Scroll through Tally Dilbert’s Instagram or TikTok accounts, and you’ll get a small taste of her life as an Afro-Latina blogger in Texas. Between posts highlighting her distinctive sense of fashion, her beauty regimen, and photo shoot tips, you’ll find bilingual videos where the proud catracha—who hails from the Honduran island of Roatán—speaks to her followers directly, sharing fun anecdotes about Honduran slang and her favorite foods, like baleadas and tajadas de plátano.
Dilbert also frequently uses her social media platform to highlight her experience of being black and Latina. In one TikTok, she addresses the camera and says: “This is a message for all my Afro-Latina mamacitas out there: you don’t have pelo malo [bad hair]. No matter what people say, your skin color is beautiful.” In a video titled “Five things Afro-Latinas are tired of hearing,” she lists off statements like “But you really don’t look Latina” or “I didn’t realize there were black people in Latin America.” “Please, for the love of God,” she says in Spanish before switching back to English, “educate yourself, because we’re tired of hearing these things.”
Though Dilbert was always aware of her culture and her race, moving to the U.S. in 2016 led her to embrace her identity as an Afro-Latina. “When I was in Honduras, I wasn’t trying to hide that I was black, but I was trying to blend in,” she says. “I would straighten my hair and speak a certain way, but I wasn’t fully loving myself. People have this one image in their head of how Latinos should look: straight hair, lighter skin, all of that.” But Dilbert says she’s had to repeatedly explain her identity, including to other Latinos in the predominantly Hispanic city of San Antonio, where she lives.
Over the past few weeks, as public outcry over George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a white police officer sparked outrage both online and throughout many cities all over the world, the 23-year-old blogger has felt even more compelled to speak out. “People aren’t going to see my nationality,” she says. “They’re not going to know that I’m Honduran; they’re just going to see me as a black woman. My brothers, my cousins, we’re all just simply black when you see us on the street.”
Though roughly a quarter of U.S. Latinos self-identify as Afro-Latino, black Latinos are vastly underrepresented in both English- and Spanish-language media. And as protests and the larger conversations they’ve spurred about discrimination and police brutality continue throughout the United States, many Latinos are calling for a long overdue examination of the role we’ve played, both unwittingly and consciously, in exacerbating antiblack racism.
Part of this dismantling involves acknowledging how antiblackness has manifested itself within Latino culture. In an op-ed published earlier this month in the Miami Herald about racism within the Latino community, Latino executives from 45 companies and nonprofits throughout the country signed a commitment to stand with the Black Lives Matter movement, to join the fight in ending police brutality, to hold Spanish-language and Latino-focused media accountable for the lack of Afro-Latino representation they’ve perpetuated, and to confront the racism and colorism (discrimination, often among members of the same race, that privileges people with lighter skin over people with darker skin) within the community and in their own households. “We have been raised in families who refer to blackness in the diminutive (morenita, negrita, prietita),” the letter reads. “We have remained silent when our tias have encouraged us to partner with people who have lighter skin than we do so we can mejorar la raza [better the race] … The path to healing starts with acknowledgment. Next must come action.” And earlier this month, several music critics also called for retiring the term “urbano,” with critic Jennifer Mota arguing that the term “reinforces racial stereotypes while simultaneously perpetuating a ‘commercial culture’ that has played a huge role in the erasure of gritty lyricism and black visibility.”
Black Latinos are present in every country in Latin America, yet they experience violence, poverty, and unemployment at higher rates than their nonblack peers. Sandra Garza, an assistant professor of Mexican American Studies at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio, calls this one effect of a “pigmentocracy.” A 2012 study that examined depressive symptoms among black Latino youth found that they had significantly higher rates of depression than nonblack Latinos, potentially because they face increased social stresses such as discrimination based on their race. The study drew upon earlier findings that documented higher symptoms of depression among darker-skinned Latinos compared with their lighter-skinned peers, and found internalized negative associations with blackness and darker skin color among Latinos.
As Black Lives Matter protesters organized in McAllen earlier this month, a viral video showed 44-year-old Daniel Peña threatening local protesters with a chainsaw while yelling racial slurs. He was later charged with four counts of deadly conduct and one count of assault, and his actions were denounced by McAllen’s mayor. In nearby Pharr, though, city commissioner Ricardo Medina drew criticism after commenting, “He should be a hero!” on the Facebook video of Peña. For many in South Texas, his actions (and Medina’s defense of them) weren’t surprising. “Since people want to say racism doesn’t exist down here, this is a prime example,” wrote one resident on Twitter following the incident.
Among some Latino families, it’s not uncommon to hear parents warn their children to stay out of the sun for fear of them getting “too dark,” while light-colored eyes, fairer skin, and straight hair are celebrated over darker features. Parents might caution their children to claim their Spanish or European identities over any native or indigenous roots, too. “So many of us whisper about our African heritage, while glorifying our European ancestry,” wrote Afro-Latina actress Julissa Calderon in a recent op-ed for O Magazine. “I’ve seen so many people in my community fighting for the Black Lives Matter movement—yet many aren’t, or think it’s not their problem. But this is not just a fight for Black Americans; dismantling racism is a fight for all of us.”
Being Latino is complicated. The cultural group combines a convoluted geography of places with different histories of colonization, indigenous traditions, and languages as a result of our shared roots in Latin America. To be Latino is to constantly try to make sense of the contradictions flowing in our bloodlines, following centuries of mixing and the legacy of the Spanish casta system, which relegated black and indigenous bodies to the lowest rungs of society.
What’s more, the innumerable ways in which many nonblack Latinos have benefited from either white or white-passing privilege can’t be ignored. In one example, George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin in 2012 and was later acquitted, was often described by the media as “white” or “white Hispanic” following the tragedy. His identity (he is of mixed white and Peruvian descent) stirred up online debates and conversations about his motives in shooting an unarmed black teenager.
This messaging, ranging from subtle to overt racism, is harmful. By centering and prioritizing lighter-skinned bodies within the Latino community, we’ve been complicit in sowing the seeds of colorism, says Garza. “We don’t teach children to do antiracist work; we teach them to pass,” she says. “It just makes it somebody else’s problem.”
Leslie Lopez is acutely aware of the shortcomings about how race is discussed within Latino families. Lopez, who grew up in the Dallas area, has a black father and was raised by her mother’s white Mexican family. As she began to understand more about her heritage in elementary school, Lopez struggled to reconcile the disparaging things she’d heard her family say about black people with the ways she’d seen them treat those who were darker than them as “less than.”
“It was hard not to wonder if those words or those actions were also directed at me,” she says. “I was honestly ashamed of who I was. I thought I needed to make up for my identity, in a way. But as I got older, I realized it had nothing to do with me. It was this systemic issue that was super ingrained in my family’s culture.”
Over time, Lopez grew more comfortable with challenging her family members when they made racist comments, and spoke up to let them know that even small offenses were unacceptable. Her strategy so far has been trying to “call people in,” versus calling them out. Lopez says she often tries to ask friends and family members questions—such as “Why did you phrase things that way?” or “What did you mean by that?”—hoping to get them to explain where they’re coming from so she can educate them. “Because I am light-skinned, I do have a privilege in the sense that I know more people will listen to me,” she says.
To that end, as coverage of protests continued on TV, Lopez noticed that much of the Spanish-language news her mother watched was charged with racist undertones, and black protesters were being described as exceptionally violent and destructive. So Lopez took to her own social media to show her mother first-person accounts from friends who were posting videos and photos of their own experiences being harassed by police. Lopez also found Spanish-language infographics that would help her mother understand and contextualize the Black Lives Matter movement, after noticing that much of the messaging her mom had been consuming reduced it to “all lives matter.”
Online resources have sprung up in recent weeks to help guide these conversations. On Instagram, Dr. Maricela Becerra, an assistant adjunct professor at UCLA, put together a Spanish-language guide detailing how people can talk to their family members about #BlackLivesMatter. Throughout the month of June, the social media account Latinx Therapy has been sharing resources about racism and colorism within the Latino community to their 72,000 followers. In July, Radio Caña Negra, a podcast hosted by and centered around Afro-Latinos, will be hosting a workshop to address how nonblack Latinos perpetuate antiblackness and what they can do better moving forward.
Throughout her academic career, Garza says she’s often watched brown women speak over black women who are describing challenges they’ve faced in their lives, and has seen white-passing people redirect conversations about discrimination into conversations about their own struggle with not being seen as Latino, too. But Garza says it’s especially important right now for white and white-passing Latinos to become aware of how they navigate the world, to fully examine their privileges, discuss these issues with their families and friends, and elevate people rather than centering the conversation on themselves.
“If you’re white-passing in the world, you have an even greater responsibility to be vocal,” Garza says. “That’s just the product of the society we live in right now. You need to speak up, and you need to openly celebrate the brownness, blackness, and nativeness within our community.”