February is Black History Month. In recent years, Afro-Latinxs especially have come to embrace our role in this celebratory month as Latinxs have a long history of African heritage. While it’s beautiful and significant for us to recognize and celebrate our African roots, the conversations around who gets to claim Afro-Latinidad can get confusing, to say the least. Orange Is The New Black actress Jackie Cruz recently posted a series of pictures and videos to IG of her rocking what appears to be a curly fro. Now if you didn’t know that Jackie’s been wearing her hair in a short, straight pixie — you probably wouldn’t have thought anything of it. Maybe she doesn’t rock her natural hair often? But she is actually wearing a curly-haired wig. The wig isn’t the main problem though, it’s the post caption that was problematic.
Cruz posted a photo of her showing off the curly fro wig with a caption that read: “A Latina with an afro or an Afro-Latina?” It was followed by the Dominican flag emoji. While it’s important to acknowledge that despite the fact that Jackie has light skin — and possibly straight hair — she could still be a Dominican woman of African descent. Still, that caption is the kind of thing that contributes to the confusion surrounding Afro-Latinx identity. A caption like that suggests that Jackie doesn’t necessarily identify as Afro-Latina but is playing with the idea of being able to “pass” for one by rocking an afro wig. It also speaks to her privilege of being able to “pass” and have the option of choosing whether or not she will identify this way.
In a video, Jackie posted a few days earlier of her walking the Go Red For Women runway rocking a red dress and the curly wig, one follower named @catharina_mota commented on how the wig falls into the category of cultural appropriation. While many of Jackie’s followers defended her by claiming cultural appropriation was impossible because Jackie is a Dominican woman — regardless of how she may present— @catharina_mota did have a point. She broke down how regardless of whether someone has black blood in their veins, using a natural hair wig as an accessory is problematic when you consider the racism and discrimination black people with that actual hair texture or curlier have had to deal with over the years.
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Part of what’s made the whole dialogue around Afro-Latinx identity tricky is not just that so many folks are only recently learning and understanding the deep complex history Latin America has with blackness but also the fact that many Afro-Latinx (because of our mixed race and ancestry) don’t necessarily “present” as black in America. Even though we live in a country that invented the “one-drop rule” there are also very racist markers that white people have always used to define blackness, like very dark skin, coarse/kinky hair, certain phenotypical characteristics like wide noses and thicker lips, etc. that actually have nothing to do with how black you are or aren’t. What many racists forget is that Africa is an incredibly diverse continent itself, with a wide range of skin tones, hair types, and phenotypes.
In the case of Cruz, the caption is what’s especially harmful because it makes it seem as if Afro-Latina is a caricature you can just become if you throw on a curly-haired wig and slap on an emoji of the Latin American country your family is from. That’s not how this works. To claim black in America is significant because to be seen as black is socially and politically dangerous. It can cost you everything from your job to your life, which is why so many proud Afro-Latinxs go off on other Afro-Latinxs — usually lighter Afro-Latinxs who can get away with not claiming blackness — for only claiming this identity when it’s convenient or cute.
This also taps into the issue many Black Americans have with the Afro-Latinx movement overall. This idea that Afro-Latinxs who are of visibly mixed race and ancestry, with lighter complexions and softer curl patterns or straighter hair, claim blackness only when convenient. Whereas for many African Americans or even Latinxs who visibly present as black there’s not really an option to identify as anything else.
Many Afro-Latinx today are still on a journey to understanding their roots, their ancestry, and their racial makeup. Some who don’t necessarily present as black didn’t claim Afro-Latinx until adulthood after we were educated about who we really are. That is a reality for many of us and a privilege in and of itself. But there is a difference between being on the journey versus playing around with an identity while ignoring your own privilege. The Dominican Republic — like many countries in Latin America — has a very violent and complex history with blackness. There is a reason why so many non-white Latinxs still claim whiteness. Colonization brainwashed our people into believing that whiteness was better and claiming blackness could have cost you your life. When we understand slavery and the colonial history of Latin America, it’s easier to process why our ancestors — even our parents and our abuelos — were so afraid of associating themselves with being black. We come from a culture that for centuries had convinced us to mejorar la raza — which essentially means marrying a lighter-skinned person to whiten up the race. Centuries ago, in countries like Puerto Rico, there was a policy known as gracias al sacar, which allowed black Puerto Ricans of mixed racial heritage to pay a fee — through a petition with Spain — to reclassify themselves as white. This was all an attempt made by the Puerto Rican government to appear as a whiter island in the eyes of the United States. This very history is what makes claiming black in all spaces — not just when you feel like it — that much more meaningful.
The argument of a curly fro wig being a tribute or simply “just a style” isn’t going to cut it in 2020. You don’t have to be a white person for this to be a problem. You just have to be a person who does not have naturally curly hair and has no idea what it means to be discriminated in America or in the world for rocking the hair that naturally grows from your scalp. I’m not saying straight-haired people can’t rock curly-haired wigs, I’m saying that they shouldn’t rock them blindly and without acknowledgment and they certainly shouldn’t use them to suggest they might “pass” or consider taking on an identity they normally wouldn’t. Blackness isn’t a costume.