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.”
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.
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.
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!