Overcoming Negrophobia: Latin Americans Struggle to Come to Terms with Racial Identity

Article excerpt

All she could feel was pain. The pain f walking through a historic capital leveled by nature. The pain of hearing screams from beneath the rubble. The pain of knowing an inhumane force--racism--made the tragedy worse.

Afro-Dominican activist Sergia Galvan traveled to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, just one day after the earth shook to look for her sisters in arms.

They were lost, the sisters whom for years she worked with to heal the rifts of anti-Haitianism in her native Dominican Republic, a gulf rooted in the violent history and deep racism of their shared island. As a Black Dominican feminist, she is part of a growing Latin American movement that affirms Black identity against the antagonism of negrophobic and so-called colorblind societies.

But in the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated Haiti last month, an outpouring of compassion from the Spanish-speaking neighbor transcended those tensions with the Dominican Republic becoming the first nation to respond to Haiti's cry for help.

"The Dominican Republic is a racist nation with deep anti-Haitian sentiments and it has amazed me to see the solidarity of the Dominican people and to see them transcend that pan of themselves," says Galvan, whose organization, The Women and Health Collective, is working to provide medical help in border hospitals. "I hope this is symbolic of a step forward toward breaking down the racial barriers and xenophobic views of Dominicans toward Haitians."

Though they share heritage and language, the relationship between Black Latin Americans and their lighter compatriots is marred by historical denial, discrimination and denigration.

Negrophobia--or the contempt of blackness--has a long and ugly legacy in Latin American countries, where 90 percent of the approximately 10 million enslaved Africans brought to the Americas were taken. Only 4.6 percent were brought to the U.S.

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Although Latin American peoples are generally of mixed heritage, experts say the historical emphasis on mestizaje--or the doctrine of miscegenation--obscures a divisive system that prefers Whiteness to Blackness. In practice, not all parts of the mixture are equally appreciated and some are scorned, says Tanya Hernandez, a law professor at the Fordham University School of Law.

"I think what is traditionally viewed as distinctive in Latin America is this notion of fluid racial identity that people can identify how they want. But the way people are encouraged to identify is away from Blackness," says Hernandez, who is writing a book on the subject. "The hierarchy is left unchallenged because everyone is busy denying it."

The one-drop-of-White-blood rule determined a person's color and status south of the U.S. border.

"Under mestizaje, you don't have to be White in order to racialize each other. All you need to be is Whiter than the next guy," says Dr. Silvio Torres-Saillant, an associate English professor and director of the Latino-Latin American Studies Program at Syracuse University. "It robs us of the horrific vision of distinct racialized groups and so it is very difficult to fight racism under mestizaje because you have lost your ground."

Underneath the guise of racial harmony, the realities of the society's racial stratification continue to isolate Black people in Latin America and provoke the negation of Blackness among Afro-Latinos and Latin Americans in the U.S. and elsewhere.

"The United States had something (that) few countries in the history of the world have had," Torres-Saillant says. "It had the unprecedented civil rights movement, which changed the racial scenario discursively and intellectually. There has never been anything like that in Latin America."

But since the 1980s, pockets of resistance have emerged among Afro-descended populations demanding equal rights and representation from the Americas, where more than a third of the population is Black, researchers have found. …