50 Shades of Black and Brown: Race vs. Ethnicity

“You’re Latina? I thought you were Black!” 

Race: each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics.

Ethnicity: the fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition.

The first time I ever saw an Afro-Latina on television was way back in 2001. I was sitting in my grandmother’s living room watching the premiere of Celia Cruz’s La Negra Tiene Tumbao music video (the edited version, of course). Celia would pop up on screen with her colorful outfits and energetic gestures. And a dark skinned, modelesque woman (who I now know as Guatemalan model, Deborah David) walked down the street, turning heads and loving life. I don’t know why it resonated with me so much, but I think it was because Celia Cruz reminded me a lot of my own grandmother.

Granted, when I was seven, I didn’t know that I was Latina. Despite being surrounded by Latino culture my entire life, I didn’t see it that way. I merely viewed my grandmother’s cooking as just food, her salsa and bachata as just music, her accent as just an accent. I knew that I was black…and that was as far as my own awareness of identity went. I didn’t know that I was Latina until middle school, and this new found information made forming my own identity even more difficult than it was before.

As stated in my previous post, The Oreo Experience, I had trouble fitting in with other black students because they considered me to be “too white” to hang out with them. When I learned that I was Latina, I wanted to find other Latinas to hang out with and get to know. But I realized then and there that there was a large division between those who weren’t Afro-Latino and those who were. Even though I considered myself a kind person, I always felt that the other Latinas that I knew didn’t really want to get to know me. In retrospect, I understand it (to an extent). When we enter a new environment, we tend to cling to people we are most familiar with. Colombian and Mexican students hung out with other Colombian and Mexican students, West Indian students latched onto other West Indian Students…it’s natural.

But I felt stuck.

I couldn’t fit in with black kids or Latino kids. So I just decided to float around until I latched onto something substantial.

I realize, as an adult, that I don’t have an obligation to fit into any specific box. But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel that sting of confusion sometimes. Because I don’t speak Spanish, nor do I have a strong connection to my Latin American family, I feel like it’s a farce. I feel like I’m not actually Latina, because I don’t identify with that culture as much as I could. Even though there are various things in my life that are still important parts of Latino culture, I still feel distant. At the same time, I feel that I can’t only identify with Black American culture because there are some aspects of it that I’ve never truly experienced. My family mixes Latino and Black American culture together, which isn’t all that strange because Black American culture and Latin American culture have so many similarities due to their shared roots. But they’re still viewed as completely different entities independent of one another.

Whenever I have to take a survey or fill out a profile, and I can only pick one option for Race/Ethnicity, it’s frustrating. While I do identify as a Black woman, I feel like choosing African American/Black American means distancing myself from my ethnic background. If I choose Hispanic/Latino, I feel like I’m distancing myself from my race–I’m also not Hispanic, so that’d also be untrue. And if I choose Mixed/Other, that also feels like a farce because I’m mono-racial.

So many people don’t realize that Latinas can be black. If you’ve ever seen a telenovela filmed in Mexico or Colombia, all Latinas look like Sophia Vegara and Jennifer Lopez. They all have long, straightened hair and light skin, with straight noses and/or light eyes.

I shouldn’t feel like an illegitimate Latina just because I don’t fit the stereotypical or accepted ideal for Latin American identity.

I am proud of my family and where we come from, and I’m glad that I get to experience the best of both Black and Latino culture. But shouldn’t have to prove that I’m Latina, simply because my skin is dark brown and I don’t speak Spanish. Nor should I ever have to feel like I have to choose between my race and ethnicity. Things would just be easier if people understood that race and ethnicity are not synonymous, and that Latinos can be White AS WELL AS Black.

So if I wanna check off two boxes the next time I take a survey, I’ll do just that.

35 thoughts on “50 Shades of Black and Brown: Race vs. Ethnicity

  1. Antoinette says:

    I am surprised that you were surprised at the reaction from other Latinos. As your mother, I shared with you my experiences having a Black Cuban mother, and a father who, while Guyanese and Black spent so much time in Puerto Rico that he spoke fluent Spanish. My whole being is wrapped in Latino culture, from food, traditions, beliefs and customs. Yet, I have always identified racially with Black America even though, to this day, I am Latina through and through. Latino people tend to categorize people based on how they look, and have a had time with the Africans that are part of the group. When I met your father, he was not very accepting of his own culture. But when I met Grandma, I felt a cultural connection to her that keeps us close to this day. The world is a complicated place. I remain surprised at this dilemma, because it is now three generations old. Sometimes, I don’t check any boxes at all because I see more of a Venn Diagram then an actual box. And I guess you would go in the middle, along with both sides of your family.

  2. Kecia Hawkins says:

    I can relate to everything you expressed. Sometimes I check 1 box and other times I check two. The most important thing is WE KNOW WHO WE ARE.

  3. theunsualbeauty says:

    I’m learning Spanish I talk online to a lot of Afro Latinos. I know a lot people think Telemundo depicts Latinos but it does not. Hay mucho Afro- Latinos. Colombia, D.R., Venezuela, Panama, Honduras, Puerto Rico and much more.

  4. ash01010 says:

    I love this blog post but sorry for the experiences you had to go through with race/ethnic conflict. Do you feel as though Afro-Latinas are purposely hidden from the images coming out of Latin American society through their media etc? And are racial divisions bad within these countries between Afro-Latinas and other types of Latinas, take for example in Colombia? I’m black, Caribbean descend from the UK currently in Colombia so it’s very interesting to here an actual Latinas perspective on this. Thanks for this post

    • EtherealNoir says:

      Hiya! I wish I could personally say how racial divisions effect people in Latin America, but I only know things based on what I read from other Afro-Latinas, the news, and what I hear from my Grandmother. All I know for sure is that there is definitely conflict between White Latinos and Black Latinos. There always has been, and I suppose you can blame it on Western Influence. Black Latinos are less visible in the media, and I do feel like it’s purposeful. I feel like LA media does this so that it can fit in with Eurocentric/Americanized definitions of beauty. I’ve read some articles where even people IN L.A. don’t know that Afro-Latinos exist. That’s how invisible they are in the media.

      • ash01010 says:

        Thank you for your reply! It’s very insightful you saying this because my experience as an outsider in Colombia has so far proven these things true. I can definitely see the purposeful isolation of Afro-Latinas within the media and wider society.

  5. Marquessa says:

    Truly enjoyed your post! I will coming back to read through your other posts. I stumbled across your post via Smiley Like I Mean It but I don’t think that it was by accident. Right off the bat, four things resonated with me from this single post: 1. I have a draft post I am working on entitled “Fifty Shades of Red” (about different situations of anger or embarassment) – great minds think alike? 🙂 2. I recognized the graphic you used from the Celia Cruz video – I almost used “Mi Tumbao” as my blog title but figured that people would not know what it meant; 3. I know about “not fitting in” as I was always the only Black person throughout my elementary school days and one of very few during high school; 4. Being the child of Guyanese parents, posts with the term “West Indian” always catches my attention. Hope to see more of your work!

  6. yongewriter says:

    It seems as if individuals of darker skin tone, regardless of actual race and ethnicity, are looked down upon. I’m not talking about tanned White or Hispanic people, I am referring to East Indians, Blacks, and others with dark skin tones. You could say I’m a light skinned black man, but my history is much more complex than that. Anyway, my point is that there seems to be a negative perception of dark skinned people regardless of the race and ethnicity they’re categorised into. It seems to be an issue of human nature, as darker individuals are considered less appealing to the masses who cannot physically relate to them.

  7. Hodgepodge 4 the Soul™ says:

    Being multi-racial, I completely get where you’re coming from. I’m a Latina from my dad’s side, and Native American and German on my mother’s side. However I’m very fair-skinned. It’s rare that I run into people who could care less what I look like, or care what my racial background is. And I think being multi-racial makes us very interesting people. Thank you for being so honest with your writing. I’m a new fan. 🙂

  8. Citizen of the World says:

    Although I enjoy reading your posts, this particular one made my hair curl (and it is already naturally curly!). Right from the very beginning of this post my teeth clenched. I am sorry but the definition you have shared is incorrect and very misleading. There is no such thing as race.

    Race and its ideology about human differences arose out of the context of African slavery, although many people throughout history have been enslaved without the imposition of racial ideology. Race was institutionalized (beginning of the 18th century) as a worldview, a set of culturally created attitudes and beliefs about human group differences. In other words, “race” was a recent invention and essentially a folk idea, not a product of scientific research and discovery. “Today the vast majority of those involved in research on human variation would agree that biological races do not exist among humans. Among those who study the subject, who use and accept modern scientific techniques and logic, this scientific fact is as valid and true as the fact that the earth is round and revolves around the sun.”

    Now if you don’t believe in science, but rather have a spiritual foundation you rely on, then I can also argument that scripture states that “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…” Hence, God did not create different versions (races) of human being species.

    “What is so striking about the American experience in creating such an extreme conception of human differences was the role played by scientists and scholars in legitimizing the folk ideas. Scholarly writers began attempting to prove scientifically that “the Negro” was a different and lower kind of human being. The first published materials arguing from a scientific perspective that “negroes” were a separate species from white men appeared in the last decade of the eighteenth century. They argued that Negroes were either a product of degeneration from that first creation, or descendants of a separate creation altogether.” In fact, the United States is the only country in the world that requires for individuals to classify themselves under “race” and “ethnicity” on surveys. That is how ingrained it is the minds of the population, and in the American culture.

    I don’t think I need to continue citing and referencing sources. I think I have put my point across. There is only one race, and that is the human race. Yes, there are a vast number of ethnicities, cultures, subcultures, groups, etc. but they all belong under the same category – they all fall under the same big umbrella.

    Racism is the belief that one race is superior or inferior to another. That term “made sense” when those brainwashed American scholars decided to make everyone else believe that Blacks belonged to a different race, consequentially being inferior to the human race. Nowadays, most human beings are racist because most human beings believe that the human race is above any other race on the phase of the earth! If you believe that you are superior to other animals, you are racist – based on semantics. If you do not like cats, even though you have never seen a cat, you are having prejudice. If you feel an intense or irrational dislike or fear for people from other countries, you are xenophobic. If you simply hate other people because of whatever irrational reasons you have constructed in your mind, well… then you are something that I cannot describe in words, and if I could it would not be very appropriate…

    • EtherealNoir says:

      I know that race is a social construct. The point of the post wasn’t to go into the history of what race is. It was to go into what the modern idea of race is and how it differs from ethnicity. It doesn’t matter if race is a social construct. It doesn’t matter if I know that or if you know that. People will still continue to reference others and themselves by race. Because even though we’re all human, we’re all vastly different. There’s nothing wrong with finding people who are similar to yourself and identifying with them by a specific name.
      And regardless of all of this…what does this have to do with the post at all? I was talking about how people don’t seem to understand that Latinx people don’t all look one way. I said nothing about the history of race or colonization or anything of the sort.
      And I honestly can’t believe you you said most humans are racist because they believe they’re superior to animals. Tell that to people who say nothing about dead black people but will try to have someone hanged for animal abuse. Not to say that animal abuse isn’t bad…but you sound ignorant as hell.
      Also…black and white aren’t the only races that exist. There’s various races. Human is a species, not a race. So nothing you say makes sense.
      Animals aren’t a race. There are various species of animal. One of them being human. Various races for the human species.

      • Citizen of the World says:

        You misinterpreted what I was referencing when I stated that “semantically” racism means that one race is superior to another race; thus, “semantically” if humans believe that they are superior to any other race, that would make them racists based on the strict meaning of the word. No, I clearly do feel the same way as you about people who are concerned about animal abuse but disregard human abuse in any form or shape. You stay corrected. In regards to your post, I was referring and speaking on something that you incorporated in your post. Hence, it is relevant whether you like it or not – that is fine. Just because people will continue to do or say something wrong doesn’t mean that I have to follow like sheep. We are all different and yet similar, and I am passionate about all of it. There is nothing wrong with finding people you identify with and finding a specific name to classify it, if you please. I personally do not want to use a term that is founded in evil, and has a meaning that is rooted in something that goes against my personal morals and values. And by the way, I did not insult you and I would appreciate the same courtesy.

      • EtherealNoir says:

        I apologize for being rude. I really do. But you have to understand that from this point of view it felt like you were illigitimizing my identity. That may not have been what you intended, but that’s how you came off. I know that Race is a social construct. That’s fine and interesting to know. But I can know this and still identify as the race I do. Which is black.
        I cant get away with ignoring that, or brushing it off as something pushed on me when it such an important part of who I am. This especially goes when you’re constantly surrounded by people who do nothing BUT acknowledge it and use it as a reason to hate me. While it’d be nice to say “I’m not X race! I’m human!” Life doesn’t work that way. Yes, I am human. I am of the human species. I am also black.

      • Citizen of the World says:

        I appreciate it. Thank you. I do understand you point of you, and I also understand that things can get easily misinterpreted over written communication. We don’t know each other, and we don’t see each other’s body language, voice tone, etc. That si why I continued replying, in an effort to meet you somewhere eventually. I am glad it has happened. I am sorry for the way that people have made you feel. I applaud your strong spirit! See, we have spent all this time exchanging these messages, but you do not know what my background is, where I am from, what i identify with, or my story. Do not think for a second that I do not know how it feels to be on the side you are standing in, because I do. I have just chosen a different path, the same way you have chosen your own. I do not care about what other people think they know about me, when I know that they know nothing. You know what I mean? People criticize others on what they ‘think’ they know about them, instead of investing that precious time in getting to know each other. I cannot change the world, but I am doing an effort to change my immediate world that surrounds me. I start by those close to me, and start reaching out slowly. Those that know me have stopped using the word “race”, and many people I have come in touch with, whether it is at work, or academia have removed it from their vocabulary too. Professors that have taught for 30+ years and have used the word “race” inappropriately have changed it and are teaching it differently now… Sparking change is not impossible.

      • Citizen of the World says:

        Ok, I see that you have been adding stuff after the fact of posting it. How do you do that? I am new to WordPress and I am still learning all the tricks. 😀
        In regards to the last paragraph you added, I guess that sometimes I talk as if people are in my head and are able to read between the lines and know what I am thinking. Animals are not races, and I didn’t mean to say otherwise. What I meant to say earlier, which I think you understood now based on your other responses that follow, is that human beings who believe they are superior over other animals (implies that human beings are also animals, as I said “other”) – and I was using the term ‘animals’ as a general term, so that i didn’t have to get into saying a cat! a dog! a frog! – are racists, based on the semantical meaning of the word. That does not mean that I believe that humans are racists towards animals. 😀
        And we clearly disagree on the entire human race ideology. You believe in races, I don’t. Aaand this is getting repetitive!

  9. Citizen of the World says:

    Oh! And your story made me think of all the South African individuals that are not Black or do not look Black phenotypically, and they have to hear it every single time: “Oh, so you are from Africa? But you are White! That is not possible, all Africans are Black!” The main problem here is ignorance. And I am not referring to the illiterate type of ignorance here. Human beings are beautiful in their complexity, and yet those pulling the strings in positions of power try to confine us in boxes and define us, even though some concepts are just undefinable and unmeasurable.

    • EtherealNoir says:

      You do realize that most white people in Africa probably are there because of imperialism, right? Most white people didn’t just pop up in Africa and stay there for thousands of years.

      And I’m confused because on your blog you say that you think colorblindness is bullshit. But then you say that there’s no such thing as race and that we’re all human.
      So what you’re saying is that you’re not colorblind, you’re just colorblind?

      • Citizen of the World says:

        The same way most black people in South America probably are there as a result of slavery. Most black people didn’t just pop up in South America and stay there… And that is relevant to what I shared, because…? In a previous comment you were wondering how it was related to your post, and now that my comment is directly referencing what you have shared in your post about Black Latinas, you take a dump on it? Interesting. I do not understand the bite in your responses, and the defensive energy you are transmitting through your words.

      • EtherealNoir says:

        You can’t compare slavery and imperialism. People CHOOSE to colonize another country. No one chooses to be enslaved. And when people identify as African, it has all to do with Nationality, not Race or Ethnicity. I don’t know many white people from South Africa that identify themselves as any of the many African Ethnicities.
        And I’m not being defensive. I just don’t understand why you’re making false equivalences. Me identifying as Afro-Latina stems from my family being born and/or raised in cultures that already exist in Latin America. Not only this, but their traditions as well.
        Moving to another country doesn’t automatically make you part of a specific group. Especially if you move to another country and make a point NOT to embrace their culture and practice the traditions.
        As I said, most white people moved to SA because of imperialism. For money. Not because they felt like they had to or because they were forced there and had to latch onto something for survival.
        Now I get what you’re talking about when people say all Africans are black. That’s not true, and you’re right about that. But you’re mixing Ethnicity and Nationality when they aren’t the same.

      • Citizen of the World says:

        Did you read the blog in its entirety?! Safe to say you have not.
        I am not colorblind because I absolutely appreciate all the different colors and shades. I am passionate about anthropology, ethnicities, cultures, and human relationships in general. I think that colorblindness is bullshit based on political correctness, because it undermines and disregards human identity. If you consider yourself to be Black-Latina, then that is part of your identity – you have made it part of your self. Why should I be blind about that?
        And yes, there is only one human race. Different characteristics and traits have nothing to do with racial distinction. There is no biological race distinction. Whether you are pink, blue, green, or blue, you belong to the same race. You are as human as anybody else. In conclusion, I am not colorblind, I appreciate people for who they are, different human races do not exist, and life is beautiful!
        Based on all the responses you have had thus far, you have been highly defensive – or highly attacking. Why? I have no idea. Don’t let your high emotional state get the best of you.

      • EtherealNoir says:

        Can you stop being condescending? I don’t like it. Me being frustrated doesn’t make my argument any less correct.
        Second, you keep using the word “race” when it’s clear you mean “species”. Human is a species. Yes, we all have biological similarities. But we also all have biological differences which is why there are different races. Most black people have really thick hair, but have less body hair. A lot of white people tend to have thinner hair, but more of it. Many East Asian people tend to have smaller physiques. Black people have denser bone structures than white people. White people tend to have specific ailments more than other races do.
        Yes. We all have eyes and noses and teeth and hair and fingers and skin.
        At the bare minimum, we are all human. This is a fact. But there are plenty of biological differences that exist, whether you want to admit it or not. No one will stand me next to someone from the northernmost part of Norway and say “Wow…I can’t spot any differences between you. That human-ness is so strong.”

  10. Citizen of the World says:

    I understand what you are saying, but you need to understand that despite the reason why they are at that specific continent, it is their reality. If you were born and raised in a country, and that is all you identify with, than that becomes your reality. Hence, it is not a false equivalence, it is just a matter of perspective. You identifying as Afro-Latina, stemming from your family being born and/or raised in cultures that already existed in Latin America before you were born, is not different from those identifying as African because their family was also born and/or raised in cultures that already existed in Africa before they were born. And yes, that includes the traditions as well.
    And let me tell you that I personally know several “white” people born and raised in South Africa that identify themselves as any of the many African ethnicities. If you want to chat with them, let me know and I will be glad to introduce you to them! 🙂 A few of them are actually living stateside.

  11. Citizen of the World says:

    The same way people don’t understand that Black-Latinos exist, a lot of people don’t understand that not all Africans are Black. No, I am not talking about ethnicity or nationality! I am not talking about imperialism or slavery. I am just responding to your comments that have gone somewhere else! 😀
    As I mentioned earlier, it is all a matter of perspective. You mentioned in your blog that people seem to be surprised that Black-Latinos actually exist, right? And how that makes you feel… because it is your identity, and you shouldn’t even feel like you need to prove anything to anyone in the first place. You shouldn’t! Well, the same thing happens to other people too… and I gave the example of the White Africans that I know that have expressed exactly the same thing you have expressed in your blog, but their version of the story based on their personal experiences. That is all!

  12. Citizen of the World says:

    I am not being condescending. It is interesting how everything I say makes you tick and rubs you the wrong way. Not my intention, and I apologize if it came off that way. I think that you should probably also watch you tone, because you have been attacking when I was not attacking you, and at some point you have been insulting when I have been respectful towards you at all times.
    If you go to my very first comment – the long one, in which I cited a few scholarly sources – you will be able to see that in fact there is a Human Race, which falls under the bigger category of mammals, etc. Species is one of the basic units of biological classification and a taxonomic rank. For example, a German Shepherd is one race, and a Schnauzer is another race but they belong to the same species.
    See, this is where we disagree – and you know what? It is absolutely okay if we do. – I do not believe in races, which I shared with you before that it is an invented ideology to create division for the gain of power (a whole other topic I am not trying to get into). There is only one race. I do believe in differences, and I do not categorize those differences as distinctions that fall under “race”, but you clearly do. You don’t even have to go that far to Norway (although it has a very high Black population, you’d be surprised!). If we stood next to each other, we would instantly spot physical differences. Of course! You are unique, I am unique. You consider us to be of different races, I don’t. All the different traits and characteristics you have mentioned before are adaptations to environmental changes that human beings have made throughout evolution and natural selection. But again, that is my personal opinion and I respect and understand yours, although I do not share it.

    • EtherealNoir says:

      Okay, then we agree to disagree. But I don’t get why you would call me wrong when our definitions of race are different. Some people don’t define race the same way you do. That doesn’t make them wrong. And when you come right out of the gate telling me I’m wrong for using Race in a way that most people use it, obviously I’m going to be confused and frustrated. I’m not attacking you. I didn’t call you stupid, or attack your character. If you take disagreement with a frustrated tone as an “attack,” I don’t know what to tell you.

      • Citizen of the World says:

        You are right. The approach wasn’t the most appropriate. Check to myself! Well, you did call me ignorant earlier in the conversation and then you started having a few comments that had bite in them… that is when I noticed that you were feeling attacked and being defensive, or whatever it was. It is clear now, my approach was not the most welcoming and you reacted to it and it dragged out for a bit until things calmed itself down. Human nature. Disagreement is fine with me as long as it is expressed in a respectful manner. And just one last thing, so that you can understand my side better – since we don’t know each other – I believe that word is power. This is why I think that outlets like this one, where you can reach out to other people and influence them somehow, puts us in a position that requires responsibility. In other words, what you write on your blog will influence readers – in which ever way that is – and that is why I felt the way I felt when I read the definition you posted on your blog. I thought, oh Lord, scientists all over the world and anthropologists have proven this and that, and are trying hard to bring people together instead of continuing this division that foments hatred and prejudice… and here is this obsolete definition of an issue that touches my heart. So I apologize for forcing a definition on you. I got caught up in the passion of the moment. 😉

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