“Oh, so you’re not really black!” Reflections of a Black Latina in the Social Justice Movement
Contributed by Erica L. Ayala
The history of black people is beautifully complex. Blackness is defined different ways by many different people. I love being black, I love being a Latina, and I love being an American. However, one notion of “blackness” that troubles me, is the notion that some people are “blacker” than others, or that some people are not black at all. Finally, my love for, and belief in my country is precisely why I fight for social justice. I can love America, despite its flaws, because this country demands that of me (this is a de jure concept, as opposed to de facto).
Growing up, I was often asked, “What are you?” Now, I knew what people were asking, “Are you black, or are you white?” However, I strongly believe how you ask a question determines the answer you will get. So, I would answer, “a girl, an American, a new Yorker, a Mets fan.” I am all of those things, and I am much more. The next question would often be, “Well, what are your parents?” To which I would often respond, “Well, my grandparents are from Puerto Rico and Cuba.”
I see the relief spread across the questioners face, “Oh! So, you’re not really black! Got it.”
I’m “not really black?” What exactly does that mean? My surname is Moorish (North African), more so than the names Smith, Johnson or O’Neil, as an example. My grandparents are from two Caribbean ports of the slave trade. My hair, my eyes and my skin are dark and olive tone. Yet, to many, I am not “black enough” to be in an NPHC organization, to join the Black Cultural Society or to march in the streets shouting “Black Lives Matter”.
Now, before I am accused of getting too far into my feelings, let offer three reasons why questioning my “blackness” in the context of black liberation movements, is troublesome:
Blackness was created by scientists & politicians
There are few applications today that do not ask a person to identify their race. However, we must understand that race was created, it is an arbitrary term. Such can be proven by the growth of the race options over the years. In “Race: the Power of an Illusion”, race is described as a proxy for “otherness”, as in, other than white. If science could prove that “otherness” was real, it could be used to justify treating non-white people differently, treating them other than human.
Biologist Alan Goodman states, “The biology becomes the excuse for social difference. The societal differences become naturalized in biology.”
To be clear, science does show that certain human features populate in specific regions due to necessity. Eugene C. Scott of the National Center for Science Education states, “The environment may favor certain characteristics, producing populations that are on the average taller, or darker, or more rugged than other populations from other geographic areas …these natural processes occur in humans as well as other animals and are the source of much study in biology and anthropology.”
However, that blackness is inherently less qualified, more dangerous or less pure is language spun to maintain the status quo at a time where the practice of slavery was defunct. Through science and Segregation Laws, (or Jim Crow laws), societies across the world fabricated racial differences.
The Willie Lynch Effect: Limitations on Blackness Perpetuate a Racist Agenda
Divisiveness based on race is racism surviving without racists. When we as a society continue to create an “us versus them” society, we are doing the work of the oppressor. The story of Willie Lynch perfectly illuminates this. Now, as I understand, Willie Lynch is a work of fiction. However, whether Lynch is fictitious or not, we are living proof that distrust is stronger than trust, and envy is stronger than respect or admiration.
Now, keeping it real, not everybody is going to walk around all “Kumbaya” all the time, but what would happen if we took a moment to understand blackness as a growing, evolving thing, rather than an exclusive club with rules as arbitrary as what you eat, how you talk or what you bump to in your car? Blackness may have been created as “otherness”, but “otherness” is now the rule, not the exception. Purity of race does not exist, if it ever did. Particularly in a place like America that opened its doors to “the poor and the tired” from around the world.
Which leads me to my final point …
Black People are not exclusively African-American
Although I have a problem with the term African-America (another blog post for another day), we must realize that not all black people identify as African-American. For me, identifying as African-American erases all the culture and history of my Caribbean ancestry. In case you didn’t already know, slave ships coming from Africa, stopped all along south and Central America before final port in the United States.
Therefore, I have African blood in my veins — as well as Spanish blood, Chinese blood and all kinds of other mixes. Afro-Cuba culture, Afro-Brazilian, Afro-French culture and much more directly impact blackness in America today. From language, to music to cuisine, we are Africa … and we are much more.
Sister Rosa Clemente said it best, “I am so tired of having to prove to others that I am black, that my peoples are from the motherland, that Puerto Rico, along with Cuba … are part of the African Diaspora. Did we forget that the slave ships dropped off our people all over the world, hence the word Diaspora?”
Sister Clemente keeps it real though, black people need to be about blackness … all of blackness. We have to detangle ourselves from the Willie Lynch mentality that has infected blackness, the sacred identity that we carry. We too, are America. We too, are infected by the virus of elitism, racism and sexism. If we want to rise above the state of racism in America, we must rise above racism perpetuated by the black community, and the racist residue that lingers within black culture. We are not immune to the effects of deep rooted racism, but we are more than capable to overcome it.
Yes We Can! ¡Sí, se puede!