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Colorism in Black Latinx Communities Needs to End

Healing Colorism in Afro-Latinx Communities Is a Collective Responsibility

Image Source: Unsplash/Jessica Felicio

Growing up as a first-gen teen in Queens during the '90s, my Black Dominican immigrant mother would routinely say things to me like, "Tu saliste perfecta, saliste mas clara que yo, pero arreglate esa nariz y eso labios tuyo" ("You came out perfect, you came out lighter than me, but get your nose and lips done"). Today, as a Black Latina myself, it's painfully evident just how damaging those compounded colorist and featurist statements were, especially coming from my mother. But this is all too familiar: many of us have heard phrases like "pelo malo," "bembona fea," or "greñuda" become normalized by color-struck family members and friends.

Colorism — privileging lighter-skinned people over darker-skinned people within the same racial or ethnic group — is racism's toxic counterpart. They work hand in hand: colorism relies on globally systemic and institutionalized racism in order to be successful. White supremacy, racism, and colorism are all inherent to Latinidad, originated by Spaniard colonizers in the race-based "casta" system and reinforced by white and mestizx Latin Americans for centuries. Just look at the novelas we watched with our mothers and tias or the magazines we flipped through on our abuelas' plastic-covered couches. In Latin America's Spanish-language entertainment, the celebs featured are always white, mestizx, cis-hetero, thin, and ingrained in the world's mind as the "default" Latinxs. Black and Indigenous Latinx characters in the telenovelas on Univision and Telemundo were portrayed as slaves, servants, sex workers, and criminals.

When it comes to Black Latinx representation in Latinx media in the US, that visibility tends to be more formulaic. When an Afro-Latina celeb gets her own magazine cover shoot, it's predictably one of the 10-to-15 lighter-skinned usual suspects. To this day, Amara La Negra remains the only darker-skinned Black Latina — with an Afro, no less — to appear on the covers of Latina and People en Español. And in the content-creator economy, lighter-skinned Afro-Latina influencers with Eurocentric features and type 3 hair steadily obtain partnerships with brands over darker-skinned, unambiguously Black Latinas with type 4 hair.

However, the future seems optimistic: Jharrel Jerome has an Emmy. Michaela Jaé Rodriguez just won a Golden Globe. Ariana DeBose has become the first queer Black Latina to win an Oscar. Colman Domingo is a queer Black Latinx force who's starred in "Zola," "Euphoria," and "Candyman." A new crop of Black Latinx TV and film directors are disrupting Hollywood: Janicza Bravo, Numa Perrier, Melina Matsoukas, Diana Peralta, Loira Limbal, Steven Canals, Reinaldo Marcus Green, Rashaad Ernesto Green, and others. In music, darker-skinned Black Latin American women from Brazil like Iza and Ludmilla, as well as Goyo from the Afro-Colombian hip-hop trio ChocQuibTown, are rightfully dominating. And Gen Z Haitian Dominican rapper Gailen La Moyeta is traversing the Latin music industry — which is rife with misogynoir — with unfiltered, sex-positive lyricism. Black Latinx community voices on the internet have accelerated a level of accessible online scholarship that didn't exist 10 years ago, from brilliant folks such as Afrofeminas, Zahira Kelly-Cabrera, and many more. Intensely decentralizing the white gaze, educating on Black Latin American history, finding capital for Black Latinx orgs, and expanding IRL and online Black Latinx communities have proven to be useful tools for liberation.

As a light-skinned Black Latina who knowingly benefits from colorism despite my mother's words, it's crucial for fellow lighter-skinned Black Latinxs not to gaslight darker-skinned Black Latinxs or center their own racist experiences over darker-skinned Black Latinx folk. Reverse colorism doesn't exist; light-skinned privilege is tangible and effective. For a nuanced discussion on the colorism perpetuated among Black Latinxs, six Black Latinx creators and artists share personal truths and offer ideas on a more liberated Black Latinx future.

Danni Ventura, she/her, 24, Afro-Dominican American, TikTok creator and founder of Díace

Image Source: Danni Ventura

Who benefits the most from colorism being maintained among Afro-Latinxs?

This is a loaded question. The easy answer is that because colorism is defined as prejudice against individuals with a dark skin tone, those with lighter complexions benefit. However, to go in depth, I believe the only true beneficiaries of colorism are those of the European diaspora. Rafael Trujillo, a former dictator of the Dominican Republic, assassinated tens of thousands of Haitians and dark-skinned Dominicans based entirely on this premise. Although modern-day colorism may not appear as gruesome, skin color still plays a huge role in how we're viewed by society today.

What can tangibly help free darker-skinned Afro-Latinx folks from the weight of colorism?

Unfortunately, I believe that a lot of times, colorism is blindly taught in our own homes. One of the first things we learn as Latinos is to be color conscious aka "descriptive," classifying our skin complexions into terms such as "blanco, moreno, negro, trigueno," etc. As a Latina with darker skin and multiple dark-skinned family members, I've heard the phrase "mejorar la raza," meaning "improve the race," numerous times. This is another way of saying if you're dark, you shouldn't marry anyone of the same skin complexion or darker, because you'll conceive dark babies. I've also been told I shouldn't wear bright colors because I'd appear darker or "te vas a poner negra" if I stayed in the sun for too long. In order to truly dig up the root of colorism, we as a community first have to eliminate mindsets like these.

As a Black Latinx TikTok creator, you unapologetically represent your Afro-Dominican identity in very authentic ways, with all of its layers. Why is your content important to you?

Growing up as an Afro-Dominican in New York, I really struggled with understanding my identity. It was rare seeing other Hispanics with my skin color or hair type on Telemundo in telenovelas, and even in my community. I have a vivid flashback of a time when I was around 6, waiting in the office for my abuelita to pick me up from school. There was another kid who was a little older than me waiting to be picked up as well. He introduced himself, as did I, and we began talking and playing as kids do. We eventually arrived at a discussion on our ethnicities. He told me he was Jamaican, and when I told him I was Dominican, he looked at me pretty much in disbelief and replied, "But you're Black." As you could imagine at 6 years old, this confused me. I knew I was Black, but I also knew from the variation in my own family members that there was no correlation between my race and ethnicity. Even still after many encounters like this, I became hesitant in telling people my ethnicity for a long time, solely because I did not want to experience the shock and have to explain how it was possible. Through my content, I try to educate people on Afro-Latinx existence in order to minimize future experiences like this for others. I also want other Afro-Latinos, especially young kids, to know that they are beautiful and it is OK to be unapologetically themselves. Embrace your pajón: love your melanin and enhanced features. They are beautiful.

Erick Louis (he/him), 22, Haitian American, TikTok creator and dancer

Image Source: Erick Louis

Who benefits the most from colorism being maintained among Afro-Latinxs?

I'd say those who are closer in proximity to whiteness. Those who are afforded certain privileges due to having fairer skin or being viewed as anything "other" than Black/Afro descent. They're the ones who benefit the most from upholding these systems of oppression that work to actively disenfranchise those who can't traverse spaces in the same way.

What can tangibly help free darker-skinned Afro-Latinx folks from the weight of colorism?

That's a hard question to answer. I think it's a deeply nuanced conversation, but ultimately a dismantling of the systems of oppression (whiteness) that continue to plague us is the ultimate goal for an imagined future of true liberation. Don't see that happening anytime soon, though. In the meantime, I think some important progressive steps working towards mitigating the effects of colorism in our communities would be to advocate for more accurate representation of what Afro-Latine people look like on screen (emphasis on "accurate"). And not just on screen, but in the writers' rooms, in literature, [and] in every nook and cranny of the various industries that hold our focus and attention. And, of course, having these discussions amongst the community and clocking that ignorance when it peers its ugly head.

In your lived experience as a first-gen Black Latinx queer man of Haitian descent, how do you use TikTok to address anti-Blackness and colorism Black Latinxs face?

For me, the primary focus has always been to remain authentic and uninhibited. As someone who has eyes on them constantly, I want to make sure that if there's anything people walk away with from watching my content, it's to have the audacity. I deserve space here, and so do you. It's your birthright. The people who support me have witnessed my journey on TikTok; they've seen how despite me being constantly targeted and spoken on negatively, I remain steadfast in my truth and my purpose. And that's all the representation I have to offer.

Monica Moore-Suriyage, she/her, 29, Afro-Dominican American and Sri Lankan, filmmaker

Image Source: Monica Moore-Suriyage

Who benefits the most from colorism being maintained among Afro-Latinxs?

Ultimately, white supremacy benefits from colorism: we know that. But it keeps newer voices from being heard and keeps people with darker skin out of controlling the narrative. Colorism robs us of stories people want to hear. It makes the same old ideas repeat themselves over and over and enforces stereotypes. When we allow the various different kinds of people within Latinidad [to] speak their truth and see themselves in pop culture, it just makes us all stronger against white supremacy. Being Latinx means so many things, and all of us deserve to be represented.

What can tangibly help free darker-skinned Afro-Latinx folks from the weight of colorism?

Including Afro-Latinx people in Latin narratives is key. The recent film "Encanto" did a great job here, while unfortunately, "In the Heights" came up short. (You can't set a film in Washington Heights — where, like, all the Dominicans live — and not include them without getting called out.) Also remembering how Afro-Latinos play into Black history is important. The first recorded slave uprising in the Americas happened in the Hispaniola and was led by Afro-Latinx people. But is that common knowledge? It should be.

You were an inaugural LALIFF/Netflix fellowship recipient (2020), and it helped you write and direct "La Ciguapa Siempre" (2021). Can you talk about being a Black Latinx filmmaker, having that major support, and how it helped you make a film specific to Dominican culture and mythology?

I'm so grateful to LALIFF and Netflix for giving me the opportunity to use my voice as a director and have their support throughout the process. It took Latinos with power in Hollywood noticing a disparity and actually doing something about it. And I mean providing a tangible career opportunity and backing it up with money, not just giving exposure to creators who are already successful. That's the kind of change we need to see. Growing up, most of the Latin or Spanish-speaking content I consumed was either novelas or seeing actresses like Penelope Cruz [who is Spanish] and Salma Hayek. Don't get me wrong they're gorgeous, but they and the actors in those novelas are very fair-skinned. If I ever saw someone darker, they were the villain. So I was excited to cast an Afro-Latina actress and make her the winner in my film. Ciguapas are part of Dominican folklore but are usually seen as villains as well. So I wanted to undo that narrative and make them mythological creatures we're rooting for.

Janel Martinez (she/her/hers), 33, Garifuna and Afro-Honduran American, founder of Ain't I Latina?, journalist and contributor to "Wild Tongues Can't Be Tamed"

Image Source: Francis Carrero-Green

Who benefits the most from colorism being maintained among Afro-Latinxs?

Sadly, all institutions benefit from colorism and, more specifically, racism. These harmful ideologies — racism, colorism, featurism, texturism, anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity, to name a few — have very real effects on the everyday lives of Black and/or Indigenous Latinxs.

In the context of Latin America, you can go to virtually any of the 33 countries and see how this reality emboldens white and mestizx Latin Americans to maintain power, while oppressing Black and Indigenous communities: lack of access to basic needs (food, water, shelter, consistent power); high infant and maternal mortality rates; criminalization of these communities; land exploitation to where families' ancestral lands are being taken from right under them; job insecurity.

What can tangibly help free darker-skinned Afro-Latinx folks from the weight of colorism?

I'm speaking as someone who is a Black woman of Latin American descent, positioned in the US, who isn't dark-skinned, so I want to name that before I respond. I also want to always center the perspectives of darker-skinned Afro-Latinxs, particularly as we see the discourse around Afro-Latinx existence skew lighter and with looser hair texture.

This response may vary depending upon who you ask, but community is truly a gift, so nurturing community online and in person serves as a space for folks to simply exist. That can look like uplifting and celebrating ourselves, and it can also look like unpacking trauma or venting about a number of things. What Afro-Latinxs have done in terms of building community online is magical, so necessary, but we're not new to this, right? Our ancestors have been doing this work way before us — we've just taken their blueprint and adapted it to our reality. Love that for us!

Ms. Boogie (she/her), 28, Colombian and Dominican, rapper

Image Source: Andre Uncut

Who benefits the most from colorism being maintained among Afro-Latinxs?

Afro-Latinx folks themselves benefit from colorism depending on their proximity to whiteness on the scale of skin tone. When considering racial characteristics, elements like eye shape, hair texture, lip, nose shape, and much more contribute to the ways we're socialized or fit into the classifications of race. These things contribute to social privilege and lead to stratification.

What can tangibly help free darker-skinned Afro-Latinx folks from the weight of colorism?

I believe that there's still so much silenced history to catch up with when it comes to our tangible freedom. Representation is a great way to do that, but specifically in movies and music, that visibility should display freedom. More examples of what it looks like to be Black Latinx and free. I think Latinx youth should explore where their people once lived free, regardless of the color of their skin. Institutions making that research more accessible is also a very tangible way to free darker-skinned folks in general from the weight of racism.

Your music is unapologetic and firmly centers the joys and nuances of being a Black trans woman. How do you see your singles "Fem Queen" and "Dickscipline" as tools of liberation for Black trans women and femmes?

I see my singles as tools of liberation for Black trans women by displaying an example of what freedom looks like for us. I also believe that freedom is an intentional exercise that we should all make our priority. If we don't exercise our freedom — the bit that we have — then it is assumed that we don't possess any at all.

Mai-Elka Prado Gil (she/her), 36, Afro-Panamanian, creator and programs coordinator for Afro-Latino Festival, singer/songwriter

Image Source: Luis C. Garcia

Who benefits the most from colorism being maintained among Afro-Latinxs?

Interesting question that highlights a real problem. When we talk about Afro-Latinxs, we've embraced the idea of a pigmentocracy where skin color dictates social status. This elevation of lighter-skin complexions and attendant features is not unique to Afro-Latinxs; it exists throughout the Black diaspora and other diasporas that dealt with white European colonialism. Look at who dominates the politics of many majority Black countries. That said, the issue is racism by white and mestizo Latinxs, and the way it has and continues to be used to hold power over and marginalize nearly 33 percent of the population in the region. First let's talk about that, then we can talk about the internalized racism that manifests as colorism. Without the material benefits bestowed by racism, colorism undoubtedly loses its own benefits and becomes less "attractive." Framing this any other way allows white Latinxs to deflect from the root: anti-Blackness.

What can tangibly help free darker-skinned Afro-Latinx folks from the weight of colorism?

As leaders in our community, we can directly combat this without denying anyone's lived experience by deferring to Black Latinxs who are darker or unambiguously Black. If we leave it up to white Latinxs, non-Black Latinx folk, or anyone else and don't set the record straight, we undermine our own efforts . . . assuming the end game is not just representation but full participation.

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