Why As An Afro-Latina I Don’t Identify As African American

Sometimes, I’m the Blackest one in the room, so all eyes turn to me

Shayne Rodriguez Thompson

Credit: Shayne Rodriguez Thompson | Courtesy

As an Afro-Latina, I sometimes feel the urge to share my stories, but I won’t do that at the risk of stepping on the toes of Black women. I don’t mind taking up space in general. I’ve earned my space and I’m proud to be who I am and to take up all the space I deserve in every situation. But there’s one area that still feels uncomfortable to me. As an Afro-Latina, I’ve been asked to represent African-American communities on multiple occasions, and even though my genetics tell me my ancestry is 30 percent African, I’ve never felt quite comfortable stepping into that space. As a journalist, this often comes up during Black History Month, and unfortunately, I believe that’s because there is still not enough African-American representation in mainstream media. Sometimes, I’m the Blackest one in the room, so all eyes turn to me. But, it’s not my place.

Honestly, I’m still treading water when it comes to fully understanding my racial identity. I grew up never being referred to or referring to myself as Black or white. I was always just Puerto Rican. My cultural identity was my racial identity, just as it was for the many Latinos I grew up around. And even though my family always taught us about our African roots with pride, and I grew up in a largely African-American community and have many African-American family members, African-American culture has never really been my culture. I didn’t grow up listening to Black music, eating soul food (at least not at home), or going to African-American churches on a regular basis. My memories are full of salsa music, the aroma of pernil, and going to confession at our Roman Catholic church. So, to identify as an African-American person in America doesn’t seem to fit quite right.

It’s definitely becoming more normal for Afro-Latinos to refer to themselves as Black or African-American in the States, and I think that’s truly a positive thing, and an important step for all of us and future generations even, to begin to understand and accept the complexities of race in Latin American communities. Of course I know now, that Puerto Rican or even Latino is not a race, but it also still doesn’t feel right for me to claim to be a African-American. Yes, we are all part of the Diaspora, but being African-American is so much more than just the color of someone’s skin.

I know that my experiences as someone with mixed ancestry who identifies as Latina, are not the same as someone who lives life as an African-American. Even more importantly, from a life-long of experiences, I know that while many white people look at me and see an African-American woman, I’ve never met an African-American person who looks at me and sees another African-American person. I’m not sure if that’s because of the cultural aspects, or because of my personality, or because of my complexion and hair texture, I just know from many conversations and interactions, that I’m seen as an “other.” To be honest, this has been conveyed to me so many times throughout my life, that I can’t pinpoint exactly one.

I know that I’ve never experienced overt racism or faced the kind of immediate biases that so many African Americans do and have. Maybe that’s because of spent most of my life in Central New Jersey, which is arguably one of the most diverse place in the U.S., and people are used to everyone coming from somewhere. But also, my skin leaves a question mark. And that means that I could never say that I’ve experienced these things to the full degree that someone whose roots are less ambiguous has.

My Blackness is more implicit. Yes, I know I’m Black, I’m proud to be Black, but my Blackness is not a predominant part of my identity, it is a part of my DNA and a part of my cultural history. That’s not the same as being African-American. This all might be different if I grew up in Puerto Rico or really even in any other country. Then I might have considered myself a Black Puerto Rican, but being African-American, is unique and the history and the implications of that history are complex. Really, African-American is a culture itself. Perhaps more so than it is a race, just like being Puerto Rican is an ethnicity and a culture, but not a race. Being someone of Puerto Rican lineage who was born and raised in the States, my experiences brush against those of both the immigrant communities and African-American communities, but neither is fully mine.

It’s that reason that has always made me hesitate to speak on African-American issues as if they are my own. It’s too often that we see other faces taking up African-American spaces. It’s too often that African Americans are not put in the position to represent themselves, in boardrooms, in classrooms, on committees, and in too many other situations for me to even speak on. While the details are hazy, I do recall scrolling on social media a few years ago and stopping to read a post by an African-American woman on social media who touched on this very issue. And it made me pause. It made me wonder, could I be guilty of taking up space that doesn’t belong to me by identifying as Black? I wasn’t sure, and that was enough to make me rethink things, like applying for jobs at Black publications or accepting story assignments requiring a Black perspective. In fact, now as an editor, I do my best to make sure to hire African-American writers to cover stories about the African-American community.

In the past several years — as I’ve learned the difference between race and ethnicity and delved deeper into the idea of Afro-Latinidad — I’ve reflected on these things a lot, and it’s become increasingly clear to me that there is certainly a designation between being African American and being an Afro-Latina or Afro-Boricua. And just like claiming African-American as my culture could potentially erase or dilute my presence in this world as an Afro-Latina, me stepping into roles best filled by African American women who can fully and authentically represent their community, could potentially dilute their presence and influence. There is room for all of us and I firmly believe that it’s important that we are able to acknowlede our cultural and experiential differences and hold space for each other, so that we can fully embrace all the facets of our identities rather than trying to fit into boxes that someone else created.

There might be people who read this and think that I’m in denial, and I don’t really feel the need to defend myself to anyone who might feel that way. But that said, perhaps it should be known that I did not grow up in one of those Latino families who look down on the “dark ones” or who permed my corkscrew curls into straightness to make me look less Black. No one ever told me to wear a hat so I didn’t get too dark. No one EVER tried to make me “pass,” or told me to have kids with a white guy to “mejorar la raza.” Even my dad who is most definitely a white Puerto Rican is beyond proud of having the “one drop” of African blood that even the whitest Boricuas often do. I did not grow up staring down anti-Blackness and denying my roots. This is not that thing.

This is me not wanting to speak on things I don’t know. This is me saving room for my African-American sisters by not using my question mark to profit off of or benefit from their experiences. This is me saying, I’d rather take a step back and let her inhabit the space that is fully her’s and only partially mine. I’d rather be the ally — the one not taking up space doesn’t belong to me — than to inadvertently do harm by claiming something that’s been assigned to me even when I’m not the best representative.

And while sometimes, I feel the urge to share my stories, I won’t do that at the risk of stepping on the toes of African-American women. My story aligns, but it’s not the same. I am an Afro-Puerto Rican, but I am not an African-American.

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African American Afro-Boricua Afro-Latina puerto rican
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