve heard a variation of those seven words after telling someone I am Puerto Rican. As a matter of fact, it’s a common occurrence for entire subsets of the Latinx community. Both white Latinxs and Afro-Latinxs have had others categorize and subsequently disregard us based on our physical appearance. But if you were to only look at the content mainstream outlets have churned out in the last few years, you’d think being a white Latinx presents a one-sided identity crisis.
The sensation of being left out, of being told they’re not “Latinx enough” has led many white Latinx writers to pen op-eds and think pieces about their experiences. But, those essays always miss an essential point; while our community ostracizes both white and Black Latinxs at times, only Black Latinxs face systemic racial oppression on top of that.
While our community ostracizes both white and Black Latinxs at times, only Black Latinxs face systemic racial oppression on top of that.
I’m Black. I have an Anglo last name. My Latina identity has consistently elicited surprised reactions, something I’ve grown accustomed to. As long as after our first conversation, the person I’m speaking with drops their feigned surprise that our community come in all hues, we’re good. My problem starts when questioning continues – as if I am somehow lying about my own heritage.
A few years ago, I was in a bodega in San Juan with a friend, looking to buy some snacks. The clerk followed us with her eyes the entire time we were in the store, but I chose not to think much of it. When we went to pay, she complimented my Spanish and knowledge of the island. She asked if I had learned all that in school. I explained I was Puerto Rican. She took a purposefully exaggerated long look at my warm, teddy bear brown skin, wide nose, and stubborn, proud, unruly Afro before laughing directly in my face.
Voices raised, we got into it for a few rounds. Before I knew it I had completely lost it. I found myself giving a complete stranger an entire history lesson about the heritage we both shared. It wasn’t worth it. Of course she knew there were Black Puerto Ricans. That wasn’t the point. The point was that she would rather not see it. She wasn’t the first person to make me feel like I wasn’t welcome in our community. And she certainly won’t be the last.
This kind of cultural policing, of deciding who gets “to belong” is something that both Black and white Latinxs deal with throughout our lives. There’s an imagined, idealized Latinx standard – when I was younger I used to jokingly call it the Salma Hayek-Jennifer Lopez line – and it can feel like the farther you are from it, on either side of the racial spectrum, the more likely you’re to be constantly questioned. Proclamations of mestizaje and Latinidad don’t always extend to us. Instead we often end up isolated from our own community. We both know what it feels like to be told we aren’t “Latinx enough”.
Even though white and Black Latinxs share these experiences of isolation, being Afro-Latinx means also grappling with realities of institutional racism while our white peers benefit from their racial privilege. Put plainly, we are in greater jeopardy – especially in the current political climate of the Trump Administration, where whiteness comes with greater safety and relative protection. Afrodescendientes are more likely to face violent police bias, criminalization, and unfair due process in our courts. We are more likely to face employment discrimination. Within and outside of Latinx communities, we’re least likely to see our images reflected in media and beauty campaigns. (Latin American TV almost solely features white Latin Americans.) Histories of slavery in the United States, along with histories of slavery and colonization in the Caribbean and Latin America, have left a legacy that systematically privileges whiteness.
There’s been this awesome, growing celebration of Afro-Latinidad over the last few years. Now, more than ever, it’s time to push the conversation further. I’m all for loving our rizos and melanin, but I also want us to think of Black political self-determination as central to Latinx political concerns and needs. I want us to recognize that #BlackLivesMatter is our fight, too. Not just for Black people to live a life free of police brutality, but also to live a full and complete quality of life without being relegated to second-class citizenship. I know we can do more – and part of that means needing our white Latinx brothers and sisters to be better allies to Afro-Latinxs and Latinxs of color.
Your race does not determine whether you are “Latinx enough.” No one can take that away from you.
Whiteness is uplifted, both across Latin America and in the United States. Latinxs who read as white in public have more upfront access to certain advantages. Those same advantages can instead be used to help build a Latinx community that’s actively invested in uprooting and getting rid of our own anti-Blackness.
Acknowledging the ways you have white or light-skinned privilege is not about erasing your Latinidad. As a Black person, I’ve had my own Latinidad erased many times by others – I’d never do that to someone else. Your race does not determine whether you are “Latinx enough.” No one can take that away from you.
But recognizing that white Latinxs experience systematic privilege can help us rethink and expose the white supremacy that exists in our own communities. It gives us a more nuanced understanding of our own histories, culture, and ultimately allows us to reclaim our own power. It strengthens us to remember that Latinidad is not, and never has been, a monolith.
We must never stop questioning our own anti-Black assumptions and internalized racism. We can soar together. I want that for us, more than anything.