Today, I had a conversation with Amilcar Priestly of the Proyecto Afro-Latin@ about Afro-Latino identity and what it meant for me as an educator and writer. As we started talking, I came to a harsh realization about my background: I tried too hard to belong.
I taught myself how to read in Spanish, and probably should have worked harder at writing and speaking Spanish, too. I also found ways to incorporate merengue and bachata into my music playlist, and inquired about every single artist that blasted out of my stepfather’s stereo. I ate all the foods, familiarized myself with the latest “Dominican” terms and even added a few extra steps into my dancing.
While a part of me thought I was just trying to have fun and show my pride for my heritage, perhaps a larger part of me fell into what’s now known as “stereotype threat,” a psychological nervousness where we might confirm a negative attribute about a specific social group. For instance, women might get nervous before a math test because the proctor will say “men tend to do better on this exam than women.” Another example is giving African-Americans a reasoning test and, due to their own conceptions about the test, will do worse even when they know all the material as compared to other groups.
Sometimes, when we try to overcompensate for how some circles perceive our standing in our circle, Afro-Latinos (like me) do a disservice to all that we are and understand about ourselves.
Often, some of our circles only want to identify themselves as “Black” or “Latino.” Other times, they identify with their nationalities like “Colombian,” “Costa Rican,” or “Panamanian.” Any of these labels are fine, I guess. With Afro-Latinos, many of us see ourselves as towing the line between what this country perceives as “Black” or “Latino,” so often we’re either in between or nowhere in this odd spectrum. We get caught up in these Black or Latino dichotomies, where we’re not “something enough,” even though we hang out with that social group 80% of the time.
This seems especially true with Latinos, whose countries often define race a bit differently than this country does. As such, we may phenotypically look like we’re of strictly African descent, until we open our mouths with a Latino accent. Some of us take it a few steps further. We might speak in Spanish to jar unsuspecting haters. We might get up to dance the one Latino song at a wedding just to put people on notice.
Some of it might be exuberance. Some of it might be a rebellion against people’s perceptions. Let’s embrace that.
We can teach future generations to embrace their cultures better by understanding the power of “and.” Not just the “… and?” after someone pisses us off for the umpteenth time after we tell them our cultural background. It’s the “and” that says, “We are all these things.” We can loudly proclaim some connection to the African diaspora and understand our experience here. We can look at the commonalities and familiarities with our families’ experiences all over the Americas.
We can teach our kids, specifically our Latino kids, that their hair is just fine for them. Not bad. Not good.
In the meantime, we need to make ourselves more visible and more knowledgeable. With a little more and.