Coming Out As Black

05/23/2013 12:17 pm ET | Updated Jul 23, 2013
Elaine Vilorio

I'm Black. After many years in the closet, after many years of breathing that stale air of self-denial, I can finally say this.

Growing up, I dreaded the question "What are you?" I always proudly answered that I was Hispanic. In fact, I made it a point to emphasize my Hispanicity simply because I knew what was coming next. "I'm Hispanic; I speak Spanish; my parents come from Dominican Republic. I'm Hispanic. And, just to clarify, I'm Hispanic." To this, the other person confessed: "Oh... I thought you were Black. You definitely look Black." The problem was I perceived the identification of "Hispanic" outside the realm of Blackness; but then, I wasn't the only one. Take note that the other person in my scenario thought the same thing. Right after my declaration of Hispanicity, he/she stripped away the "Black" label with the phrases "I thought" and "You definitely look."

The conventional definition of "Black" completely leaves out Hispanics, and this is because the latter is ashamed of African ancestry. As a result of this shame, American society has excused Latinos from identifying themselves as Black or African American. I recently read Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s Black in Latin America, and I'm amazed at what I learned. Eleven million Africans survived the Middle Passage and came to the Western Hemisphere. Out of this almost unfathomable number, only 450,000 Africans came to the United States. Gates expresses the significance of these numbers nicely: "The 'real' African American experience...unfolded in places south... of Texas, south of California, in the Caribbean islands and throughout Latin America." [1] Why, then, has the stereotypical Hispanic comprised mostly European and Indigenous features? Where did the Black go? It was buried under unofficial segregation, under whitening campaigns of populations and national histories, under racism.

In a previous post titled "Another Latina Nerd Tells Her Story (With a Twist)," I acknowledged the fact Hispanics are expressive of a spectrum of skin pigments and general physical features. However, I stressed the fact I was Latina. I deliberately avoided saying I was Black. I'm writing in a way that implies the struggle to grasp my Blackness happened exclusively during my childhood; the truth is, the struggle spanned my childhood and lasted up until last year. I felt acknowledging my Blackness would erase my Hispanic heritage. That being written, Dominican culture, the half portion of my bicultural makeup (adjoining that of American culture) is a curious case. For a good amount of time, Dominican Republic was the Western entry point of African slaves; its population is an abundance of Negroid features.

However, instead of racially identifying themselves as "Black," most Dominicans choose the term "Indio," which literally means Indian. The guise of Whiteness is still upheld, but to avoid the foolishness of associating extremely dark skin with Whiteness, pigmented skin under that of the Native American is embraced. The rejection of Blackness was intensified by the country's subjugation under Haiti, a period of brutal military occupation that lasted for 22 years in the 19th century. As Haitians were a very Black people, even more so than Dominicans, the pigment of their skin became further associated with barbarity. All of these factoids are merely simplifications of very complex historical happenings; to avoid a totally thorough history lesson, they are presented to add perspective to my racial realization. That is, my personal issue of racial identification is not just personal; it spans a long history of racially divergent peoples.

I began to seriously contemplate my Blackness when I decided to stop chemically straightening my hair. Then, college application season came around and the Common Application befuddled me. First, it asked if I was Hispanic or Latino. Of course, I answered "yes" to that. But, following this question, it asked me to identify myself more specifically. Was I Native American, Asian, White, Pacific Islander, Black? I was hesitant, unsure. The first time I perused the Common Application, I left that question blank. Gradually, though, I grasped that Black didn't just mean born-and-raised, purely Afro-descended Americans; Africans; and non-Hispanic Afro-Caribbeans.

The scenario I talked about in the beginning of this post still happens today on a regular basis. There is, however, one important modification. While "the other person" continues to separate Blackness and Hispanicity, I now include Blackness under the Hispanic umbrella. A couple of days ago, a classmate of mine, yet another individual fulfilling the role of "the other person," asked me, "What are you?" I responded with the short, sweet, and accurate "I'm Hispanic." She was surprised and answered with the typical "I thought you were Black." I swiftly confirmed I was. At that point, she was confused, and questioned how I could be both. I explained.

In an effort to understand my racial roots, I'm currently engaging in an academic research project that explores the roles and identities of Black Hispanics immediately after slavery and into modern times. Part of this project will involve interviews with current Black Hispanic students, some raised in the United States, some recent immigrants. How have American racial norms affected the former? How have the racial norms of different Latin American countries (with a special focus on my parents' native Dominican Republic) affected the latter? While these pursuits are by no means unique (as Gates fulfilled similar, more extensive, work in his book), I'm eager to share my findings with you all in my next post.

[1] Gates, Henry Louis. Black in Latin America. New York: New York UP, 2011. Print.