The history of the United States has often been plagued by abhorrent racism, founded in the importation of slaves and perpetually upheld by countless acts of violence, loaded remarks and disabling court determinations. On the other hand, Latin America and the Caribbean have received a cheery disposition as a welcoming nation of mixed ancestries, often cited for its blend of European and indigenous backgrounds. However, for those who have not had the opportunity to further delve into Latin American or Africana studies, it may come as a shock that of the estimated 11.2 million Africans brought to the New World between 1502 and 1866, only 450,000 of them were taken to the United States, with the rest being imported throughout Latin America (NPR 2011).
This boasting of intermingling between people of all colors has, in addition to successfully concealing the African roots of many Latinos, created the concept of a nondiscriminatory culture in Latin America. How, many Latinos have argued, could we be racist if everybody is mestizaje?
It is a compelling argument that falls flat upon reviewing relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Although Haiti is often excluded from conversations dealing with Latin America, it is important to reflect on its similar beginnings as a slave destination as part of what was considered Hispaniola. Despite sharing a comparable narrative in early years, Haiti has seemingly embraced its African ties while the Dominican Republic has, as many scholars have criticized, denied its African past, created a myth of indio identity and invoked anti-Haitian sentiment.
Dominicans have utilized the phrase “indio” (a term that began circulating during the Trujillo regime in an attempt to alienate Haitians and whiten the country) when referring to dark-skinned citizens, reserving the idea of ‘blackness’ for the Western side of the island (Heredia 2017).
Elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean, the word negro is alternatively used in an endearing sense when talking to somebody with a darker complexion. At first glance, the practice seems to support the theory of tolerance. However, across the region it is also acknowledged that negro quickly becomes a word meant to belittle its recipient depending on the context it is used in.
The antagonism associated with negritude in Latin America is anything but a recent phenomena, and it has much to do with governmental policies designed to whiten society. In nearly every country in the region except for Haiti, mass immigration from Europe and the Middle East was instituted in order to lighten the population. In one case, Brazil alone received 5,435,735 such immigrants in a mass effort to “blend or bury African roots” (Akoukou Thompson 2014).
Thus the intricate process of simultaneous self-identification and self-abnegation commenced in Latin America. Mexico currently recognizes 16 variations of blackness, Haiti 98 and Brazil an astonishing 136 known variations. Such indicators are verbalized with identifiers such as caboclo or moreno (Akoukou Thompson 2014).
Such a system seems unfathomable in the United States, where the “one drop rule” has reigned throughout the country’s history. Despite being home to persons of infinitely varying backgrounds, the U.S. has funneled residents into two categories: white or black.
To many, this freedom of interpretation of identity offers a welcome alternative to the strict categorization in the U.S. However, many activists in Latin America have argued that without acknowledging such categories and identifying African roots, it is impossible to uphold racial equality. Opposition counters that any inequality can be attributed to social class, regardless of skin color.
However, in a study published in Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) titled “Pigmentocracy in the Americas: How is Educational Attainment Related to Skin Color?” researchers were able to test whether racial inequalities exist independently of social class. In the study, interviewers secretly matched respondent’s skin color to a hidden palette, rating it according to a scale of 1 (being the lightest) to 11 (for darker skin tones) while asking about respondents’ number of years of schooling. The results found that inequality in educational attainment was correlated with racial differences, independent of class origins. Although researchers admitted the importance of class origins, they also suggested that these are likewise related to skin color (Telles, Steele 2012).
The refusal to recognize racist behavior in Latin America was also made clear in another survey of teacher behavior in Brazil. It was discovered that many teachers did not confront racist behavior in schools due to their blindness to the situation, a lack of reporting, or a common practice of minimizing such behavior as insignificant. Tanya Katerí Hernández, a lawyer who practices in Brazil and Colombia, noted that this kind of “informal racism” is equally apparent amongst police officers and city housing officials, who have the ability to enforce racial segregation (Wade 2017).
The development of various self-identifiers has also created some less obvious social problems present within families. Families have been identified as sources of race-making in Brazil, with darker-skinned children often experiencing rejection by their parents and in alternative cases light-skinned children being the subject of abuse or finding themselves shipped off to whiter adoptive families (Wade 2017).
In the face of discrimination within families or on a wider societal scale, it seems as if the extensive range of identifiers and varying perceptions of negritude have, more than anything, divided the estimated 130 million people of African descent (totaling about a quarter of the population) in Latin America and kept this group from mobilizing for racial justice (López, Gonzalez-Barrera 2016). Although many Latinos have argued that this is unnecessary, many Afro-Americans indicate that movements for affirmative action in the United States provided the opportunity for advancement that, otherwise, would be exceedingly difficult to obtain.
It is possible that within a few years more Latin American countries join the movement to celebrate and admit negritude, rather than hide it under various aliases. More countries have reinstituted censi. For the first time in history, Mexico gave its people the option to identify as black or Afro-Mexican in its mid-decade survey in 2015, receiving about 1.4 million positive responses (López, Gonzalez-Barrera 2016).
Afro-Latinos have voiced their pride in being multicultural, and within Latin America many are gaining a voice to celebrate every facet of their history. Unfortunately, upon crossing the border into the United States, many have been shocked by the new challenge of expressing these various pieces of their identity, as many immediately lose their heritage to be sorted into the “neat” categories of white, black, or Latino.
In the past, the Census Bureau has not given respondents the option of identifying as Afro-Latino. As a result, as of 2014 less than three percent of all Latinos identified themselves as racially black (Akoukou Thompson 2014). A landmark Pew Research Center survey from 2016 - the first nationally representative survey in the U.S. to ask Latinos if they considered themselves Afro-Latino - showed, though, that given the option, about one-quarter of U.S. Latinos identified as Afro-Latino, Afro-Caribbean or of African descent (López, Gonzalez-Barrera 2016).
Of these respondents, it was found that a majority of self-identified Afro-Latinos had Caribbean roots. They were also more likely to be foreign born than other Latinos, less likely to have some college education, and more likely to come from families with lower incomes. And although many respondents self-identified as Afro-Latino, they had varying perceptions of race; only 18 percent of Afro-Latinos identified one of their races as black, while 39 percent identified as being white. Twenty-four percent identified as Hispanic (López, Gonzalez-Barrera 2016).
NPR. 2011. “What It Means To Be ‘Black In Latin America’.” 27 July. NPR Books. Available to read here: https://www.npr.org/2011/07/27/138601410/what-it-means-to-be-black-in-latin-america [Accessed 7 October 2018].
(Heredia, Nicauris. 2017. “Racial Construction and Hierarchical Privilege in the Dominican Republic.” Rhode Island College Digital Commons. Available to read here: https://digitalcommons.ric.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1131&context=honors_projects [Accessed 7 October 2018].
Akoukou Thompson, Nicole. 2014. “The Black-Brown Divide: Conversations on Race and Blackness in Latin America and the U.S.” 6 November. Latin Post. Available to read here: https://www.latinpost.com/articles/25267/20141106/the-black-brown-divide-race-and-blackness-in-latin-america-and-the-u-s.htm [Accessed 7 October 2018].
Telles, Edward & Steele, Liza. 2012. “The Effects of Skin Color in the Americas.” 21 February. Americas Quarterly. Available to read here: https://www.americasquarterly.org/the-effects-of-skin-color-in-the-americas [Accessed 7 October 2018].
Wade, Peter. 2017. “Racism and Race Mixture in Latin America.” 22 September. Latin American Research Review. Available to read here: https://larrlasa.org/articles/10.25222/larr.124/ [Accessed 7 October 2018].
López, Gustavo & Gonzalez-Barrera, Ana. 2016. “Afro-Latino: A deeply rooted identity among U.S. Hispanics.” 1 March. Pew Research Center. Available to read here: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/03/01/afro-latino-a-deeply-rooted-identity-among-u-s-hispanics/ [Accessed 7 October 2018].