Gender & Identity, Life

Hey, Latinos – we need to talk about colorism

The longer we go without confronting this, the longer we allow it to pit our brothers and sisters against each other.

There are few things I love more than my roots. They defined my experience growing up, shaped me, and continue to propel me forward in an ever-changing world. They give me something to go back to.

I’m half-Puerto Rican and I’m half-Brazilian. Almost anyone who knows me personally knows this about me and sees it reflected in me every single day. But there is an aspect of the Latino community that hurts me every day, that is heard in the smallest of microaggressions to language that has pervaded the years from the beginnings of colonization.

Colorism /ˈkələrˌizəm/ noun  —  prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.

The term colorism is most commonly applied to the black community — light skinned versus dark skinned, preferences as to whom you’d rather sleep with, who is more attractive, etc. It’s an issue that goes much deeper than just these examples. The same thing occurs within groups of Latino communities, and it’s something that has been reflected in both parts of my ethnicity. 

It’s reflected in terms like ‘pelo malo’ (bad hair) when it comes to unruly, dry curls, and hearing the pity in a grandmother’s voice when their grandchild is “mas trigeno” (darker). It’s being called “blanquita linda” (beautiful white one) when walking down the street, while my mom remembers times where those with darker skin staying under umbrellas to make sure they didn’t get more tan, times when Puerto Rican banks deliberately turned down job applications from those with darker skin. 

I see it in the uncomfortable ripple among some of the elders on both sides of my family when I mentioned that I was dating a Puerto Rican man from a part of the island known for its high population of Afro-Latinos. I see it in the comments and catcalls Latinas receive from men of any race.

Actual footage of me when men say, “You’re just so gorgeous for being Latina” or when a Latin man with dark skin says, “Ay, blanca, you’re not like those dark skinned girls.”

It’s reflected most in the fact that to someone that was born a mile or even the house next door away from my mother (where I get my fair skin from), has white privilege in every aspect of life, despite being neighbors and even at times sharing blood.

Just ask my half-Puerto Rican, half-black cousin about the sheer disbelief we face when we tell people we are related.

Last year, a study found that Latinos with fair skin are seen as more intelligent by interviewees and therefore get more jobs. “Overall, the findings suggest that white prejudicial attitudes related to skin tone could create substantially unequal access to economic, social, and cultural resources,” wrote sociologist Lance Hannon.

Not to acknowledge how far my light-skinned privilege carries me would be completely unfair — I can’t relate to the struggle that many other Latinos face. And claiming I’m a person of color seems unfair to Latinos who face struggles every single day that I can’t even begin to fathom.

Both Puerto Ricans and Brazilians have various shades and shapes, ranging from the palest of pale to the blackest of black. Yet in the U.S., when we look for the famous faces of Latinas who hail from those places, we get Gisele Bundchen and Jennifer Lopez. We picture women with perfectly tanned skin (bronzed, but never too tan), light eyes, perfect, frizz-free hair, and big asses. We’ve abandoned everything in between, even among our own communities.

But there are some signs that colorism can get better in the Latino community. Thousands of Brazilian cities are now recognizing Black Awareness Day. And more and more are identifying as black in the country as compared to ten years ago, according to Remezcla. This numbers aren’t tied to any birth rates or sociological changes in Brazil; instead, sociologists say, they’re a rare indicator that a more positive attitude about race is finally setting in.

Remezcla also recently showcased beautiful images by photographer Jeferson Lima, who went to Bahia to show the beauty so often ignored in Brazil and mainstream markets like the United States: 

In doing research for this article alone, I couldn’t find a single video about colorism in Latin communities (can we change this please?), or at least one that focused on this issue that clearly remains unspoken in most cases.

This conversation needs to change, because it has barely begun. I can only speak from a place of someone who was “fortunate” enough to be “blessed” with fair skin. But this is something that we all in the Latino community have a responsibility to talk about and acknowledge.

The longer we go without realizing that this is a serious problem that is reflected in so many parts of our everyday lives, the longer we allow it to pit brothers and sisters of the same families and ethnicities against each other. We cannot let this happen. Let’s raise the issue, let’s get angry, let’s talk.