A few weeks ago, I was absentmindedly scrolling through my Facebook feed when I noticed a meme a relative—we’ll call her Jenni—posted. “Lol,” she wrote, “too good not to share!” The meme was in English and Spanish, and read, “When people tell me I look White [sic] not mexican [sic]” then was followed by a litany (in Spanish) of talking-out-one’s-neck insults to the hypothetical insulter:
“Listen you tacky barefoot indian from the hills, not all Mexicans are the same dark-as-a-tire skin color as you.”
I stared blankly at post as it collected likes, the “tears of laugher” emojis, and “jajaja”’s piling up in the comments. I was shocked. Jenni posted this? My relative, who goes to protests for immigrant rights and anti-gentrification rallies, who knows all of our ita’s traditional recipes, who listens almost exclusively to salsa and cumbias? Does this person who shares my blood feel this way about my brothers, and our cousins who are considerably darker than she? Does my family member feel this way about me?
In posting this meme, my milk-white, freckled pariente Jenni was reproducing colorist attitudes and ideas that were not only accepted in Latinx communities but actively encouraged and enforced. It didn’t matter that we grew up together in San Francisco, one of the more liberal cities on the West Coast (pre-tech boom, of course). Colorism, the discrimination and prejudice of light-skinned People of Color (POC) against darker-skinned POC, has deep roots in Latinx communities and must be confronted.
The Roots of Colorism
During the conquest and colonization of Mexico, and Latin America as a whole, the Spanish adhered to a detailed and complex racial caste system known as the sistema de casta. The sistema de casta greatly informed one’s socioeconomic status in colonial Latin American Society, with the top of the hierarchy being Criollos, who were white (from Spain). From there, the caste levels blossom into a dizzying array of permutations, such as Mestizo, a term still used today to denote the progeny of a white person and one of Indigenous ancestry, and the insidious “salta atras” — which literally translates to “jump backwards” — to denote the progeny a Mulatto (person of Black and Spanish ancestry) and an Indigenous person.
This anti-Black and anti-Indigenous system had the purpose of upholding white supremacy, and continues to do so today. The extreme anti-Black “social cleansing” of Dominicanos of Haitian descent from the Dominican Republic is only one of many examples of the long-lasting effects of sistema de casta and it’s legacy of white supremacy. Ever heard the phrase “pelo chino” used to describe coarse, curly hair? In the caste system, a “chino” is the progeny of a Morisco (the progeny of a mulatto person and a white person), and a white person.
In the United States, colorism in our communities is not only manifested through anti-Black and anti-Indigenous attitudes, but also cooptation of Black and Indigenous movements to the benefit of lighter skinned Latinos. When I think about Jenni’s Facebook post, I can understand her frustration toward the erasure of her cultural background through her ability to “pass”, but I wish she would see how lashing out at darker skinned latinas is only reinforcing white supremacy.
I understand the challenge of overcoming colorism. It. Is. EVERYWHERE in our culture. From the time we are children, we are praised or tutted at simply because of our physical features. He’s light skinned, you’ll have such cute babies, or, your daughter is so pretty, but she’s so dark. I spent many a night in the shower, scrubbing myself furiously with my mother’s skin whitening soap, willing it to make me a little lighter, my eyes a little greener, my hair a little more blonde and straight.
In order to effectively combat colorism in our communities, we must be willing to engage our loved ones, to “call them in” in healthy, constructive ways. Everyday Feminism offers some great tips on speaking to loved ones about anti-Blackness in Latinx communities. Even still, it’s really tough to tackle these issues with people that we care deeply about. I’m jokingly known in my family as the “activist”, the one who always has an impassioned (and often lengthy) opinion on all sorts of sociopolitical issues. That didn’t take away the nervousness I felt in approaching Jenni. Never have I prepared so hard to call a person out OR in before. I wanted to be able to answer any questions she might have, and resolve any issues that might arise from the conversation. I wrote down all my points of conversation, I practiced the Nonviolent Communication format. I felt as ready as I ever could to have a conversation like this, but even still I was shaking at how apprehensive I was to confront her.
I wish I could say that apprehension melted away as soon as we spoke, and that it was a great conversation in which we both learned about ourselves and each other.
The truth is, It went horribly.
Jenni was very hurt by what I had to say, and very unwilling to to see how her attitudes hurt me. All of my preparation washed away with tears after Jenni told me, in no uncertain terms that she never wanted to speak to me again.
As much as it hurts, though, I’m glad I spoke up. The damage in allowing these colorist attitudes to flourish in our communities for the sake of avoiding conflict is so much greater than that of speaking out. I hope that Jenni knows that I love her. I hope she eventually understands that, while I know she’s a good person, reproducing these systems of white supremacy will only lead to the continual oppression of our gente — and that is something that needs to stop.