By Carmen Mojica
Dominicans do know they’re Black. January kicked off this year proving that the blanket belief of anti-Blackness being pervasive in every single person of Dominican descent is just not true. I awoke the morning after the infamous exchange between Amara La Negra and Young Hollywood on Love & Hip-Hop Miami to a flurry of social media posts defending & echoing Amara La Negra’s experience with anti-Blackness as a Black Dominicana. My slight exasperation quickly turned into proactivity, reposting all posts affirming AfroLatinidad as well as sharing resources I’ve accumulated over the years to continue to educate folks around me. As an AfroDominicana writer and activist, who has published a book on AfroLatinidad and been a part of the conversation for years, it felt like a duty. An interview on the Breakfast Club where Amara La Negra was discussing her experience on the franchise #LHHMIA added more fuel to the conversation, and brought Cardi B into the mix, highlighting the topic of colorism and—for me—the difference between how people in the United States and people from other places in the African diaspora experience race.
As a first generation Dominican-American, I grew up between two worlds and have had to learn how to bridge those two realities. Up until I got to college, I could not articulate the conflict of not being Black enough or Latina enough. I knew that my dark skin and hair texture were not considered representative of Latinidad but I also knew that I wasn’t quite African American. Very much like people denying Amara La Negra her blackness, going as far as suggesting she’s a Latina in black face (!), my Latina-ness seems to disqualify me from being embraced by some African American people. What was at the root of this dilemma was the strict black/white dichotomy that exists in the United States that is unlike the racial stratification (differentiation by society that groups people in a hierarchy based on race/skin tone) that exists in the Dominican Republic and arguably the rest of the Spanish-speaking African Diaspora.
Whereas in this country, you can either be black or white (which causes a lot of conflict for bi-racial individuals), I grew up knowing there was a range of racial descriptions. I later learned in college that in the Dominican Republic alone there were about 20 or more words that could describe a person’s racial make-up, based entirely on phenotype (the set of observable characteristics of an individual). A person can be moreno, trigueño, grifo, jabao, prieto, indio, indio quemado, and so on. There is an emphasis on proximity to or distance from whiteness. The prevalent reason that there is a denial of racism in the Latino culture comes from the attempts of Spain to assimilate all the people they conquered under Hispanidad, Latinidad or within individual Nation-State identities (i.e Mexican, Dominican, etc). This is a form of racial formation in which the means of trying to control the conquered people was to attempt to create unity through a race that associated them with the dominant one. Hispanidad willed a whitening of first Spain and then the Spanish-speaking Caribbean colonies, suggesting the promise of supremacy when a person associated themselves as being Hispanic (Kaminsky 1994). It promotes Whiteness by elevating the Spanish-speaking White European Spaniard to the ideal Hispanic, ignoring the Black, Indigenous and Mestizo components of the people.
When Cardi B was mentioned during Amara La Negra’s Breakfast Club interview, she was used as an example of a Dominican woman who has been successful. That part of the interview insinuated that because Cardi B is lighter than Amara La Negra, she hasn’t struggled with anti-blackness in quite the same way. Though one of the Breakfast Club’s hosts’ (Charlamagne) way of addressing Amara La Negra sparked anger online for suggesting that her struggles within the Latino market in regards to her skin tone were in her head, he also suggested that Amara La Negra’s comments implied that the acceptance of Cardi B in the American and now Latino market were connected to the concept of colorism. Colorism, being connected to the aforementioned racial stratification and speaking to how varieties of skin tones are regarded within one racial category, is based on what I spoke about earlier regarding racial stratification—posing whiteness as the ideal. Anyone who follows Amara La Negra knows that she has constantly expressed support for Cardi B, and denied that she was implying otherwise in the Breakfast Club interview. To make the point though, I will say that having dark skin like Amara does mean she has dealt with racism in a way that Cardi B may not necessarily have to. Yet, this situation is a reminder to us that while colorism is real, Cardi B’s own struggles as a Black woman shouldn’t be outright denied because she is light-skinned.
Cardi B has had to contend with her Blackness being up for debate. She is Dominican and Trinidadian, and was also brought to the American market through Love & Hip-Hop. Cardi B has never outright denied her Blackness and in fact is very proud of it. What many of us who speak regularly about AfroLatinidad have to deal with is not only recovering from the internalized racism and hate that is bred in the Latino culture but also having our Black identity questioned by some people in the African American community. Recently, Cardi B said in an interview, “I expect people to understand that just because we’re not African American, we are still black. It’s still in our culture. Just like everybody else, we came over here the same fucking way.” Speaking further on people questioning whether she’s Black, Cardi B added, “I hate when people try to take my roots from me. Because we know that there’s African roots inside of us.”
Taking the conversation of Blackness and AfroLatinas a step further, in conversation with Amanda Alcantara, my editor in chief, she made a very poignant observation about Cardi B. “Even though she’s a light-skinned AfroLatina”, Amanda began, “she comes from a struggling background and became a stripper to escape an abusive relationship.” This is important because one reason women feel trapped in abusive relationships is lack of financial independence; though abusive relationships transcend race and class, women of color do suffer higher rates of not only domestic violence but also sexual assault. Cardi B being from the Bronx and having made her way up to where she is now is significant. Being from the Bronx myself, I am familiar with the neighborhood she’s from and know how hard it is to make a living in a low-income community. Regardless of her lighter skin tone, she has had to face the same barriers that women of African and Caribbean descent face in this country.
Cardi B has also had to deal with respectability politics not only for being a stripper but also because of how she expresses herself. One needs to just go on her Instagram and listen to one of her videos to hear her urban vernacular in full force. What some would call “ghetto” is formally called African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), which is a dialect with a unique accent, grammar, and vocabulary features. Cardi B has a specific type of AAVE that, upon hearing her speak, lets you know she was raised in the Bronx because there’s a certain type of slang used where we’re from. Furthermore, she embodies the basic “hood chick” persona – loud, streetwise, neck-rolling when talking, persistent cursing, promiscuous, and so on. This persona is looked down on as uneducated and undeserving of respect or success. This dismissal of Cardi B as a person is also rooted in racism, both external and internalized – many critics of her style and personality are other Black people who want to divorce themselves from what they consider to be a shameful part of their community as opposed to yet another desire to be proximal to whiteness.
Amara La Negra has experienced success before she hit the American market and even so, has struggled because of her skin tone in the Latino market. I first learned about her when she put out the remix to “In Love with the Coco” with El Chevo, “Toto”. Amara La Negra faced backlash for being so sexually explicit, which is part of what Black women are stigmatized for – the stereotype that they are promiscuous and should be anything but. Consequently, the song was not played in the Dominican Republic. Moreover, something I learned in my studies of AfroLatinidad and Afro-descendant women is though we are seen as undesirable partners and representatives of our respective cultures, we are sexually desired in service to a man. Meaning, Amara La Negra has often been objectified for being curvaceous and sexy while fighting her whole career to be success regardless of her skin tone. She has also faced ridicule because of her appearance, having been imitated by a former Dominican beauty queen in blackface. “Regardless of what Montes de Oca’s intentions were with this performance, she blatantly abused her white Latinx privilege by taking on an often scrutinized identity she could never relate,” wrote Barbara Gonzalez who reported on the incident. Being raised by a single mother who immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic and having worked hard for years to get to where she is, Amara La Negra has had to work for her success while dealing with racism and discrimination.
This conversation about Blackness as it relates to AfroLatinidad is far from new, and it is interesting to see how these two women of Dominican descent are navigating the challenges. In this case on the Breakfast Club, someone tried to deny Amara La Negra of her lived experiences and also tried to pit these two Dominicanas against each other, instead of acknowledging there is space for both. Ultimately, I have come to understand that many people are ahistorical and have not been taught the full version of the African Diaspora’s history in the Americas. African Americans and Latinos have in many instances been pit against each other because of the black/white binary of the United States, as well as racism in the Latino culture. For Amara La Negra and Cardi B, their participation in this conversation is important for folks who are new to these concepts as well as other AfroLatinos who have struggled in their personal lives with colorism and racism and are seeing themselves validated by these moments on television and social media. My hope is that we are able to see ourselves reach new levels of awareness in our society with this centuries-old conversation
Kaminsky, Amy. “Gender, Race, Raza.” Feminist Studies 20 (1994): 7-31. JSTOR.