Crowd in a large urban city center with a protestor holding a sign reading "vidas negras importan"

Dear Latines: Your Antiblackness Will Not Save You

Dear Latines,[1] your antiblackness will not save you. Your aspirations to whiteness are deadly (RIP Trayvon Martin; RIP Philando Castile); not just for the Black communities you seek so much to distance yourselves from, but also for those in your family who will never be welcomed into the “American Dream” (RIP Andres Guardado). It is time you reckoned with the following facts: Latines are not a monolith and never have been. The trans-Atlantic slave trade, colonization, imperialism (and later on white supremacist political projects like Blanqueamiento[2]) made Latines a multi-ethnic, multicultural group of peoples that run the gamut from indigenous, Black, Asian, to white, and mixed with all of the above. We come from different national contexts, and also racial contexts, political beliefs, religious beliefs, and socioeconomic backgrounds as well. The assumption that we are all one “hive mind” when it comes to how we view social and political unrest in this country is not only false but dangerous. It is dangerous because those of us who walk in this world as phenotypically Black, Indigenous, darker-skinned, queer, womyn, and disabled (from marginalized backgrounds) experience this unrest in very different and often violent ways than others who are lighter-skinned, racially ambiguous, white, cishet, or abled.

The summer of 2020 has been one of visible social unrest for U.S. Black communities struggling against the state violence that plagues Black, Indigenous, and people of color. I was not surprised to learn of physical, antiblack attacks during the protests of the state-sanctioned murder of George Floyd. Nor was I shocked to learn that in Chicago, Mexican gangs and some residents of the predominantly Mexican southside area of Pilsen targeted Black men, women, and children who drove or walked through the area. As an Afro-Puerto Rican woman who has attended events in Pilsen, I have experienced gang intimidation and felt unwelcome during community events offered to “Latinas.” It was clear that these events did not consider Black Latinas part of their community audience. I was also not surprised to read about Dominicans in New York beating up random Black men because they assumed these Black people were there to loot and tear down their communities. Of course, the Dominican Republic has its own historical context of antiblackness. The antiblackness in these actions is glaringly clear: the assumption that the Black people in these neighborhoods were criminal and did not belong there served to distinguish between who is Latine and who is not. To do so, it had to erase Blackness from Latinidad. For far too many Latines, Black lives do not matter because they have convinced themselves that Blackness has no real place in Latinidad, and this must change.

For me these actions only served to reify what I learned early on, both experiencing and navigating in the Midwest: that antiblackness is a global phenomenon taught and ingrained in the Latine community.[3] In Chicago and Milwaukee, other Puerto Ricans often told me that I couldn’t be Puerto Rican because I was Black. I even encountered Black, non-Latine people who didn’t know Afro-Latines existed. I come from a family of Black Puerto Ricans. Even in 2020, Puerto Ricans and other Latines ask me if I am “mixed” with “Black and Puerto Rican.” Residential segregation and the tension around the competition for scarce resources in poor Black and Brown communities, coupled with the lack of education on people of color histories taught in public schools exacerbate this ignorance. This pushed me into what has been a lifelong journey of study on the origins of the belief that Latinidad and Blackness are mutually exclusive. Through years of research and constant conversation with Latines, I found that the origins of this belief are both Latin America itself and the United States.

 

Racial Discourse in Latin America

In Latin America, Afro-Latines have occupied a liminal space. Their limited visibility usually comes in recurring tropes: a celebration of African cultural influence on music, song, dance, food, or a hypervisibility linked to policing and assumed criminality (Godreau 2002; Dinzey Flores 2013). The prevalence of mestizaje (racial mixture) celebrated throughout Latin America has ignored not only the very existence of Afro-Latinidad as a political and cultural identity, but has also led to the assumption in the United States that there is mutual exclusivity between Blackness and Latinidad. This assumption ignores the histories of colonialism and slavery in Latin America. For decades, Afro-Latines have been challenging the rhetoric of mestizaje and racial utopia, pushing for political representation and social mobility, and also fighting for rights transnationally.

Race has informed social hierarchies in Latin America and the United States since colonial contact and the creation of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade (Reid Andrews 2016). Within the U.S., the understanding of race has been through a dichotomous lens of nonwhite and white. Antiblackness is deeply embedded into the fabric of society and the conceptualization of non-whiteness. In Latin America, racial hierarchies stemmed from the early Spanish “casta” (caste) system which categorized racial mixture, often assigning degrading, animal names to non-white mixed-race individuals. These racial categories were also accompanied by “pigmentocracies” (Lipschutz 1944; Telles 2014), or hierarchies based on skin color and proximity to whiteness. Pigmentocracies rooted in antiblackness and anti-indigenous sentiments still prevail in Latin America, determining the privileges people are afforded. Race-mixing in Latin America is often presented as a utopian counternarrative to racism. The truth is that Latin America is the perfect example of why miscegenation will not end racism or antiblackness.

While many Latines accuse people in the US of “importing” or “imposing” US racial beliefs onto Latin America, this ignores the fact that just as people travel, so too do their beliefs, ideologies, and prejudices.  Some Latin Americanists have examined the way Latin American nations have emphasized both homogenous national identity and the absence of de jure segregation (Jim Crow-like laws) across the region as proof of the lack of racism and thus harmonious (and superior) race relations in Latin America (Reid Andrews 2016; Rodríguez-Silva 2012; Wade 2010; Dzidzienyo et al 2005). Within discourses of mestizaje, the notion of mestizaje is inherently and often explicitly about whitening through race mixture (Rodríguez-Silva, 2012; Telles 2014). These practices of racial hierarchization and anti-blackness in Latin America–despite the absence of Jim Crow legalized racial segregation–are so readily embraced and practiced by (recent migrant and diasporic) Latines in the United States.  Analysis of historical and contemporary state-sanctioned practices of anti-blackness in Latin America–specifically blanqueamiento–exposes common expressions of racial bias in Latin American society such as mejorando/avanzando la raza. For example, Tanya K. Hernández’s research on legal archives like marriage records demonstrates how the state explicitly encouraged miscegenation yet also maintained segregation by barring people of African descent from political and societal power in Latin America (Hernandez 2012).

The proof that race is also a preoccupation in Latin America (Mintz 1989; Wade 1997; Torres and Whitten 1998; Duany 1998; and Rivero 2002) can be found in the fact that there are dozens of ways to talk about Blackness or describe Blackness phenotypically, without actually saying the word “Negro/a.” As an example, in Puerto Rico, I could be called “euphemisms such as mulata, jabà/grifa (high yellow)”: “grifa” is kinky haired, fair-skinned, more European features and “Jaba” is kinky haired, light-skinned, more African features, depending on the perception of the person (Santos-Febres 2001[4]; Jorge 1979, 134–35). However, understandings of race in the US have undergone (and slowly continue to undergo) changes that generate space for conversation regarding complex racial identities and the incorporation of various ethnic groups into the binary racial schema of white and non-white (Bonilla Silva 2004).

I find the rhetoric of mestizaje that proclaims that “we are all mixed” extremely violent and that it erases the lived experiences of visibly Black and indigenous Latines. Aside from the fact that not all Latines are mixed, it ignores two very real facts: 1. While some of us may be inevitably mixed racially, the stories behind that mixture have often been violent. The violence lies in the rape of our ancestors by European enslavers and oppressors, in the violence behind being forced to reproduce as an enslaved person with whomever the enslaver chose, and the violence of internalized antiblackness or anti-indegeneity that pushed our forebears to want to “better the race” so that their children would not suffer racism and societal exclusion. 2. Even if we are racially mixed, due to the reasons listed above, we don’t all experience “mixedness” or racism the same way. Additionally, contrary to popular opinion, being Latine does not automatically make you a person of color. You can be racially white, and belong to a Latine group. You can walk in this world, privileged (and often protected) because of that whiteness, or proximity to whiteness if you are “mestize” and light-skinned. Being “whitine” means that while you may face a racialized form of xenophobia because of your ethnic background, it most certainly is not because of your skin color. People see white before they know you are Latine. Visibly Black Latines do not have that privilege.

 

Black Lives Matter Globally

In the U.S. where Latines and African Americans live in proximity, it has been possible for some Latines to begin to understand their identity and Blackness differently than they possibly would in Latin America. This close relationship has also helped to expand African American’s understanding of Blackness in the Diaspora. Contact between Latines and African Americans have made it possible for Latines to unpack the racial stigmas and silences with which they’ve lived. Latines and Black Americans have both experienced extreme racial and ethnic discrimination and violence in the US, which begs the question, why aren’t we natural allies, accomplices in the fight to end white supremacy? Both communities suffer from various forms of state violence that have kept us poor, undereducated, underemployed, and in unstable communities so divested and gentrified that we can’t afford to own the property we (you) harmed Black bodies to protect. Until our global Latine community understands that Black Lives Matter, we are no better than the white supremacists that hate us, and we will not overcome the systemic oppressions killing us all. This is more than just a call for Latine communities to “self-reflect” and pay lip service to anti-racism. As stated previously, antiblackness is not unique to the U.S. “Las Vidas Negras Importan” and “Vidas Negras Importam” reflect the growing global fight for Black liberation in the face of state-sanctioned antiblackness that all too frequently results in discrimination and murder. Both in the US and abroad, we must understand, address, and undo the myriad ways we are complicit in the oppression of Black communities by supporting and fighting alongside those who seek to dismantle systems of oppression.

[1] I use the word “Latine” to indicate the gender neutral language many individuals, activists, and scholars in Latin American and the Latin American diaspora are embracing to disrupt binary gender norms. I specifically employ the “e” rather than the “x” due to the linguistic ease and natural flow of the vowel sound versus the hard, Anglophone “x” sound, or “equis” pronunciation in Spanish.

[2] the social, economic, and political practice of miscegenation to whiten up the racial makeup of a country

[3] See Tanya K. Hernandez’s article “’Too Black to be Latino/a:’ Blackness and Blacks as Foreigners in Latino Studies” on Blackness as foreign to and excluded from Latinidad.

[4] Santos-Febres, Mayra. 2001. “Por Cientos contranatura.” Mirador. El Nuevo Día, 6 May.

 

About the author:

Michaela Machicote is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

 

Image: “Vidas Negras Importan – George Floyd protest in Harrisburg, PA” by weaverphoto is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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