As I sat in the airport terminal waiting for my recent flight home to Puerto Rico, I overheard a conversation between a group of passengers sitting next to me.
Speaking in rapid-fire Spanish, I heard them making what can only be considered racist jokes and comments about Black people. I fought the urge to say something before considering all my options.
Sadly I have heard these jokes before; they’re familiar and deemed harmless by some in the Latino community. As I considered what to do, I suspect the response to the bias displayed in that conversation is understanding, education, and healing.
During the four-hour flight home, I reviewed what I had overheard; the term “racial innocence” came to my mind. Tanya Kateri Hernandez, comparative race expert, law professor at Fordham University and author of Racial Innocence: Unmasking Latino Anti-Black Bias and the Struggle for Equality, defines racial innocence as a form of collective denial that has caused willful blindness around anti-Black bias in the Latino community.
A Pew Research Center report states that Black and Latino populations comprise 12.3 percent and 17.6 percent of the U.S. population. By 2050, researchers expect these numbers to increase to 12.7 and 24.1 percent of the U.S. population.
How can two of the most rapidly growing populations in the United States overcome bias and tension?
Anti-Black prejudice and tension between the Latino/x/e and Black communities are not new. Although the Caribbean and Latin America are considered “ethnically diverse,” this is a misconception.
The complexities of race and Blackness in the Caribbean and Latin America have a deep and convoluted history centered around colonialism, colorism, the Spanish caste system, and the racial hierarchy of human value. The pursuit of being close to whiteness has insidiously and openly affected how Caribbean and Latino Cultures interact with other people of color, especially how they relate to the Black community.
How did this evolve?
During the transatlantic slave trade, approximately 40% of enslaved Africans were forcefully relocated to the Caribbean Islands, surpassing Portugal and Brazil as the primary market for enslaved labor in the 17th century due to the sugar plantations of the region.
A result of the transatlantic slave trade and the boom in population was the creation of the 16th-century casta system, which dictated social and legal status depending on blood purity. The proximity to whiteness afforded more privileges and rights.
In turn, many people in the Caribbean and Latin America sought to marry white-passing peers with more European features and connections.
Today this shows up as colorism and the racial hierarchy of human values. For example, an idiomatic phrase in Puerto Rico translates to “damaging the race” or “dañar la raza” whenever a family member gets into a relationship with a darker-skinned partner.
Dr. Gayle Christopher, described as an “award-winning change agent widely recognized for designing holistic strategies for social change,” defines the racial hierarchy of human value as empowering one human being over another because of skin color, religion, or ethnicity.
Though the Latino community has migrated and moved worldwide, these deeply rooted and learned biases have persisted. In coming to the United States, many migrant Latino families sought to remove themselves from any comparisons to the Black community in fear of reprisal. For some, proximity to Blackness equaled more hardship and adversity.
However, this separation and anti-Black bias have not stopped marginalization or discrimination, even within the Latino community.
In the 2021 report, Majority of Latinos Say Skin Color Impacts Opportunity in America and Shapes Daily Life, Latinos with darker skin color report more discrimination experiences than Latinos with lighter skin color. The data also shows that nearly half of Latino adults surveyed for the report (48%) say they have often or sometimes heard a friend or family member make comments or jokes about other Latinos, and Black people that might be considered racist or racially insensitive.
When confronted with this information, many Latinos rely on racial innocence. Expressing that due to their mixed-racial history, they can’t be racist or prejudiced against Black people or other POC.
Recent news of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling against Affirmative Action and the earlier passing of the SB-17 bill signed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott that bans diversity, equity, and inclusion offices at public colleges and universities across the state, have prompted a range of responses from Latinos.
On social media, many Latinos expressed they were distressed because Affirmative Action also advocated for Latinos to be admitted to the institutions that practiced the policy.
Perhaps the solution to how two of the most rapidly growing populations in the United States can overcome bias and tension is individuals sharing, understanding, and unraveling the root cause of Latino anti-Black bias.
Forging the path to move forward, it is time for everyone—particularly those in the Latin/e and Black communities to realize that unity, healing, and education will help to dismantle institutionalized racism.
Cultural systems oppress all.
As Heather McGhee states in her 2022 book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, when people organize across differences, they change the impact of racial inequality and win.
In the airport, I tried to divert the conversation of the passengers next to me.
All I said was, “Oye Cuidado ¿Y Tu Abuela Donde Esta?”