"A matter of death and death": Confronting anti-black racism among Latinos

For some of us who grew up in Latino families, anti-blackness was firmly instilled in our minds from a young age

Published May 20, 2014 7:58PM (EDT)

George Zimmerman                   (Reuters/Gary W. Green)
George Zimmerman (Reuters/Gary W. Green)

For some of us who grew up in Latino families in the United States, anti-blackness was firmly instilled in our minds from the moment of birth. Among siblings in the same family, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and sometimes parents themselves can become fixated on a child’s complexion. In Spanish-speaking households, I’ve heard countless phrases such as, “She’s pretty, even if she’s black.” Meanwhile, the white standard of beauty translates into preferences -- up to and including increased emotional availability -- for white, or whiter children.

Though many of us experience it within our families and in our day-to-day lives, anti-blackness among non-black Latinos often remains unexamined. We’re not necessarily proud of these practices and rarely air them publicly, though when we are called upon to shake these practices, we often dismiss the conversation.

But as Latinos become an increasingly large part of a non-white majority in the United States, we must remain vigilant about anti-blackness in our families, communities and movements, or risk a future of our own making in which black lives are treated as though they do not matter. While George Zimmerman's vile vigilantism is an aberration, we need to admit that people like him, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are not total anomalies; we need to admit that they are like some of our own family members who murmur slurs, lock car doors and cross streets to avoid black people.

When we begin dating, some of us are told that we have a duty as Latinos to “mejorar la raza,” which means, “to improve the race.” This is sometimes directly told to us, but also inscribed in comments about other couples. I remember when a friend’s mother casually commented on her nephew’s choice for a partner, and rhetorically asked, “He’s so handsome, but why is he with that black girl?” Those observations, and countless others, communicate the expectation to make our future generations whiter. Dating can lead to marriage, which can lead to children, so the message we are expected to internalize is that Latinos should literally become as white as possible over time. “Improving the race” can mean dating and marrying whites only (including white Latinos) -- and specifically staying away from indigenous, black, Asian or mixed potential mates; in this hierarchy, white is the most desirable condition, while black is the least.

But people are actively critiquing the ways that some non-black Latinos perpetuate anti-blackness -- particularly on social media, where black Latinas especially have led the conversation. On Twitter, black Latinas like @bad_dominicana put vital pressure on our biases. When @bad_dominicana tweets about anti-blackness, the response from non-black Latinos is varied -- but always complicated. The first line of defense is usually an attempt to derail the conversation and draw attention away from anti-blackness and toward absolutely anything else. I know this because this is exactly what I did when @bad_dominicana questioned my own anti-black bias.

When Russell Simmons published his horrid “Harriet Tubman sex video,” I tweeted that it illustrated that women of color are never safe, even in death. @bad_dominicana pointed out that it was imperative to specify that this was about black women in particular.

After trying to derail her critique -- initially by bringing up abuse against Native women -- and feeling confused for some time, I came to see that @bad_dominicana and other black women who had made this distinction were right: I was making an argument that all women of color are somehow the same. We’re not -- and making that distinction, especially in reference to Simmons’ video, was crucial. The lesson felt difficult for about 20 minutes. Soon enough, I realized that I was nervous only because I allowed myself to listen to the very women I purported to want to represent by taking Simmons on.

We don’t always listen, however. Sometimes we derail, we push back and we refuse to take black women seriously. Time and again, I’ve seen @bad_dominicana called jealous, hateful and angry by non-black Latinas on Twitter despite the fact that her tone is often thoughtful. But, for far too many people I've seen engage with her on Twitter, it seems that the fact that she’s black automatically weaponizes her words. This distortion becomes the pretext by which to dismiss or even ridicule her.

When I address the issue of anti-blackness on social media, my interactions are almost completely positive. In fact, I’ve seen some of the same non-black Latinas that attack @bad_dominicana embrace me. Even though I’m a non-black Latina — or precisely because I’m a non-black Latina — it’s as if only I can make legitimate what black Latinas have been tweeting. Accepting my tweets, but rejecting the tweets that @bad_dominicana and countless other black women have been producing for years, is perhaps one of the most ironic forms of black erasure that I’ve seen perpetuated by non-black Latinos.

This isn’t to say I don’t receive pushback. While my conversations on Twitter have been largely positive, my conversations on Facebook -- where I have more personal contact with users than I do on Twitter -- have been mixed. While many black and non-black people I know who have opened up on Facebook, shared personal and often painful stories either publicly or in personal messages to me, some non-black Latinos have mentioned that these conversations are just too difficult to have. Although as non-black Latinos, we often know firsthand what it’s like to face personal discrimination and institutional racism, we’re also more often comfortable with identifying as the injured party, and not the perpetrator. For non-black Latinos, the anxiety over having these conversations is rooted in the contradiction that we can simultaneously be the oppressed and be the oppressors.

Some of the anti-black bias among non-black Latinos is driven by the misconception that black people do not support the immigrants’ rights movement. But this erases the fact that there are black immigrants from the Americas and elsewhere, and it assumes that there are not already entire black organizations that focus on immigrant justice. But the argument also expects black people to be working on behalf of non-black Latinos as if that work is automatically owed to us. The unchecked entitlement packed into the argument that black people need to support non-black Latinos demonstrates not that non-black Latinos are aspiring toward whiteness -- but that we already actively employ some of its trappings.

In the immigrant rights community in particular, non-black Latinos use the term Juan Crow to reference the systematic terror that undocumented immigrants face in the South. This is a powerful articulation of the injustice experienced by undocumented immigrants, but it is often employed without recognizing how the most recent struggle of Latino immigrant communities is distinct from the nearly century-long struggle of black people under Jim Crow. When babies born to undocumented immigrants are hatefully described as “anchor babies,” we cite birthright citizenship under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. Yet we rarely acknowledge that doing so takes advantage of a piece of legislation created to confer citizenship to formerly enslaved black people following the Civil War.

The citizenship we envision for ourselves, however, is not the limited form of citizenship that black people still experience today. Black citizens -- whose very right to vote remains contested -- may not be slated for deportation, but they are disproportionately targeted for stop-and-frisk, for jail and prison, for violence, and for death. Whenever non-black Latinos claim or even aspire to citizenship without also advocating for the recognition of the full humanity (and full citizenship) of black people, then we are allowing white supremacy to operate unchallenged. We may, indeed, creatively acquire a fuller citizenship through a piece of legislation that was historically intended for black people, but it is immoral to do so at the cost of preserving a racial hierarchy that maintains that those same black people are a little less than human.

For years, I’ve heard friends try to justify their anti-blackness by stressing that many of us are indigenous to different places in the Americas. Many non-black Latinos do, indeed, descend from the original peoples of these continents, but that does not magically makes it impossible for us to perpetuate anti-blackness. We know racism and discrimination because we endure it -- but that doesn’t mean we lack the power to be oppressive. Just as importantly, this argument illustrates the tendency to ignore our learned behavior, and re-center the conversation on our own identity instead of our biases.

There is a deep pain that grows out of our inability to actually have conversations about anti-blackness within our communities. Entire families have been split apart when a non-black Latino has married a black partner. Those in the immediate family take sides, and will sometimes never really talk again; these lines invariably widen to include extended family. On Facebook, I don’t know that I’ve ever read so many personal messages that begin, “I’ve never told anybody this, but …” when discussing the pain caused by anti-blackness within our families. As ashamed as some mixed Latino families are about their black members, the shame of even talking about it somehow seems greater.

We need to remember that, as powerful as it is to identify as people of color, black people face a unique set of oppressions that non-black people also perpetuate. And we need to recognize that, as non-black Latinos, our silence does, at times, protect us. We find comfort in our silence around our anti-blackness, but that silence is nothing more than collusion with white supremacy. We need to talk about anti-blackness in our communities -- half as much as we need to listen to and take seriously what black people say about it, in digital spaces online, as well as in everyday life. It is impossible to assert that we stand against white supremacy while we allow it to inform our anti-blackness. It is impossible to be allies to black people if we are unwilling to carry a conversation about our biases, and begin to lay claim to our faults.

All too often, anti-blackness is literally a matter of death and death. If he already weren’t so famous for the killing of a black child, George Zimmerman (whose mother is an immigrant from Peru) may himself be racially profiled in places like Arizona, and perhaps even in Florida. But his investment in white supremacy both informed the way he hunted down Trayvon Martin and the way he was acquitted for doing so. While many non-black Latinos took to the streets in anger after the verdict, some of us also remained silent about our friends and family members who told us that Zimmerman was correct to kill Martin. Yet it’s only in discussing these things openly -- through our discomfort, our confusion and our contradictions -- that we’ll find concrete ways to end the perpetuation of anti-black racism where it exists in our families, our communities and our movements.

By Aura Bogado

Aura Bogado is the news editor for Colorlines, where she writes about racial justice, Native rights, and immigration. She’s contributed to a variety of publications, including Mother Jones, The Nation, and Huffington Post.

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