Growing up in a Peruvian and Colombian household, I was used to being around family members who had indigenous features like myself. With tan skin, thick black hair and dark features, I never felt a need to look differently, and have always been comfortable in my own skin. It wasn’t until I was exposed to other Latinos in everyday life that I learned that some had complexes about their skin color. I remember having a friend, who was a fair skinned or “white-presenting” Latina who would make remarks about my tan complexion from time to time. Normally I’d shrug off her comments because they didn’t have any effect on me. However, I remember one summer we were at a party taking photos, and upon looking at them she half jokingly and insultingly said, “Look at you in this pic, looking like an Aztec Indian.” I was insulted by her ignorant statement, but I couldn’t understand why it was a big deal that I was naturally tan. In retrospect, I realized she was projecting her own complexes onto me in order to make herself feel superior.
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Unfortunately this is what is known as colorism, and it’s a problem that continues to exists within Latino communities. Colorism is the preferential treatment of those who are lighter skinned than those who are darker within a group of people. City College Professor of Latin American and Latino studies, Iris Lopez explains, “Latinos are very color conscious and use a color classification system which includes categories such as blanco, negro, trigueno, Indio, Jabao, Moreno, Mulatta, etc,” she says.
Because Latinos don’t identify with a race, Lopez says they tend to use labels tied to their hair type, skin color, and facial features instead. The labels have different meanings depending on what island or country you’re in, because they can vary regionally. Lopez adds that the concept of what category you fall under depends on the percentage of black blood an individual has.
“The Latin American and Spanish Caribbean racial classification system is similar to the old racial classification system used by blacks in the U.S. and the West Indies,” She elaborates.
As Lopez mentioned, race is a social construct invented by Europeans intended to divide people and holds no scientific merit. Through the illusion of race, Europeans were able to manipulate blacks and other natives into believing that whites were superior in order to justify their conquests. Lopez points out if it weren’t for race, colorism wouldn’t even exist.
“The phrase colorism may have developed because it is incorrect to say that people of color are racist because they are part of an oppressed group,” she explains. “If racism did not exist in the Latino community, they would not be so color conscious, and colorism would not exist,” Lopez concludes. Whether we want to admit it or not, colorism affects ALL Latinos. It’s no surprise that if you ask most Latinos about their experiences with colorism, everyone has a story.
Zelina Bennett, a Latina of Honduran descent told Hiplatina that her mother grew up in a household where she was told that having a lighter skin tone was favored over being dark. “My mother [who is lighter than me] grew up in Honduras and was taught that light skin was beautiful and darker skin was less preferred,” she says. However, Bennett’s mother didn’t want her daughter to ever question her skin color and instead encouraged her to embrace her beauty. As a result, Bennett didn’t grow up with an unhealthy outlook based on her complexion.
Darleny Suriel, a Dominican woman who also identifies as Afro-Latina, experienced a similar form of colorism in her household. “Colorism has always felt to me like an elephant in the room that would not be directly addressed or acknowledged, but its presence was strongly felt,“ she explains, adding, “Especially in family settings like mine where the skin tones of family members represent all colors of a broad racial spectrum.”
Suriel says this came to light when she was being compared to her closest cousin who she describes as having the complexion of Snow White, and the naturally golden hair of Cinderella. “Since my cousin & I were born in the same city less than 2 years apart, and were raised together by the same people sharing the same culture, religion, & beliefs, I never considered that we would be viewed differently by our society because of something as irrelevant as skin color,” she tells HipLatina, “However, I couldn’t help but notice that when speaking about her beauty, relatives would always praise the whiteness of her skin, her noticeably rosy cheeks & her natural blond hair; meanwhile I was constantly warned in a fearful tone to stay out of the sun so I do not get darker, as if receiving melanin from the sun was a tragic form of disfigurement,” she recalls.
While some first experience colorism at home, others experience it through different social settings. Actress and comedian Laneya Wiles, a half Puerto Rican and Black Latina, explains that she first experienced colorism through the entertainment industry as a child. “True colorism, I experienced through auditioning for and watching the channels like Univision and Telemundo,” she says. Wiles would audition for Spanish commercials, but knew she wasn’t going to be booked because she was the “wrong shade.” She says, “This was back in the 90’s and I never saw females who looked like me on the TV screen. So, I was convinced I didn’t “look Latina”. She also noticed similar atmospheres when she went to English-speaking auditions. “I remember going to other auditions where they had the white kids go first, then the “black” kids and the white kids were usually cast for the role,” she adds.
And as one would imagine, if you are of a darker complexion and you grow up being told that being lighter skin is better, you may start to develop some resentment. For some this comes in the form of denial, rejecting their roots, or some may start identifying as white (even when its clear they aren’t). Suriel recalls hearing comments made in her household about darker skin being unattractive.
“My father [who is black] & his sister who is only a bit lighter would tell me that I could not date nor marry a black man, because they were not considered good looking,” she explains. Her father had even convinced himself that he was repulsive because of his skin tone. “I have many times heard my father call himself ugly because he was dark-skinned, & since we share the same complexion I would sometimes feel as though he was calling me ugly as well,” she says.
Suriel elaborates that she’s met many people who are ashamed of their roots and refuse to accept that they’re black. She says, “From my father, to my ex-boyfriend, to random Afro-Latinos I engage in conversation with, they seem to identify primarily with their culture, than their race.
“Wiles recalls knowing a woman with the same complex who took it a step further. She says, “I knew this beautiful Dominican lady growing up who revealed to my family that she files her legal documents as a white woman, but she was very, very dark-skinned.” In fact, research has found that some Latinos are beginning to identify as white when they fill out census forms. The theory behind this is that because there has been an increase in intermarriages and a decline in immigration from Latin American countries, that some Hispanic Americans are losing touch with their roots, reducing the likelihood they call themselves Hispanic or Latino.
As sensitive as the topic of colorism may be, it’s important to have conversations with other Latinos about it. Even though we are all part of the same community, there’s also no denying that white or “white-presenting” Latinos reap the benefits of white privilege. White privilege is a societal set of unearned benefits given to those who are white, but people of color have to work harder to achieve (ie. education, better jobs, etc.).
In order for us to end colorism—and racism for that matter—it’s important to admit that it’s a real problem that exists. In fact, a study conducted by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography looked at Mexico to see if skin color still mattered and influenced the level of education and employment opportunities available to their citizens. Based off the surveys completed by Mexicans, it was found that skin color still determined how far people get ahead in Mexico and how they’re perceived overall. And Mexico isn’t the only place affected by this mentality. Bennett explained that Honduras is experiencing the same problem.
“In some towns, white people are coming in and investing to build businesses to only hire Spaniards that are also moving in from other countries to look for work in Honduras,” she says. Meanwhile these towns have black Latino natives who are perfectly capable of doing the work, but because of their skin color, investors prefer to hire Spaniards instead. Lopez says in order for Latinos to break through this problem, we have to learn our history.
“We have to start by educating ourselves about our colonial heritage, and how it has contributed to colorism/racism, and the various ways it is hurting our community,“ she explains. She also encourages white Latinos to contribute on their part to end colorism. “Those who are phenotypically white have the responsibility to speak out against racism and to be aware of their advantage within a racist society.” However, white Latinos face their own racism as well. “It’s important to keep in mind that phenotypically white Latinos are also subjected to racism and their own unique form of micro-aggressions,” she adds.
Lopez believes another effective way to put an end to colorism is by supporting Latin American & Latino Studies Programs in our colleges. ”These departments arose from the struggle of our communities to improve education for Latinos in the USA,” she says. She elaborates that the purpose of the classes are also to educate Latino students and others about the history of Latinos in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States, to thoroughly understand why colorism continues to exist. This can also give more insight as to why many Latinos are still at a disadvantage through education, income, and housing. Lopez insists,“ We need to continue strengthening our communities and working with allies to build coalitions.“
Not to mention, by educating ourselves, we can pass that knowledge on to our families and future generations. While there have been Latino celebrities who have spoken out about colorism, it’s important for us to practice stopping it on a regular basis. Suriel says she does her part by standing up to those who make racist comments and educating them about the racial history of the Dominican Republic and Latin America.
“If I encounter any young Afro-Latinos that are experiencing the same battle against self-hate as I once did, I tell them what I wish someone would have told me: That a dark complexion is beautiful, and the magic which our blackness contains makes us special,” she says. Wiles has a similar method and makes sure to correct people when they make racist remarks. She says, “I generally shut it down fast and try to educate people in a way that’s as short and to-the-point as possible, and don’t let their opinions get to me.”
It’s evident that Latinos have a long way to go, but we can do our part in small ways daily to improve the situation. Whether it’s by educating others on our culture, proudly representing our heritage, or correcting those who have it wrong, it’s all bound to pay off. And perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but maybe one day all of those little gestures can create a positive impact on our community and banish colorism along with racism all together.