Why I Didn't Identify As Black While Growing Up Latina
And how I learned that I am.
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Growing up, I never identified as being Black. In my adulthood, I realized that unlike my friends, I wasn’t taught about my blackness at home. In actuality, my family never identified as Black, no matter how dark their skin tones. It took a long time for me to become conscious of the fact that besides being Latina, yes, I am Black.
As a first-generation Dominican American, there was so much about my identity that I was not taught. For example, being made to believe that my ancestors were Spaniard and Taino Indians. As if this would explain my complexion, the size of my lips and my natural hair texture. In our culture, anti-blackness was present even with our hair care rituals. Imagine growing up not knowing what your natural hair texture was really like. Or, not feeling as pretty because I was told, I had “pelo malo” (bad hair). That was my reality for a long time. I don’t remember my first relaxer but by the age of eight, you can clearly see my hair was chemically straightened.
This was the beginning of my cultural assimilation--and I didn’t even know it was happening. For a long time, I continued this hair journey of upholding white standards of beauty. I had internalized the belief that in order to be beautiful, I had to alter and manipulate my hair. To most, this is just a normal styling process, but for me, at that moment, it was a way of negating traces of my blackness. And I continued this well into my 20’s. I attributed it to being a cultural thing, a Dominican thing.
It wasn’t until I reached my late 20’s when I began to hear terms like colorism and assimilation. Even though from a young age I was well aware of what colorism looked like, I didn’t know what it was called. Growing up I watched telenovelas with my grandmother and aunts where all the main characters were fair-skinned Latinos. Therefore, the only parts given to Afro-Latinos where the roles of servants or as urban dwellers. This is when I understood that it really didn’t matter if I spoke Spanish, or if my parents were Dominican. I would always be considered Black. I began to question myself. What made me different from friends who were African American? Why did I have that belief that I was not Black? Why the internal struggle to accept my blackness?
This is when I became curious and began to read and research topics such as race, identity, slavery, ethnicity and more. This is when I truly began to question everything relating to my identity. I was infuriated, mostly at myself. For so long, how didn’t I know about my connection to the African diaspora? One reason: I was never taught this at home. Being raised by people who don’t acknowledge their own blackness, leaves you feeling like this very part of you is something you should be ashamed of. I felt disconnected from my roots as if I never truly knew who I was. I had been following this unconscious programming for so long that it became my norm. After realizing that I had been ignorant about my identity, my blackness, for so long, I felt such sadness.
I was existing in a world which identifies me as Black and I wasn’t even aware. When you are raised in a family that negates their blackness, no matter how obvious it is that you are in fact Black, it becomes natural or normal to conform to believing that you’re not. As a child you may question it, if you are given the space to do so, but more than likely it just becomes your norm and you accept it.
I had accepted the false belief that I was not Black.
I questioned my parents' motives for denying what was becoming so obvious. I wanted to truly understand as Afro-Latinos how my parents were affected when they came to the U.S. My father explained to me that as an Afro-Dominican he was immediately judged. When he arrived in New York he had many different jobs, including one as a taxi cab driver in Washington Heights. He told me about his frustration when people would mistake him as being African American but he could barely speak English. Therefore he was often ridiculed, but he found a way to use that frustration as fuel to learn the English language sooner than later. My mother also struggled to assimilate in America. She struggled to connect with both whites and African Americans as she was clearly not a white-passing Latina, and even though she is a Black woman, her Spanish speaking tongue created a barrier from connecting to most African Americans.
Back then both of my parents saw themselves as Dominican and nothing else. That belief or denial about being Black was passed on to me and I continued to carry it with me for some time--longer than what I’d like to admit. It’s true that a significant amount of Afro-Dominicans don’t acknowledge their connection to Africa. It’s almost as if there is this unwritten rule about negating our blackness. Anti-blackness is real in the Latinx community and shows up in a variety of ways from the obvious denial of our skin’s color to the incessant need to straighten and bleach our hair.
I began to wonder why this was. Was it due to the Spanish colonizers’ indoctrination of racist beliefs unto their colonies, including the Dominican Republic? Like in many parts of the world, this programming was so effective that even after hundreds of years of liberation from the colonizers, their racist beliefs continue to exist today. My parents carried this with them no matter where they migrated to and it didn’t matter that I was born in America. I internalized it and denied being Black.
This colonized way of thinking has created a generation of us who face a complex journey of learning who it is we truly are vs. who we’ve been programmed to be. It’s why writing about my identity as an Afro- Latina makes me feel so vulnerable. Especially because for a long time I didn’t embrace my blackness, and to be honest, I didn’t know how to. For most of my life, I had just embraced being Dominican even though I wasn’t even born there. But, living in my skin and being true to me was part of my awakening journey--of being “woke.” Frankly, it was a difficult battle (still is), because it meant facing years of internalized denial and shattering the beliefs I was raised with. It meant accepting that my parents’ views were unconscious and even a bit warped but in the process, I am learning how to face them mindfully. And I am learning how to openly question and challenge them with an open heart. Understanding that they themselves are still learning and discovering their own identity in the process. For me, this cognitive dissonance meant facing generational self-hatred and accepting the truth: I am Black.