Racism has never just been a white person´s problem. While many of us have clenched our teeth at some of our own Latino family members´ discriminatory comments about dark-skinned people, younger generations today will not tolerate one bit of discrimination from public figures, no matter how beloved or Latino they are. As politically conscious as Latino celebrities may appear, sometimes their irresponsible and hurtful language can turn off even their biggest admirers. While we assume that they understand the plight of being a person of color in this world, sometimes, without realizing it, public figures can say offensive things about black people and disappoint us all.
Such was the case with the pop singer from Cuban origins, Camila Cabello, 22, in a post on Tumblr when she was a teenager in which she used the N-word among other discriminatory sentiments. It left us all saying, How could you, Señorita Camila? She seemed so down and for the cause. This journalist can only imagine that due to being young and not properly educated in the world of race relations, political correctness, and the struggles that blacks have faced not only as slaves in the United States, but throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, she spoke thinking she was acting cool, but without realizing how hurtful she was being to that black person reading her Tumblr comments.
I’m sorry from the bottom of my heart. pic.twitter.com/iZrnUawUAb
— camila (@Camila_Cabello) December 18, 2019
In response to the outpour of criticism, Cabello wrote on her Twitter account: “When I was younger, I used language that I’m deeply ashamed of and will regret forever. I was uneducated and ignorant and once I became aware of the history and the weight and the true meaning behind this horrible and hurtful language, I was deeply embarrassed I ever used it. I apologized then and I apologize again now.”
Then when Gina Rodriguez, the Jane the Virgin actress of Puerto Rican descent who has always had brain appeal for the roles she portrayed, posted a video in which she also used the N-word while singing along to The Fugees song “Ready or Not,” the folks fighting the good fight for an anti-racist society face-palmed themselves once more. How could she not realize that using the N-word is just not right if you are not sensitive to its context, using it carelessly and perhaps in a way that glorifies it, especially as someone who cannot claim the word for herself? In response to the immediate criticism, she wrote on her Instagram: “I thoughtlessly sang along to the lyrics of a favorite song, and even worse, I posted it.” She assured her readers that she feels “deeply protective and responsible to the community of color,” and vows to do better.
It’s incomprehensible how these two Latina role models, two women of color themselves, seemingly astute and from this century, could use language that resembled the colonizers’. I’m certain that the evil entertainment world has subjected Cabello and Rodriguez to undermining comments for being Latinas who are not white enough for certain white privileges. For this, we’d assume they’d be a little more sensitive. But for some reason, they weren’t. And they can probably blame having grown up hearing other racist Latinos’ discriminatory perceptions one too many times, from people who perhaps believed that the white-washed world that Univision or Telemundo depicted of Latinidad was something to aspire to. The legacy of the N-word is brutally hurtful to the black community and no one can just toss that word around flippantly. I imagine they have learned their lessons and have helped others take note as well.
Far From a Benetton Ad: The Roots of Colorism
The reality is that colorism — prejudice or discrimination especially within a racial or ethnic group favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin — has been engrained in the Latino community for centuries. Those that think that minorities can’t have feelings that are racist simply because they are part of an oppressed group are completely in denial. The history of Latin America has been highly color conscious and neurotically obsessed with the various shades of the mestizaje (blanco, negro, trigueño, indio, jabao, moreno, mulatta, etc.).
It’s not just entertainers behaving poorly, either. It’s supposedly educated government officials from Puerto Rico’s education department using offensive language towards black people. In this year´s Miss Universe pageant, when the South African model Tunzi was crowned, angry Puerto Ricans from all social classes expressed their disappointment via social media about their candidate being chosen runner up with a stream of racist remarks. Jose Pastrana, a supervisor for Special Education for the island’s Department of Education, called Tunzi “La prima de Shaka Zulu,” (“the cousin of Shaka Zulu,” a South African military leader, though she is no relation) on his Facebook page. According to NBC News, he is now reportedly being investigated by the Department of Education because of his postings.
In an interview with HipLatina, City College Professor of Latin American and Latino studies Iris Lopez explained that the Latin American and Spanish Caribbean racial classification system is similar to the classification system used by blacks in the U.S. and the West Indies, adding that the concept of race is a “social construct invented by Europeans intended to divide people and holds no scientific merit.” This way they were able to manipulate blacks and other indigenous people to believe that whites were superior in order to justify their conquests. Professor Lopez points out that “if it weren’t for race, colorism wouldn’t even exist.”
Colorism affects every single person of color. Ask any Latino and they’ll have either a funny or certainly uncomfortable story to tell about people’s perceptions of them, either someone judging their hair, their skin tone, their lip size, their cheekbones, their body type, etc. Black is beautiful and slowly but surely this year’s Miss Universe from South Africa and Afro Latina actresses like Rosario Dawson, Dascha Polanco, and Lauren Velez are helping the world see this. Latinos still have a ways to go to shed the colonizers’ vision of who is superior and who isn’t. Speaking out against racist remarks along with encouraging our family and friends to study Latin American studies can create a positive impact on the Latino community and hopefully mute out colorism along with racism for good.
The Afro-Latina actress Zoe Saldana (who has been an active advocate for Latinx representation in Hollywood) once said: “We tend to look for European roots and reject the indigenous and the African, and that’s disgusting. Being Latina is being a mix of everything. I want my people not to be insecure, and to adore what we are because it’s beautiful.” Celebrities and public figures should understand once and for all that using racial slurs makes one a lot less beautiful in the eyes of others.