I Think I Know What My Race Is (Better Than You Do)

Who are you to tell them what they are? | ShutterStock.com

Last week, when I wrote the post about Gabby Douglas and mentioned that we had similar hair, a lot of you insisted that I could not have hair like Gabby’s because I am Latina. I wasn’t surprised by these comments because what my ancestry is versus what people believe it to be has been “up for debate” my entire life.
I have had friends, strangers, and classmates tell me what my race is–even after I have told them.

“You’re Dominican? You don’t look Dominican.” Well, I am Dominican so this is what a Dominican looks like.

“You look Dominican, but you DON’T look Puerto Rican.” Well I am Puerto Rican so this is what a Puero Rican looks like.

You’re not Latina. You’re Black. It doesn’t matter what you are, it matters how you look. Is Obama Black or White? He’s Black because that’s how he looks.” No he is Black AND White because that is what he is and that is how he identifies.

And from you guys–who haven’t even seen me.

“If you’re Latina and Haitian you don’t really have hair like Gabby because you’re mixed. Gabby, just like every African American has African American hair, so don’t try to relate. If anything your hair is curly and looks slick and I doubt you have ever needed a perm.”

My grandpa’s grandma is one of these slaves. We’re not sure which one, but we know these kids were brought in from Ethiopia. My grandpa was born in 1912, so I would imagine this is the early to mid-1800s. Crazy, I know.

Lots of people think I am African American when they see me. I totally get it. What I look like is what lots of African Americans look like. Not to mention, I am 1/8th Haitian and Haitians are typically a darker-skinned, Island people. I am however, mostly Latin. My dad is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic and my mom is a second generation immigrant of Puerto Rican, Haitian, Native American, and Spanish decent.

My mom’s parents look radically different from each other. My grandma had really fair skin and light brown hair because her dad was from Spain and mother was Native American and Puerto Rican. My grandpa had really deep, dark skin and tight, curly hair being Haitian and Puerto Rican. My dad’s mom has milk chocolatey brown skin. I’ve never seen or met his dad.

Not all Latin people look like Jennifer Lopez or Jessica Alba. (For example most people don’t realize Zoe Saldana is Dominican and Puerto Rican, not African American and Troian Bellisario who plays Spencer on Pretty Little Liars is half Black.) This is a modern myth that the media would like you to believe. The same way they would like you to believe that being thin, white, and blond is the only form of beauty you should aspire to.

I am the darkest person in my immediate family. When I was born, my brother who was VERY pale as a kid, (according to my parents) said, “Oh my god, she is Black!” Up until then my brother thought he was Caucasian because he was so fair. Then my parents explained that we’re Latino, we’re ethnically mixed by default. Latin people are typically of Native American, Spanish, and African American descent. This is because the Spanish were the first Europeans to colonize South America. They enslaved Native Americans, then brought in Africans because they were “stronger” laborers. Naturally this meant that there’d be a lot of hooking up (and rape) among races–even though the Native Americans and Africans were considered sub-human.

This is my Great Grandma. A Native Taino and Puerto Rican.

Race is complicated in America because of well, racism, and Jim Crowe. Before Jim Crowe laws which used techniques like, if you’re darker than a paper bag you’re Black or if you’re 1/8th Black then you’re fully Black to discriminate, race was more open. There were different ethnic categories, Mulatto meant you were Black and White, Mestizo meant you were Native and European, Creole meant you were Black and French.

Race was made explicit and was openly discussed in order to categorize people. You weren’t one thing, you were every single thing that you were and how those dice fell determined a lot about the kind of privileges you could have in society. Later on, Jim Crowe made anyone who was brown-skinned Black. Then when the idea of assimilation came along in the 1890s you didn’t want to be anything but American. This worked best if you were European. You could just be White. However, being a person of color is pretty obvious, you can’t pass for anything but someone with color pigments. So even after assimilation all people of color were still Black.

There’s me and my favorite doll.

This is why a lot of people today ignore the ethnic and cultural differences among people of color. The reality is being raised in a Haitian household is a bit different from being raised in Jamaican household and that’s different from being raised in a Latin household. When I tell you what my race is, I’m telling you the kinds of foods I grew up eating, the kinds of music I grew up listening to, the kinds of traditions I am familiar with (Quinceaneras not Sweet Sixteens) and when you tell me my race is something that it’s not you’re telling me that my experience is different than what it is. (You’re also telling me that you didn’t pay attention in school.)

Should race matter? It shouldn’t matter when it comes down to rights, privileges, and social status. But anything that implies what your heritage and traditions are like does matter. Whether that be your race, ethnicity, religion, or creed. The way you were raised matters. Our differences are not only what make us unique, they shape us into the people that we are, and they provide us with the experiences that help define us later on. I will not have my history or experiences, like so many of my enslaved ancestors, be taken away because you think I look a certain way.

Do people ever get mixed up about your heritage? Let us know in the comments!

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  • areil

    I’m black dominican jamaican . My mother is dominican and black, my dad is black and jamaican but his mother had him with a jamaican and black man which is my grandpa. My mother is dominican and black her mother(which I have never met because she died in 1995) was dominican. She had long black hair just like her mother. I have no info about my moms father. My grandparents on my fathers side both remarried and had kids all which are my aunts . My grandma remarried a irish guy and my grandpa married a jamaican woman.

    • areil

      Nobody belives I’m dominican because I have nappy natural hair until they see my mother.

  • Lo

    Your article is really well written. You took a heavy subject and made it fun, interesting to read. Love how you tied in historical facts too.

    One of the points that you had made about your race being your culture is something that I half disagree with. Firstly, I completely agree with your points, but I would classify race and culture as 2 separate things. The mistake is that people in the U.S. erroneously assume that race and culture mean same thing. There are White, Black, and Mestizo looking Latinos, if not other variations too. But the U.S. really needs to get over hispanics/latinos as only looking tan or lighter. Henry Louis Gates Jr. has a great documentary called “Black in Latin America.” Most of the slaves went there and not the U.S. But it’s amazing how we don’t really see Black Latinos in the media.

    Because in the U.S., Black people have been diluted with other racial admixtures, the image of what Black is is incorrect. It annoys me that people who obviously look like an in between mixture, of both of their interracial parents, are labeled as just Black or White. Mixed people keep getting labeled Black, because any recognizable trace of Black ancestry gets that label, and being White has the narrow guidelines of looking purely White and not mixed at all. In the end, mixed is mixed, and has a range of phenotypes. And when mixed people aren’t allowed to be that, then one side of the person’s cultural upbringing gets completely ignored. It’s all the assumptions about culture, based on race, that are stopping progress.

    BTW, I’m biracial, and people always get it wrong. I have unique parents who had a great impact on me. I don’t fulfill any stereotypes, and often feel like people don’t know how to accept me because I’m not who they expect. People are stupid, but it used to be so annoying when I’d tell people my White ethnicity and they would tell me that I wasn’t. Well, the DNA test doesn’t lie. And, I got citizenship from that European country. 🙂 So, when I say that I’m 1/2 Black American and 1/2 White European, I’ve got the citizenship and DNA test to prove it! 🙂 23andMe.com is pretty cool.

  • AwkwardActress

    To other people, all I am is white. That’s all they think when they see me, that’s all they will even think when they see me. My dad’s from Maryland and my mom’s from Arkansas, so obviously that’s all I am, right? Born and raised in Virginia. I am 1/32 Native American as well as many other cultures blended together. True, I’m mostly European descent (England, France, Germany, Czech Republic) but that’s not me. I’m not “just another white girl,” I’m a human being. My race shouldn’t determine who I can hang out with or who I am, and certainly not where I can sit at lunch. I’m not white, I’m human. Just like everyone else.

  • Lake

    I know it shouldn’t bug me, but I hate when people automatically identify me as African American. Yes, I am black, but I’m barely American. I’m first generation American born to a mother from Jamaican and a father from Trinidad. So I love to say that I’m West Indian American rather than African American. I know it’s not a a big deal since either way, people from the islands came from Africa anyway, but I rather be specific and stand out rather than be grouped together with people who aren’t like me and didn’t grow up in my Caribbean culture.

  • Synthia

    Since I was born people couldnt tell that I was 100 %Puerto Rican, because I had dark skin. People used to think I was Indian because of my long black hair, then people used to think I was dominican because of my dark skin. then people used tot think I was half spanish and half black, until I told all my friends that I was Puerto Rican. People really actually think that being Puerto Rican is having tan skin , with long wavy brown hair, but Puerto Rican comes in all features, because like Emrald said, the slaves were raped and hooking up, so the puerto rican race doesnt have just one look.

  • Cadie

    Troian Bellisario is actually a quarter black; her mother is half.

  • SpontaneousGurl

    You know it shouldn’t matter. One of my friends you could class as one of those sub headings above but to me she is just british. she lives in England so she is british end of. i don’t care where she was born in or what her family is.
    I just care that she is a nice person who is my friend and that i can trust her.
    WHY do we HAVE to label things??????? in my eyes i don’t care about anothers appearance just who they are inside.