"Oh Brave New World with such people in it…"

Trayvon Martin and the Whitening of Hispanic Identity in post-Y2K America

Hispanic American family

As the country sits mesmerized by the trial of George Zimmerman, accused of murdering unarmed teen Trayvon Martin, race becomes a hot button topic (well let me rephrase that: REMAINS a hot button topic because when is it not?). Race sits at the forefront of this trial and this teen’s murder because the world wants to know was this racially motivated. I’ve been scanning the net and seen more than a few “Well how is it racially motivated and Zimmerman is Hispanic?”. Oh is he really? Does he believe that? Does he identify as such? And if he does truly identify as Hispanic, is the implication that Hispanics cannot be racist to African Americans?

The 2010 census saw a dramatic increase in the amount of American Hispanics who identified as White. With changes in the census that very clearly specified that Hispanic was not a race and did not provide an option to identify as such, you saw an increase in White identified Hispanics. In working with the public, I have seen Hispanic clients identify as White on forms. There is a definite heavy lean towards identifying as white when the option to identify as Hispanic or “Other” is removed.

The next question is why? Conditioning is one reason. The Americas having been colonized by Europeans and the subsequent mental conditioning that accompanies any form of long term oppression is a huge factor in Hispanic identity. Latin American culture is permeated with long standing ideals steeped in colorism, classism, and social hierarchies revolving around skin color. Those ideals are generationally driven; passed down within families. These do unfortunately include prejudices against darker skin. All Latin American countries still have a form of active racism and colorism whether blatant or subtle. If you need it spelled out: If my skin is white or lighter than yours, I am better than you. I grew up in a predominantly Hispanic community in NYC, it was not uncommon to hear words like “cocolo” (a very derogatory Spanish word for someone with dark skin) thrown around or the word black to be used perjoratively..said in such a way you knew it had a neagtive connotation to it.

Relevance. 180’ing back to the issue of George Zimmerman, this is all relevant. I just read in a news screen that Zimmerman identifies as Hispanic with I am assuming the intent to distract away from the white prejudice issue. I’m sure the underlying push is to portray that him as a minority as well couldn’t have been racially motivated. However, thinking outside the box and seeing how Hispanic identity has changed and is being shaped by many different factors…taking into account a drastic increase of self-idenitfying as White, how could race NOT be a factor? Would the negative perceptions have been aroused leading to the incident if Trayvon were another race ? America can speculate but as an African American woman with Hispanic roots..I won’t expend the extra brain power as I think I already know the answer.

The rebirth of the Soap Opera…harder, better, faster, stronger?

ImageIn Kanye West’s song Addiction he sums up life pretty well “Why everything that’s ‘sposed to be bad, make me feel so good?”  As an American born girl…I am an exercise in excess. Western culture is built around bigger, faster, tastier, and shock value. Yes, we LOVE to be shocked, titillated and aghast.  We can’t get enough. We love parties, drugs, alcohol, food and sex  (Ok leave the drugs out for me, thanks.) 

We like our television and movies : extra dramatic, extra loud, extra violent, and super sexy. In the 70’s and 80’s we had soap operas to satisfy our palate for excess. All the scandal and over the top life you could imagine all in one 1 hour sitting. You could live vicariously through your favorite soap. These people were rich, beautiful, sexy and downright bold in their scandalous ways. Your mother or grandmother (or maybe you) sat riveted to the TV  or she videotaped it (like with a real VCR!)  and you risked physical violence if you dare interrupted her for ANYTHING. Both my grandmothers watched soaps , one watched Novellas and let me tell you that novellas are like soap operas on comical crack….you do not know what dramatic is until you’ve watched a novella. No Spanish language skills needed, you can watch the show and not understand one word and still be entranced LOL.

I’m not a TV person at all, but I have a select few programs that I indulge in. Reality TV shows are my soap operas. It’s not just me, it has my friends and family too…not just women but the men too. I really only watch the Vh1 show Love and Hip Hop Atlanta, and that is enough. I’m a fiend and I know it…I’m so ashamed. Watching this show makes me feel as if I am socially irresponsible…..it’s like watching a bad accident, you want to look away but you can’t. I know there is some scripting to it, but I stopped caring about that long ago. I play right along. If this was real life I’d be appalled to see women behaving like some of these ladies do, but because it’s on TV I can’t get enough. The worse they behave, the more I watch. Messy? Oh yeah. Ratchet?  For sure. Entertaining? Helllllllll yessssssssssssss.  The episode I watched yesterday evening was titled “Champagne and Weave”. I said Champagne and Weave. Sigh. But damn it was good.

 So why do we watch???! What makes us stay tuned to the likes of Atlanta Housewives and Love and Hip Hop? Why do we want to see women throw drinks on each other and almost (it’s always ALMOST) fist fight? To see men like Stevie J (aka Steebie) perform a balancing act between his manwhore Joceline (sorry I couldn’t resist) and his foolish fool of a baby mama Mimi? I mean let’s be honest…they let DMX have his own specials and a TV show not because he’s an awesome rapper (which he is!) they gave him a show because he is loaded up on drugs most of the time and acts 730 crazy at times and WE want to see him do it. Simple. Even the shows like Intervention and Hoarders which is really a different genre but still under the guise of reality TV…they are over the top and shocking. We are so desensitized to craziness as a culture, we can sit for an hour and watch real people literally smoke crack cocaine and or run headfirst into walls high on bath salts (real stuff witnessed on those shows) or live like animals with garbage and trash and not bat an eyelash. It makes me wonder what we will be doing to get our entertainment highs in 20 or 50 years. Will we have to resort to dangerous Total Recall-like virtual reality? Will watching not be enough and will the fix have to come from actually acting out our inhibitions? I mean that’s the premise of the movie…getting your ultimate entertainment high. I don’t know , guess we will sit back and watch (no pun intended).

Our Not So secret Secret….

1988 movie School Daze's song and dance number about colorism within a black college setting

1988 movie School Daze’s song and dance number about colorism within a black college setting


I can think back to a time when I reviled my parents for lying to me. I was told from as early as I could remember that my name meant “Black beautiful queen”. I spouted this mechanation to any willing (or unwilling) listener, my young heart filled with excitement and pride at being the owner of a name with such a dignified and royal meaning. Turns out they made my name AND it’s meaning up- que cera. As a teenager finding out that this was a boldface lie really crushed me, I was filled with disappointment at my name not representing the African princess I most certainly had been raised to believe I was. In hindsight and adult thinking, I know that my parents wanted to foster a sense of black pride in me…to be able to live out the mantra of being black and proud through my name. Im an 80 baby, born on the tail end of the Black Power movement so I can totally see my parents wanting me to have an ethnic name with a strong meaning. So whatever happened to being black and proud?

Watching the Dark Girls documentary, a film by Bill Duke that chronicled the prejudices that dark complexioned women may face, my heart was filled with emotion. Anger, sadness, annoyance, and a deep seeded hurt. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve known and experienced the phenomenon of colorism on many different levels both passive and actively…but to see my thoughts and life long observations put on screen made me feel as if my dirty laundry was hanging out for the world to see. And it most certainly was. The dirty, stinky, ugly laundry of my people is what colorism is. The entire film was gripping but the scenes that touched me the most were:
-little girl given a choice of pictures to choose from and picking the fairest one as the “best looking” because she was “light skinded”
-a woman speaking about her pain listening to her mother praise her beauty and accomplishments only to end her accolades with “could you imagine if she had any lightness to her skin?”
-a young man stating that dark girls “look funny next to him”
There were so many more moments but for the sake of brevity I will leave my mentions at those. Heart breaking and thought provoking because how could this be happening in 2013 I ask myself?

One of my favorite films is the Spike Lee joint ” School Daze” (G fi G!!!). This classic film explores life amongst students attending a fictional HBCU in the South. It is funny and upbeat…filled with catchy song and dance numbers that I have completely memorized. It also chronicles serious topics such as African American college life, hazing in fraternities and sororities, love and relationships, and COLORISM. The best part of the movie is a song/dance piece in the style of West Side story set in a beauty salon that pits the “Jigaboos” vs “Wannabees”. The jigaboos shown as being the darker skinned female students with shorter and/or natural hair and the Wannabees portrayed as fair skinned or biracial with long straighter textured hair or weaves. This is one of the first mainstream black films that explored and exposed this issue and Spike received a lot of flack for this. I applaud him for taking the first real step in addressing this in a clear manner.

Black Hollywood has a history of indulgence in colorism. It is the unspoken way of our media culture. Music videos, commercials, and TV programs have historically placed lighter skinned women in the glamorous, sexy and starring roles. If I were to randomly pick three popular rap videos, I would be hard pressed to find a starring dark skinned (in some cases black period) feature girl….the most common starlets are lighter skinned black or Hispanic, white or Asian. Unprocessed hair is almost unheard of except in certain hip hop genres. So it is not surprising to hear and see little girls express shame about their dark complexion. When all around you the images of beauty and desirability are the opposite of you, how can you feel good about yourself?

Of course the simple answer is that self -esteem building begins at home. You inundate your little girl with love, positive images and empower her to believe in her beauty and worth by believing it yourself. We are our children’s first teachers and the energy and feedback we give them not only by way of active teaching/guidance but by LIVING and giving examples is what will keep them grounded and above any negativity from society’s standards. There is a saying that I love posted in my office by Alvin Price “Parents need to fill a child’s bucket of self-esteem so high that the rest of the world can’t poke enough holes to drain dry.” The more complicated answer that brings us closer to a tangible solution is adressing the deep seated psychological damage that centruries of slavery/colonialism/Jim Crow has done to blacks as a people. It’s not an American thing…this is a widespread phenomenon in any country of color that has experienced slavery or colonialism. So the onus of when and what is left to us to not just think about but to call into action.