Thursday, May 05, 2011

Dear Torii Hunter, Carol's Daughter, Henry Louis Gates and All the Hype Freaks: Black Latinidad/Mixed Identity Is Complex, So Stop Being Divisive

In the last four days, I have heard way too much divisive language about being a multi-racial person in the United States. I have spent most of the last 10 years getting to know all the different cultures that have created the mix that I am - West African, Spanish, Caribbean, Black, White, indigenous, Middle Eastern, South Asian - and I have found great respect for all these cultures and I feel proud of all of them. I choose to identify as a Black Latina and/or mixed Latina because: 1) many members of my family in both Cuba and Colombia were hurt by racism, slavery and the denial that both caused, so I feel it is my mission to embrace my Black roots; 2) I absolutely love that if you look at my family, you can see our Middle Eastern features, White features, Black features and South Asian features - I think it is vital to embrace all the journeys that created that mix.

HOWEVER, it seems that people like Torii Hunter have a problem with Black Latinos/as, just at the moment when scholars like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., are bringing their experience to a wider audience. Now, I have issue with many missing things in Gates' work, especially the work of Black Latino/a scholars who made his PBS special possible, but I still think the documentary has value in that it legitimizes the subject for many people who were in denial about it or didn't even know it existed. The PBS special will open the doors for new scholarly activity; new scholars will be able to write about the gaping holes in Gates' work, for example. It is irresponsible for an athlete to attempt to close those doors. I simply cannot understand why an African American like Hunter does not feel connected to his fellow Black players, regardless of where they come from. Isn't the Black experience deeper than a major league baseball job? Does Hunter feel that he must act like a rival gang member in a 10 block radius and decide that he feels more threatened by someone who is just like him, instead of directing his anger towards a system that makes all athletes court jesters to entertain the masses? Why is he unable to see the big picture? Why not join forces with his brothers in order to create more fairness for ALL Blacks in the sport?

Another divisive news item that came to light is decidedly more female-centered. Apparently, the folks who run Carol's Daughter, a website that sells hair and beauty products for Black women, decided to expand their merchandise base to include products that are useful to "mixed women." The statement sent many Black women into a fury because apparently including "mixed" women means excluding "real Black" women. Things got so heated, there is a blog solely dedicated to hating Carol's Daughter. I think the phrase that made the women most upset was when the press release stated that the global women who are of many cultures don't pick one box on a form and that they are "colorless" when it comes to defining themselves. I can completely understand how "colorless" was the wrong choice and any PR person worth his/her weight would have said you can't use that word. However, I don't understand how the folks who used products on the site didn't understand that mixed women were already part of their world. I mean, most people, Black or White, have a mix if you reach far enough back.

The new spokespeople for Carol's Daughter - Selita Ebanks, Solange Knowles, and Cassie - are mixed Black women who have a huge Black fan base. So, exactly what is the problem? Is this just another case of hating the high yellow lady? I don't think it is or should be that simple. Many of us are mixed and we finally want to acknowledge that journey. Acknowledging our mix does NOT mean that we do not identify as Black or find "true Blackness" - whatever that is - ugly. In fact, it is the opposite - we find ALL of it beautiful. It just means that we have many different cultures that we want to acknowledge. Why is that concept frightening for so many people? Just as Hunter does not see Black Latinos/as as "real Blacks," the women who are boycotting Carol's Daughter do not see Ebanks, Knowles or Cassie as representative of "real Blacks." That is a problem. On the one hand, people want us mixed folks to acknowledge our African ancestry, but on the other hand, they feel that we can never really represent our African ancestry. I find the double standard completely counterproductive.

But not everyone is hostile towards the variety of Black people found all over the world. For example, there is one website, Round Brush Hair, which I have been faithful to for years now. It is a Dominican website that sells Dominican hair products which work on hair that ranges from super thick and kinky to super thin and stringy. The website acknowledges the many races found in the Dominican Republic and features products that work for the full range of hair textures. I swear by the products found there and I love how Blacks of many different cultures - African American, Black Latino/a, UK Blacks, etc. - all find a home there. Whether you are lightskinned-ed or black sand dark, you will find people with good advice for you and products suited to your needs. And, NO, I don't work for the site. I'm just pointing out that I suspect that Carol's Daughter was trying to capitalize on this concept, the idea that there is a full range of Blackness that should be acknowledged. I mean, aren't a bunch of African Americans mixed, too? Um - yes! These African American mixed chicks acknowledge it. If you have a mix and acknowledge it, does it mean you are negating being Black? I don't think so.

Furthermore, if you are Latino/a and Black, or Chinese and Black, or whatever and Black, does that mean that you are not really Black? I've always said, I think each person has to choose for him/herself and that the rest of us should respect that decision. Zoe Saldana identifies as a Black Latina and she, indeed, has had a life as a Black woman - no one can take that away from her. It may not be the same life that an African American woman in Houston might have had, but it is still part of the Black experience, just as the life of a Black woman in Germany is still part of the Black experience, etc. Chanel Iman is half African American and half Korean, and she has lived the life of a Black woman, too. Joan Smalls, same thing. AND, Saldana has also has a Dominican experience, and Chanel Iman a Korean experience, and Smalls a Puerto Rican experience, and so on. One experience does not negate the other. One is not more than the other. They are all equal.

Stop denying us. We are here and our lives have been hard and beautiful, just like yours.

(I wrote on this subject years ago. You can look at my previous article on the Black Latino/a experience here. Also, Rosa Clemente wrote a great article on the subject years ago, too. Find it here.)

The Black Latino/a Experience (originally published in 2005 on

I've decided to republish my article, "The Black Latino/a Experience" here because the two websites that originally published it - in 2005 and in 2008 - are now defunct. I thought I should have a record of it and I believe the issues are still culturally relevant. I hope you think so, too.

When I was a little girl
my mami said to me
if you had straight hair
then you'd be so pretty
when I was a little girl
my daddy said to me
good girls never fight
if you fight, then you're ungodly
my black friends said, “You're white.”
my white friends said, “You're black.”
I wish I could take the strength I have now
and shoot it straight on back
to that time when I was so helpless and so weak
to them I was invisible, a flimsy transparency
not black, not white, not anything distinct
a flimsy transparency

Growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s as a mixed Cuban/Colombian in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood, with its large Puerto Rican and Polish populations, was confusing. Everyone thought I was Puerto Rican, and when I explained where my parents were from, they looked at me funny, as if I had said, “I am from the galaxy of Cuba, located in the region of Colombia, far, far, away.” However, what would be infinitely more confusing was when I earned the privilege of attending a 7th -12th grade prep school in the affluent neighborhood of Hyde Park. That area, and the school, was primarily African American and Jewish. After a couple of months, I began to notice how much the seventh grade black boys liked me. I began to ask my parents if I was a black person. They responded with a bunch of references to words I had never heard of like, triguena, morena, mestiza, and they said something about the indigenous peoples of Colombia, but they refused to answer my question directly. After a few weeks of what they called my annoying gringa persistence (Would they ever forgive me for being the first born in the U.S.?), my mother did admit that her father had refused to go to her wedding because my father “era un negro.” My mother had always called my dad “negrito,” but I had always thought of it as term of affection, not as a reference to his being black. Was I black? Then why had my race always been referred to as “Hispanic” or “Latino”? Do those terms refer to skin color? My mother is also Latina, but she is white. Do the words “Hispanic” and “Latino” equally address the backgrounds of my mother, my father and me? Not really.

Another fellow black Latino, Piri Thomas, born in 1928, is the first Puerto Rican American (he is also half Cuban) to be published in the United States. He is also one of the first Latinos to have addressed the issue of race in our barrios with his groundbreaking novel Down These Mean Streets and other works. He knew he was different when his family moved from his birthplace of East Harlem to Long Island, New York. “My sister came out blanca, my one brother had blue eyes, bluer than the sky, and my other brother had hazel eyes and he had hair that he could shake back. I did that and nothing would move!” As a result, many of the local high school students, none of them Latino or African American, could not understand how Mr. Thomas could come from a family that had lighter siblings. To make matters worse, even Mr. Thomas' fellow Latinos made him feel like an outsider. “I think it was when I came to my age of awareness, which was about seven or eight years old…I would pick up on words, phrases, they'd say things like, ‘ Mira, casate blanca pa' que suba la raza' or ‘marry white so you raise the race.' There was teasing, they called me narizón, cabezón, y bembu. My own people were being racist towards me.”

According to José Luis Vilson, Co-founder of the Latino Alumni Network of Syracuse University, his own peers, from the Caribbean and from South America, would tell him he was “not Dominican enough” because of his dark skin color. “There are many people who are very dark Dominicans and you see them on the island, and I come back to the United States and there are these people in New York City who are telling me I am not Dominican enough. That infuriated me.” When asked if the Latinos who made such a statement were white, he laughed. “As a matter of fact, they were somewhat in the middle, like, brownish. This has a lot to do with Trujilloism. You may, or may not, be aware of the fact that when Trujillo arrived in the Dominican Republic, he tried to make everyone as white as possible because if you were black that meant you were Haitian, so he wanted that division.”

Arlene Chico-Lugo, a black Puerto Rican actress who has been seen on programs like FOX's Johnny Zero, told me that she had never talked about being a black Latina with anyone in her 20 plus years of life. She confronts racism within the Latino community on a daily basis when she walks into auditions and sometimes the confrontations are quite blatant. “I went to this one audition…and the woman said to me, ‘I don't even know why you're here. Take a look outside. You're not what [the producers] want. I don't even want to put you on camera because I'll get in trouble,'” Ms. Chico-Lugo said as she explained her experience with the casting director for a Spanish-language car commercial. All of the other actors present that day were white Latinos. “I just stood there with this dumb smile on my face, thinking, ‘I can't believe this is actually happening.'” Yet, it happens every day. The overwhelming majority of Spanish-language programming on television does not reflect the variety of races represented in Latin America and this obscures our roots. My own students, who range in age from 10 to 70 and who live in different locales throughout the New York and New Jersey areas, are often unaware that one can be white or black AND Latino at the same time.

According to a 2003 report in The L.A. Times by Daniel Hernandez, the U.S. Census has finally started allowing Latinos to pick more than one category in terms of race and ethnicity in 2000, thus opening up a field of research in terms of black and white Latinos. However, through my own informal research on the black Latino experience in the U.S., I have found that Latino families have traditionally talked very little about race and its effect on identity. Add to that the fact that few Latinos are taught their own history in terms of race and nationality in U.S. schools and you have a mix of denial and erased truth that is specifically Latino. In fact, according to the slave trade map available at, between 10 and 15 million people of African descent were shipped to the Americas from the years of 1650 to 1860. The majority of these slaves were brought to areas of the Caribbean and Central and South America and only 500,000 were brought to the U.S.

It may seem crazy that Latinos could actually deny that there are any blacks in Latin America, but I have heard it from my own friends, too. Growing up I constantly heard the older Cubanas in my church claim that there were no blacks in Cuba, even as they listened to Celia Cruz. My own aunts, to this day, deny that they have a black ancestry, despite the afros that we all have (and straighten). By the time I was out of college, I had finally accepted that I am a black Latina and stopped straightening my hair. Now, whenever people asked me the rude, but inevitable, question of “What are you?” I have an answer.

However, there is still much work to be done. One day, walking home, I did not respond to an African American man's advances and he yelled that the reason I had not talked to him was that he was black. I told him that I was black, just like him, and he said, “You can't be black. Maybe you're a spic or something, but you can't be black.” Even though his response was very rude, I felt, even at that time, that it was representative of what so many people, black and white, still believe. It is futile to deny where a good part of our warm color comes from; let us embrace all of our roots.

My hope is that one day we will refuse to live by the labels on the boxes of so many of the bureaucratic forms woven into our lives. My hope is that one day we will see the true woven fabric of our lives, a fabric that has little pieces of gold from all over the world which form into one solid, reflective entity.

Hernandez, Daniel. “Report Shows How Racial Identities Affect Latinos.” L.A. Times, 15 July 2003.