Coloring Outside the Lines: How Internal Racism Divided Me From Myself

Posted: 03/09/2016 05:45 pm ET | Updated Mar 15, 2016

My name is DiDi Delgado, but you can call me DiDi. I was born to Carmen Patricía, who was born to Maria Theresa, who migrated to the United States from Mexico. My maternal lineage may sound like the cast of West Side Story, but let me make one thing clear: I’m Black. Yup, Black. Regular Black, blackity Black, and all the Blacks in between.

Maybe it’ll read differently than how I say it in person. I like to really drive this point home in the hopes it will prevent follow up questions, like: “What are you?”

“Black.”

“Yeah, but what are you mixed with?”

The fact that my father spoke Spanish certainly didn’t help matters, but I still feel compelled to acknowledge that I’m definitely part of the African Diaspora. Sure, I was born here in America, but mi herencia (my heritage) began long before the Civil Rights movement; before the Mexican Revolution; before Christopher Columbus told the Spaniards he had discovered America; and certainly before the first slave ships steered towards the African coast.

It’s difficult for me to admit that I didn’t always feel, think, or operate out of prideful Blackness. As a child, I was rewarded for being the pretty, “good-haired” light-skinned, “she’s so well spoken” girl. You know; all the internal subliminal images we as people of color push on our kids and each other, because we’ve been taught that in order to be considered civilized, intelligent, and remarkable, we’ve got to keep our heads down and emulate our white counterparts. All while working “twice as hard for half as much,” just to be accepted in American society.

As a child I never thought about shedding my cloak of superiority because, simply put, I enjoyed it. It felt good to receive compliments. It wasn’t until I learned that I was also “mixed” with Cape Verdean blood that I began to identify situations where this type of thinking might be harmful. Cape Verde (CV) is an island country located alongside Western Africa that was colonized by the Portuguese. They speak Cape Verdean Creole or Kriolu, which is an Afro-Portuguese language. By not-so-sheer coincidence, my high school’s population was predominantly Cape Verdean. A lot of the girls had separated themselves into cliques: Black vs. Spanish speaking vs. CV. The rivalry between the three groups would often escalate to the point of physical violence. Once, our gym teacher, Ms. Peretti, cancelled class after a fight broke out between two girls over who spoke better English. Ms. Peretti screamed out to us, “You’re all BLACK!” Most of us, now sitting cross-legged on the shiny hardwood floors, immediately rejected the notion. But the seed was planted.

When I was 19, I shared with my counselor (a black woman with dreads) some of my experiences receiving preferential treatment in predominately white work spaces compared to my darker-skinned peers. I recalled going for a job interview and having a darker-skinned applicant mention completing her bachelor’s degree, while I was still enrolling in community college. I got the job and she didn’t. My counselor asked me if I felt that I’d received the job because of how I looked. I said “yes,” because I had learned through experience that my appearance was a major advantage. I wasn’t acknowledging my privilege, so much as basking in it. I believe she picked up on this, as she subsequently requested I be transferred to another counselor. In hindsight, I believe I missed out on a teachable moment—that getting a conditional seat at the table doesn’t automatically mean that my hosts think I deserved to be served the same food.

I didn’t connect those dots until four years later. While working at a predominantly Portuguese-speaking accounting firm, I announced that I had been learning Kriolu, and improving my Spanish. The staff looked around and shifted uncomfortably. The owner’s wife pulled me aside and assured me I should take up Portuguese if I wanted to learn my “real history,” because speaking Kriolu was the same as speaking “slang.” For the first time, I recognized that my history was being replaced with their history. That I would be more civilized, more intelligent, and more acceptable, if I become more like them, and less like me. Pan-African historian, John Henrik Clarke once said: “To control a people you must first control what they think about themselves and how they regard their history and culture. And when your conqueror makes you ashamed of your culture and your history, he needs no prison walls and no chains to hold you.” I slowly began to realize that my mind hand been colonized, and my privilege came at a cost.

It’s been 15 years since the incident with Ms. Peretti, and 10 years since I was able to acknowledged that colorism played a huge role in my internal anti-Blackness, and anti-Blackness within our communities. Every day I’m growing and I look at things through a different lens. I no longer share articles or memes depicting “#TeamLightSkinned”, “#TeamDarkSkinned”, “BlackGirlsDoItBetter” or “#LatinasAreTheBest. It’s all separatist, and designed to keep us fighting internally. I see this not only with Blacks in the United States, but globally among the diaspora.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I believe it’s time to change the dirty linen on the equality table. It may cause some discomfort, but I’m focusing more on loving my Blackness. I hope all of my former classmates have internalized the reality that we are all Black—even if it took longer for us to recognize than we care to admit.

I’m a woman, I am a survivor, yo soy Afro-Latina, and I am beautiful; not because of how well I may or may not blend in to society, but because of who I am. I am undoubtedly more than the sum of my parts, but above all else, I am unapologetically Black.

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