How Latin America’s Obsession With Whiteness Is Hurting Us

If you’re Latinx person, chances are you grew up hearing the very racially-charged phrase “mejorar la raza

Latin America’s obsession with whiteness HipLatina

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If you’re Latinx person, chances are you grew up hearing the very racially-charged phrase “mejorar la raza.” The term literally translates to “better the race” which is really alluding to “whitening the race.” Despite the fact that Latinos come in all races and colors, this mindset has still managed to survive centuries after colonization and slavery. It’s the idea that you should marry or have children with someone lighter or “whiter” than you so that your children don’t just come out “better looking” but are granted the power and privileges that come with being a “white passing” or “white presenting” person in this world. It’s 2018 and Latin America’s obsession with blanqueamiento still prevails. We hear it when our abuelitas tell us to marry a whiter man or when someone tells us a curly haired Latina looks more beautiful when she straightens her hair and it’s even clearer when colorism rear it’s ugly head. What many don’t realize is that this ideology hurts all Latinos, regardless of skin tone and ultimately harms us as a community.

Blanqueamiento comes from an ideology derived from European colonialism and revolves around maintaining white dominance in social hierarchies. In fact, blanqueamiento could easily be compared to the ideology of white supremacy often seen as something exclusively American. We think of white supremacy and immediately what comes to mind are the numerous white nationalist rallies that have taken place in the states—this year alone. But it’s not something that only white American nationalists subscribe to. 

“We have a misconception of white supremacy. People still associate it to be something exclusive to the U.S. and when we start thinking about what white supremacy looks like in our imagination it’s always something like the KKK,” says Dr. Griselda Rodriguez-Solomon a professor in Sociology at the City University of NY (CUNY) with a specialization in Latino studies. “But really white supremacy really is a sophisticated system of domination. I always say as a Dominican who did my doctorate in the Dominican Republic, if you really want to understand race and race relations on this side of the world, you have to look at the Dominican Republic and it’s relationship with Haiti. That’ where whiteness was experimented and almost mastered and spread across the western hemisphere.”

The obsession Latin America has with whiteness stems directly from our colonial history.

“Whiteness in a western sense began and was mastered in Hispaniola (which is now known as the Dominican Republic and Haiti). It was loosely experimented on in western Europe and within the Spanish inquisition and their conquests within continents in Africa, but it wasn’t until they came to this side of the world that this idea of whiteness developed because societies of mix race were on the rise and it was happening so fast that whiteness became the backdrop and they became the minorities,” Rodriguez-Solomon says. “But it also became the foundation of this idea of what a human being was. They had to develop societies where regardless of whether or not they were the minority or the majority, they had to place themselves in power. So they developed laws, they set up rules and they divided society throughout numerous countries in the western hemisphere where whiteness and essentially white supremacy was central.”

Rodriguez-Solomon points out how the Europeans in power had to create structures to keep whiteness on top and they did it with everything from religion—by centering a white male god—and through education by erasing our African and indigenous history. “There was this understanding, whether it was clearly articulated or not, that whiteness had to always remain on the top and in the center of people’s consciousness in order to dominate,” she says.

Even still today—in 2018—lighter skin is perceived to be more attractive, more powerful, more trustworthy and like Rodriguez-Solomon points out—more marriage material. All you have to do is look at Latin American television programs. Even in countries like Brazil, Dominican Republic, Colombia or Puerto Rico with large populations of darker skinned or Black Latinos, white Latinos are the protagonists in their films, television shows and telenovelas. White or “white presenting” Latinos still hold most positions of power in politics, government and finance.

Many of us have relatives who subscribe to Eurocentric standards of beauty. We hear abuelas, tias, or even mothers encouraging their children not to marry a darker skinned, indigenous, or black Latino in fear that they will bring “ugly kids” into the world with dark skin, wide ethnic facial features, and curly, kinky hair that’s still often referred to as “pelo malo” (bad hair). This not-so-subtle form of racism is so ingrained in Latin American culture that it’s often ignorantly defended or ignored. 

What a lot of people don’t realize is that the idea behind “Mejorar La Raza” is essentially a racial/ethnic cleansing of sorts, which was seen in our history. Ethnic cleansing is a real practice that actually was encouraged in various parts of Latin America.

“I have looked at countries like the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Colombia or Cuba that have a very dynamic racial history and across the board there’s been moments in each of the these countries where white migration was encouraged to physically whiten the country,” Rodriguez-Solomon says. “There are a lot of examples of how countries, presidents, and administrations have done things either to include or increase the amount of white bodies in those countries and violently reduce the number of black or brown bodies in the national body.”

Rodriguez-Solomon is referring to national policies in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Colombia, Brazil among others that encouraged European and Jewish immigration in an effort to “dilute the black race” and whiten communities. This not only held up the concept of “Mejorar La Raza” but also impacted social blanqueamiento, and resulted in Latinos of indigenous or African descent choosing to identify as white to benefit from “white passing” privilege. In fact, a Pew Research study found that Latinos of both African and Indigenous descent still identify as white. Close to 11% of American adults with Hispanic ancestors don’t even identify as Hispanic or Latino.

“Identity is contextual, it’s relational. Identity is how you define yourself but it’s also how you are defined. If you are of mixed race ancestry it’s important for you to acknowledge both of your parents lineage but you also have to consider that who you are is not just who you think you are but who others think you are because that’s how society is going to perceive you and how you’re going to be positioned socially and economically,” Rodriguez-Solomon says. “When we see Latinos identify as white it shows that a “white” Latino who is socially positioned to be white and presents to be white are often given levels of white privilege that other Latinos are not. Whiteness is perceived to be something that’s pervasive and powerful across the world. So in a sense, psychologically why wouldn’t people want to try to identify or pass as white?”

“The harm does not come from the identities themselves but rather how some people may be devalued, mistreated, discriminated, and even hurt because we create social hierarchies based on people’s ancestry, experience, appearance, identities,” says Dr. Alaí Reyes-Santos, professor of Ethnic Studies and Conflict Resolution at the University of Oregon. “These hierarchies divide our communities, create unnecessary pain when what we need is to be able to recognize our differences, acknowledge the colonial legacies we still have to heal and together fight for what is best for all, not a few.”

The obsession with whiteness harms all Latinos—even white ones—in the long run. Those of us living in the states in today’s intense political climate and the anti-immigrant sentiment that’s been proliferating since Donald Trump became president is just one way that ideas of white supremacy hurt all Latinos.

“The mentality is harmful because it reinforces white standards of social worth and social responsibility against all groups. It makes it easier for all Latinas and Latinos to be devalued,” says Professor Isabel Molina-Guzman who teaches Latino Studies at the University of Illinois. “It’s not like anti-immigrant politicians make exceptions like —‘we want to deport “illegals” except those that look white?’ Nope. If your name is Sanchez or Molina, regardless of what you look like, you are racialized as not white, less than, and questionably American.”

Rodriguez-Solomon also points out how when non-white Latino/Hispanics in the states identify as white Hispanics/Latinos and check that off in census forms, it actually prevents us from getting the resources we need. If statistics are showing that a neighborhood that’s predominately Latino consists of Latinos that are mostly identifying as white Latinos, it could lead to things being ignored that could for instance greatly impact indigenous or Afro-Latinos because the statistics don’t actually reflect what those communities are made of. Politicians or city counselors could then assume that a lot of the Latinos living in these neighborhoods could be benefiting from privileges attached to whiteness when in reality they are not.

“It robs us of access to resources but most importantly, opportunities to build bridges and collations with other communities of African descent like Haitians and African Americans that are not made because of Latinos resistance with identifying with the African component of their identity,” Rodriguez-Solomon says.

The good news is, Latinos have come a long way when it comes to moving away from their obsession with whiteness and their hate of blackness or brownness. We see that especially with the younger generation Latinos living in the states. The Afro-Latino and natural hair movement in the states especially has given voice to Latinos who now proudly accept and embrace their African ancestry.

Social media has definitely played a large role in this. It has not only created dialogue but exposure. It’s because of activists, content creators, writers, editors, bloggers and even celebs that we are now exposed to how Black Latinos are treated not just in the states, but in Latin American countries like Brazil, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama, Colombia, Honduras, and Guatemala just to name a few. It empowers communities which ultimately leads to change.

“Identifying as Afro-Latina for a lot of us is very political,” Rodriguez-Solomon adds. “It’s highlighting a part of our identity that’s very central to who we are but has been denied throughout our history. We are identifying with a part of our identity that doesn’t really grant us any privileges. If anything, it can actually demote us because we’re choosing to identify with a part of us that historically has been seen as inferior, unattractive and something we should avoid.”

The change has been slow and has literally taken centuries but we’re getting there. The key is to educate ourselves, those around us, those in our communities and even our own relatives about our history, about how the blanqueamiento only leads to further harm and oppression not just within the Latinx community but towards all communities of color. When we choose to educate ourselves and use these dialogues as compassionate teaching moments, that’s when radical change finally begins to occur.

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