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Elaine Vilorio

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Coming Out As Black (Part II)

Posted: 07/29/2013 10:52 am

When I first wrote about identifying as Black back in May, I didn't expect the type of reaction I got; I certainly didn't expect to be interviewed by Celeste Headlee for NPR's "Tell Me More" and by Christina Brown for Arise TV's Our Take to discuss racial identity And, when I started researching the relationship of Blackness and Latin American identity for a school project, I didn't expect to end up with more questions than when I began. Ultimately, I realized something that I thought I already knew: race is a hell of a complicated subject matter. We live in a country where our president identifies as Black even though he is of a mixed racial composition. We live in a country where George Zimmerman was confusedly labeled "White Hispanic." We live in a country that doesn't really know how to handle the technicalities of race.

I am primarily interested in the degree to which Blackness is incorporated into Hispanic identity, especially when comparing American Hispanics and non-American Hispanics. Prior to coming to the United States, I had never gotten the question, "What are you?" It happened when I surpassed my local elementary school's ESL program and joined the rest of the English-speaking third graders. In third grade, then, began my official acclimation with race in American culture. People were so eager to categorize! It both astounded and thrilled me. It astounded me because, as stated, I had never had to classify myself by a racial and/or ethnic designation; in Dominican Republic, everyone was just Dominican (even though, for the record, I was born in the United States; I came to live in Dominican Republic as a one-month-old youngling and left in the middle of second grade). Then, it thrilled me because, in this foreign environment, I could claim an identity (and one that pleasantly surprised everyone, at that): being Hispanic. By shutting down everyone's immediate assumption that I was Black (even though I now acknowledge I am) and strictly associating myself with Hispanicity, I felt comfortable. Being Hispanic was all I knew; race never really fit the equation.

For my school project, I interviewed a school administrator, a Mr. Celso King, who is a Black American Hispanic and whose parents, like mine, have roots in Dominican Republic. He spoke about identifying as racially mixed from an early age because his parents encouraged him to never deny who he was. This is what Mr. Celso King said on how Americans perceive Blackness:

When they [Americans] think of Black, they only think of American Black. It's so narrow-minded that they don't understand... and, you know, I'll give an example. If you look at somebody who's Black from Jamaica and Black from the United States, culturally there's a huge difference... but, people, when they think of Black, they think you have to have the Black American culture, and that's not the case. There are different types of Black culture.

Mr. King hits on the American confusion between ethnicity and race. To clarify, Dictionary.com defines ethnicity as a culture shared by "a human group having racial, religious, linguistic, and certain other traits in common." Take note that race is part of ethnicity; they are not the same things. The same source defines race as "a group of people of common ancestry, distinguished from others by physical characteristics, such as hair type, color of eyes and skin, stature, etc." I'm no anthropologist, nor am I claiming the credibility of one, but, despite the many definitions I found on ethnicity and race, I believe them to be two separate, but indisputably linked, concepts. In the United States, Blackness isn't often factored into Hispanicity because doing so would be associating oneself with American Black culture. To be Black is to be American Black. Or else, to be Black, you have to come from Africa or from a non-Hispanic predominantly Black country. It is for this reason that I was so hesitant to claim racial Blackness as I was growing up; unlike Mr. King, my parents didn't really talk about race; I thought identifying as Black would associate me with American Blackness thereby demolishing my Hispanic, and more specifically, my Dominican, culture. My race is Black; considering the complex racial history of Dominican Republic, I could also check some other boxes. However, I choose Blackness because it fits my phenotype. My ethnicity is dually American and Dominican. It's so simple, and yet, it isn't.

In addition to Mr. King, I interviewed three students, all 15-years-old, who have only been living in the United States for one year. These kids are Dominican-born; two of them are visibly racially mixed, while the third is predominantly Black. When I asked them the question, "How would you describe your respective races?" they all responded by saying they were Dominican. "Dominican" is a nationality and an ethnic identity. I had to ask the question again, but in a different way: "How would you classify your skin color?" I started them off by suggesting a racial designation commonly used by many Dominicans: "Indio." They finished with the terms "Mulatto/a" and "Moreno/a." I asked them if they considered "Negro" (which literally means Black) a negative term. In Black in Latin American, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. found that, according to a recent federal census, about 82 percent of Dominicans identify as "Indio;" this literally means "Indian" [1]. Most Dominicans are obviously Black; you can take it from me as a primary source. So, naturally, I wondered how these kids would react to "Negro." They responded positively; one of the racially mixed kids, Scarlet, said, "Some people think it's negative, but it isn't. I have family who I identify as Black." The more predominantly Black student, Cristal, added on to that, sharing, "I have White family members; I identify myself as one of the blackest in my family." I asked them to compare the role of race in the U.S. with that in Dominican Republic. Cristal said, "I think there's more racism here." Luis said something that I acknowledged upon first coming to the U.S., "Alla, todos somos iguales... somos Dominicanos" ("Over there, we're all the same... we're all Dominican"). In Dominican Republic, and in most Latin American countries, nationality trumps racial identification. Here, it's the opposite; being American isn't enough. The U.S. is composed of so many different ethnicities and races that we feel the need to classify to the nth degree. At what point does that become good, bad, both?

I'm not claiming anything I say is inarguable. I'm learning, and as I learn, I'm making observations and possible conclusions. Is it accurate for me to identify as Black even though I'm sure I have Indigenous and White roots? Is it right to check multiple boxes for the census? Should the box or boxes you check be determined by your appearance or by the appearance of yourself and your family members? These questions go back to our president. Should he be Black or should he be Black and White? Is race subjective? Is race how you view yourself or how others view you or both? Whether it's relevant to the legal situation at hand or not, what is George Zimmerman's race? I was asked some of these questions by my peers as I presented my research project. I was asked some of these questions on NPR and Arise TV. They excite me, and I have no idea how to correctly answer them. I am only sure about two things. First, if anything else, it was right of me to identify my Blackness. Second, a serious discussion about racial classification is needed; it pervades our lives in the forms of job acquirement, college admissions, and just overall interactions with each other. My exploration of race is just beginning, and I'm eager to continue.

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

 
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