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[PROSE] Anti-Racism & Racial-Ambiguity

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

My mother named me white on purpose. Not literally, but it was the kind of name that was as if she was trying to shelter me or perhaps challenge the world around us with just a name. In 1988, during the peak of the crack epidemic, I was born in the South Bronx. My mother, a white-passing Puerto Rican woman, gave me a traditionally white name—a choice that, unbeknownst to me, would symbolize my life's racial and cultural complexities.

My immediate family was a jumble of identities. We lived with my maternal grandmother, a beautifully brown-skinned Indigenous (Borikén/Taíno) Latina, and her life partner, Ada(†), an unmistakably Black and Indigenous (Borikén/Taíno), openly queer woman. Also living with us was my mid-toned Puerto Rican stepfather and my younger, white-passing half-sibling. Growing up in this household, Blackness was close but distinct. We saw color, but not the Black and White that the world outside insisted upon. If you spoke Spanish, you belonged. If not, you were the "other." (I didn't speak Spanish either; I barely understood it, but I digress.) Still, no one dared to openly claim their Blackness, even if it was visible in every mirror. Despite her deep-toned skin, my maternal grandmother exhibited blatant racism. She was okay with Black "Latin@s," but Black "Americans?" To her, they were different, alien, even threatening. This bias once shattered my mother's relationship with a Black Puerto Rican boy solely because he didn't speak Spanish. Ironically, when my skin deeply tanned every summer, my stepfather would call me "dirty" and point to my mom, noting how different our tones were (the internalized racism was deep, yo). My biological father, Pedro(†), a racially ambiguous Latino, lived a few buildings away with his white-passing wife, Nelly(†), and her two daughters. While I understood my mother's side of the family to be racially mixed, it wasn't until later in life that I realized the deep African roots on my father's side. His mother, Placidad(†), was undeniably Black, and his siblings showcased a spectrum of shades. But anti-blackness? It was an insidious presence.

As a racially ambiguous child raised by a mix of Black and white-passing relatives, I often felt caught in the crossfire of colorism. At school, I was teased by the white-passing Latin@ kids for my matted curly hair, "ashy" knees or elbows, and second-hand clothes. But the Black kids? They became my refuge, perhaps recognizing something I didn't, showing love for parts of me that others did not. Through these experiences, I felt alone and didn't have the words for why—a testament to the complexities of racial identity and the world's perceptions. I was neither wholly this nor that, but a fusion, trying to navigate a world that often demanded I pick a side. So, I did. I chose the side that loved me back.

By middle school, I was delving deep into community activism. In these spaces, I learned all about the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords, and the colonial scars of Puerto Rico. This got me digging into old family photos and whispered forgotten stories. I fired question after question, ignoring the familial tensions they caused. The words "We're just Puerto Ricans," used like a shield against acknowledging race, started grating on my ears. I needed clarity. But standing up for what I believed in had its costs. Relationships strained and snapped under the weight of hard truths.

Come the 2010 census, emotions flared in the community. The demand for Latin@s to box themselves into one racial category felt like a betrayal. Ethnic labels divided us, creating barriers where none existed before. Our DNA is a rich blend of races for Puerto Ricans, even as we struggle with our history of oppression. When that census worker came knocking, at that moment, my choice felt clear: "Black." These "this or that" incidents feel like betrayals, adding hurdles for folks like me – biracial, multi-racial, or just downright complex in our racial identity – looking for a space to belong. The echoes of pain caused by generations of colonialization remind me of the countless Black Americans still grappling with their severed ancestral ties.

My parents do not scream "Black" at first glance (shit, they don't whisper it), but our family history is deeply rooted in Blackness. I've got Titi's and Tio's, who are undeniably Black. My Abuela? Pure, unapologetic Blackness. Genealogy research unraveled hidden tales: my ancestors laboring on sugar plantations, being drafted into the army, and eventually migrating to New York. This history pulses through my veins. Rejecting my Black heritage would be denying them. Isn't that what white-passing Black Americans were accused of doing? The more I dive into my roots, the more I yearn for my father's family's stories. Sometimes, I think about knocking on my father's family's doors. I'd ask them a million questions if I could. But those doors? Most are barricaded. Most of us are separated by grudges and geography. Conversations for another time, another story.

Here's the kicker about looking like me: It's like having a backstage pass, but not always to a show you want to see. It angers me how some Latin@s, especially the lighter-skinned ones who look like me, knowingly capitalize on this racial ambiguity. They wear it like a chameleon cloak, changing colors depending on the room. They make me question, is that me, too? Historically, Black communities have welcomed all with open arms (or have had them forced onto them). On the other side, white communities only bring in those who bear a resemblance to them. Light-skinned individuals, particularly Latin@s, are more readily accepted than their dark-skinned counterparts, especially Black Americans. But here's the sting: when these Latin@s are called out or educated about the privilege, they're swinging around, and they choose to turn a deaf ear. They're not just bystanders; they're active contributors to the problems of racism and colorism. The act of silencing or dismissing is, in itself, a reinforcement of these systemic issues. It's not enough to not be racist; it's crucial to be actively anti-racist. And for those who blur the lines for personal gain? They're fueling the very fire they claim to stand against.

The bitter irony isn't lost on me. I caught myself in this trap. In the confines of my childhood home, there were unspoken rules. The friends I could comfortably invite over were often those who looked like me—light-skinned and ethnically ambiguous. I remember the smiles and nods of approval from family members when they met my white-passing friends. On the contrary, a worry weighed on me when wanting to invite over my Black friends. I'd witnessed the uncomfortable looks, the subtle changes in tone, and the not-so-subtle comments my maternal grandmother would make. It was only as I grew older, confronted the racism and colorism I'd faced, and started to truly reflect on the harm I was both experiencing and perpetuating that I felt compelled to shift.

My path toward understanding my identity goes hand in hand with embracing anti-racism, and it wasn't immediate—it was a slow realization, a series of uncomfortable confrontations with my conscious and unconscious biases. But once I began actively practicing anti-racism and healing from the scars of internalized prejudices I'd worn, I finally felt a deep-rooted confidence in my identity: I am Black...while to some people, I am not.

As I continue to confront this, my reflections have crystallized into a triad of realizations:

  • Understand Exclusion. Some moments and arenas aren't for me; I embrace that truth. Black communities deserve their sanctuaries of healing and connection. As someone discovering my racial identity, I may find doors closed to me, conversations I won't be privy to. And that's perfectly okay. I can still be a voice of anti-racism by respecting these boundaries.

  • Recognize Guest Privilege. Sometimes, I'll be ushered into Black-centered spaces. These are moments of grace where I can participate but must do so consciously. It's not about diminishing my voice but about amplifying theirs. I continuously channel my anti-racism as I listen, learn, and occasionally partake.

  • Embrace My Spaces. There are realms tailor-made for me where I can unfurl all facets of my identity, reveling in the entire spectrum of who I am. In these domains, my responsibility for anti-racism remains unwavering.

Navigating this racial tapestry of mine is a lifelong journey filled with discoveries, confrontations, and moments of deep introspection. Each day brings its lessons, challenges, and opportunities for growth. To those of you reading this grappling with your own identities, I ask: Are you ready to confront the uncomfortable, embrace your whole self, and challenge society's perceptions and your own? I pledge to continue asking, learning, and standing up for what's right—honoring my ancestors and my complex identity and supporting others on their unique paths. As I embrace every facet of my identity, I am continually committed to being an anti-racist. As I move forward, my resolve only strengthens: to understand more, to heal more profoundly, and to champion change in every space I inhabit.

My Dad, Pedro "Peter" Oscar Otero (†) R.I.P

My Abuela, Placidad Figueroa (†) S.I.P

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1 comentario

MarTaze Gaines
MarTaze Gaines
19 oct 2023

Thank you for sharing so much of your journey around identity. Thank you for those beautiful and poignant realizations.

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