By Valeria Hernandez Echegaray
Growing up in Puerto Rico, I was always told we were the mixture of races- a perfect blend between the Spanish colonizers, the indigenous people that already inhabited the island, and the African people that were brought as slaves. This mixture explained everything from our accent, the words we use that differ from the Spanish spoken in Spain, our cuisine, our dances, and so many other cultural aspects. This is the case for most, if not all, Latin American countries as it also serves to explain our differences- different areas had different indigenous tribes, and not all regions received the same amount of slaves. However, while this idea of the mixture of races serves to explain our unique cultures, it becomes toxic when assessing each Latinx individual and their heritage.
One question that circles in the Latinx community, especially prominent when filling out college applications, is “Are we black or white?”. It is easy for us to check “Hispanic” when it comes to ethnicity, but when they ask “Regardless of your answer to your previous question, what is your race?” we tend to panic. It seems like such an easy question- just look at the color of your skin and answer accordingly. However, as Latinx, the idea that we are not white makes answering this so difficult, regardless of the color of our skin. Because of this ingrained idea that we are a blend of races, when we think about being Latinx and our history, some automatically assume that we can’t be white, as it equates us with our colonizers and- in current times- with our oppressors. The idea is “I can’t be white, I am oppressed.”
The truth is, saying you are white does not mean you are not oppressed. It does not take away from your experiences, it does not mean you have not experienced racism or discrimination, and it does not mean you are not a person of color. What it does say is that because you have a lighter skin tone, and are maybe even white-passing, you do not have to add to the discrimination you already face the fact that you are black and all of the racist prejudices and stereotypes that entails. It is important to recognize that the Latinx community is so diverse and it includes people of all races- saying that you are not white minimizes the experiences of our Afro-Latinx community which endure much more discrimination than the white-passing Latinx.
As a white Latina myself, I constantly ask myself how can I help the Afro-Latinx and the rest of the black community at a time like this. I’ve seen a few people comment on Latinx people being oppressed too and that we go through similar pains and while that is true to some extent, our experiences are not exactly the same and it is also not the time to divert the attention to us. After a lot of thought and research, I have compiled what- to me- are the best steps to take in order to become an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement.
If you are a white Latinx, recognize the privilege you have. The first step of becoming an ally is realizing that we are not affected by the pains that the black community has to face- we are less likely to get killed in an encounter with the police, we are less likely to get the cops called on us, among many other privileges our skin color gives us. Remember, this does not mean you are not oppressed, it just means there are some privileges you hold that other people do not.
Educate yourself and the people around you on Afro-Latinx history. Regardless of what Latin American country you come from, there is a lot of Afro-Latinx history that often gets clouded or dismissed. One of the biggest issues that is often overlooked is the fact that colorism is present within our communities. A good exercise for this is turning on a Latinx channel or TV series and counting how many leading roles are held by black people. Educating yourself on Afro-Latinx history and how they have been discriminated against within the Latinx community is the best way to understand why these movements are necessary and to begin tackling racism in other spaces. One of my favorite readings on the matter is “El pelo malo” by Luis Rafael Sánchez.
Challenge colorism in our communities. There tend to be more racist notions in the older Latinx community- older Latinxs tends to use terms that are actively racist like “negrito” and often speak derogatorily of people of color- especially when it comes to their body features (i.e. lips, hair, etc.) Instead of admonishing our family members, we need to educate them as we educate ourselves. We must beware of these types of aggressions and challenge the conceptions older Latinx family members have surrounding black people.
Share the voices of Afro-Latinx and the rest of the black community. The best way to help right now is to amplify black voices. We must and donate to the organizations that are directly helping the black community- bail funds, mental health organizations, and many others that are actively seeking help! If you are unable to then share the content of black creators and support black-owned businesses. Reach out to your black friends and check in on them, hear them out and offer them support. Share their message, do not cloud it with your own.
As white Latinx, regardless of whether we are white-passing or not, we must check our privilege and realize that we are nowhere near as heavily marginalized as Afro-Latinx people. We must utilize our platforms to be allies and break down the systematic racism that plagues our community and enact change. If we remain as bystanders, we are supporting the racist, oppressive systems that we criticize when they are used against us. Stand with the black community, always.