The death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other Black Americans in recent months has sparked a recent wave of momentum in the Black Lives Matter Movement. These movements have led many communities, including communities of color, to evaluate their own contributions to racism and to start dismantling those harmful traditions.
A conversation on anti-Blackness in the Latinx community was brought to American University students through a zoom event organized by the American University Student Government Kennedy Political Union, The Latinx & American Student Organization, Puerto Rican Student Organization and The American University League of United Latin American Citizens on Sept. 16. This event, which was part of the Black Lives Matter series, brought in Dr. Olga Pabon to speak with Professor Noemi Enchautegui De-Jesus.
Pabon, a curriculum and instruction supervisor for Prince George’s County Public Schools, is Black and Latinx. Throughout the 45 minute Zoom event, she and Professor Enchautegui De-Jesus tackled a variety of topics from microaggressions they have experienced, how colorism is engrained in Latinx communities and what students can do to fight this form of racism.
One topic covered during the event was the use of negative terminology and phrases to continue traditions of anti-blackness within the Latinx community. One such phrase, “mejorar la raza,” is common in many Latin American countries and translates to “improve the race.” This saying is used to encourage people to marry a whiter person to have better looking kids. Language such as this upholds racist beauty standards that are continued over generations.
When speaking of her personal experience in the United States, Pabon said, “I definitely felt that as a woman, African American men saw me differently than Latino men, right? So for African American men I was beautiful, I was exotic, but for the Latino man I was too dark.” The rejection of darker skin tones exhibits the engrained colorism that has been learnt over generations. This experience, Pabon shared, swayed which groups she felt she belonged to.
Another similar phrase that upholds White beauty standards by putting down those often found in Black people is describing Black hair as, “pelo malo,” or “bad hair.”
“In our culture, it’s one of the ways in which we see that sentiment, that idea of anti-blackness, by expressing this preference for lighter tones, for hairs that have the texture that approximates more of the European hair than the African hair. I did get that a lot. I couldn’t wait as a child to change my hair because it was not what I saw on TV,” Enchautegui De-Jesus said. She added that the Puerto Rican women she saw on TV did not have hair like hers, that people with her type of hair were not chosen to be celebrities. This, she said, was a form of internalized oppression she received as a young girl.
Similar to the US, the history of Latin American countries is filled with white supremacy, anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity. There is a long history of slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean involving both indigenous peoples as well as Africans brought over through the Atlantic Slave Trade. Over generations, different people have been mixed and brought together, yet White beauty standards continue to be preferred and sought after. However, for people who identify as both Black and Latinx, or Afro-Latinx, it can often feel like both cultures are pushing you away.
Pabon highlighted instances of being told she was not Latina enough if her Spanish was not 100% perfect. She also told attendees that the Black American community would say that she was not really black because she was Puerto Rican. “So I am getting thrown away from both sides,” said Pabon. This conflict of being mixed and unsure of which community you belong in is cause for frustration when both communities play a role in your identity and life.
While identity is important, when it comes to the issue of police brutality, Pabon discussed that it does not matter if you are Latinx or not, what people see is the color of your skin. “If I am driving in a car and am stopped by a police officer, they don’t say ‘are you Puerto Rican, are you Latina?’ they just see Black,” said Pabon. “No one is going to distinguish you out…they just see the face and see the color.”
To begin to tackle these racial issues within the Latinx community there is a need to push back on the anti-Black narrative when it arises. Pabon told students that when faced with microaggressions or misconceptions that enforces a harmful stereotype, she speaks up and challenges it.
“It forces people to really think about the language they are using,” she said. It is important to have these difficult conversations in order to become conscious of this ingrained racism and begin to make a change.
Photos: Her Campus Media