author – activist – faculty – mom
When I heard about Feministing’s panel on “Coloring Latinidad: a conversation about the complexities of colorism within the Latin@ community,” I eagerly forwarded the tweet to my mom. This is a picture of her, circa 1966. She is Puerto Rican and often mistaken for white. I am a black Latina, never mistaken for anything other than African heritage. I forwarded the call, particularly because there would be white Latinas on the panel, talking about their experience, and I knew she would appreciate hearing from other women of color who may have had similar experiences.
My mom was raised in the projects, at a time when her mother was denied employment she was qualified for because of her accent and brown skin. Looking white is not the same as being white. And yet, once my mom had grown up and was making her way in the world as an adult, she could choose whether or not to invest in white privilege. Even though she chooses not to, she escapes the kind of targeting darker Latinas face. At the same time, because she is whiteskinned, the racism and poverty that inscribed her life in the 50s remains largely invisible. Having grown up as her daughter, seeing all the ways that racism has affected her, I am clear that skin color is a key part of the equation, but not the only factor in operation.
I really appreciated Juliana Britto’s apology for the mislabeling of the panel, and her comments in response to some of the backlash:
“For a panel on colorism, the panel certainly didn’t include the voices it should have nor focus enough on the the often life-threatening racism and marginalization that Afro-Latin@s and indigenous Latin@s face, and we’re sorry for that.”
I also appreciated her big picture summary for the dialogue about intersectionality:
“If we are going to practice intersectional feminism, part of that means considering the intersection of traditionally oppressed identities with traditionally privileged identities. I want to widen our understanding of Latinidad to include Afro-Latin@s, indigenous Latin@s, Asian Latin@s, and white Latin@s, all of whom experience different and overlapping forms of marginalization and privilege.” I would add Arab Latin@s.
I would argue, however, that in addition to what she is calling for, there is another dynamic at work that needs to be addressed:
People in a community who live at the intersection of oppression and privilege do need to be called out for the ways in which they may behave in privileged ways that are unaware.
…they also need and deserve a space to connect and explore their experience, and how it’s distinct from people who don’t share the privilege part of their identity. Because of the privilege part of the identity, politically conscious whiteskinned Latinas may be afraid of backlash or criticism if they boldly declare that they are going to take space to discuss the particular issues that they face as whiteskinned Latinas. And the fears of backlash may be realized, but every community has the right to come together and discuss their experience. If and when folks don’t intentionally take the time to discuss their experiences, they will sometimes find themselves unintentionally taking the time, as in having their privilege issues take over a space that has not been specifically set aside for that purpose.
Granted, whiteskinned Latinas get plenty of airtime overall, just look at Univision, but I’m not talking about women being objectified in media, I’m talking about Latinas engaging in substantive conversations about social justice, cultural criticism, and political transformation.
Privilege is real, but the effects of racism continue for generations. Whiteskinned women of color are spared some of the most vicious present-day targeting of racism that hits those of us who appear AfroLatin@, IndigenousLatin@, and MestizoLatin@s. However, whiteskinned Latin@s inherit the ancestral legacies of genocide, slavery, and historical racial trauma just like the rest of us. Also, there are some very harmful consequences of being a person of color mistaken for white in a white supremacist society.
Candi Farlice, a lightskinned African American woman artist, made an art installation about the concept of “passing.” It was a rickety, precarious structure that the viewer was supposed to enter. You could only see out through small slits, and it felt as if the whole thing collapse at any minute. This is the experience of passing. Like being in the closet, the privilege is precariously maintained, both at the expense of authenticity, and under the threat that everything may come crashing down. People of color who intentionally choose to pass have made a decision to cultivate the privilege of whiteness. However, whiteskinned POC who don’t want to be seen as white can’t always run around wearing a T-shirt that says “I am a person of color,” and the experience of being mis-identified is a significant stressor. Those of us who are dark, are identifiably of color, experience the harshness of being targeted, but we also have the solace of being able to see and turn to each other for comfort against racism. We don’t get told we look like “the enemy.”
I agree that some level of privilege and/or internalized racism was operating in the way the panel was organized, advertised, and conducted. However, as opposed to only identifying what a panel on colorism should have been, I think it’s also an opportunity for white-skinned Latinas to acknowledge the need for the discussion about their specific experiences to take place. As an AfroLatina, I support whiteskinned Latinas in having a greater knowledge of self and an opportunity to acknowledge what is privileged and also what is hard about that identity. I support whiteskinned Latinas in unapologetically exploring the particular ways that they have been impacted by racism, and by deconstructing the specific brand of racism they face. I support them because all of us need a space to give language to our particular experience, and because I believe that by doing this, white Latinas can be stronger fighters in the battle against white supremacy and more effective in ending racism overall.