The death of George Floyd has reignited conversations on the topics of race and inequality, and across the globe, there has been a call for action against racism and police brutality. In the past weeks, I noticed people becoming more informed, which leads me to believe there is now a general understanding of overt violent acts of racism such as hate crimes and social slurs. However, when it comes to more covert acts, for example, in the form of microaggressions, the line becomes blurred on what is socially acceptable and what is not.
Coined by Professor Chester M. Pierce in the 1970s, the term “microaggression” originally described insults and comments made against black people. Microaggressions can be intentional or unintentional, frequently masked as humorous comments or compliments, but underlying them are negative and derogatory biases towards marginalized groups. During this time, I decided to reflect on my own experiences growing up in Latin America and on some of the microaggressions and implicit biases I have encountered.
I was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. A Caribbean country whose population historically is of mixed European, Taino indigenous, and African descent. However, I grew up in a culture that favored or even glorified European/Spanish heritage. Eurocentric traits were favored over black features even though the majority of the population does not and will never resemble these standards. Like many Latin American countries, colorism is present and ingrained in my country’s culture as a lasting effect of colonization and the Spanish caste system which linked race and social status. In Latin America racism and classism go hand in hand, however, the topic of racism is not openly discussed and instead is usually discussed as an issue of “classism”.
Colorism manifests itself through “lighthearted” comments such as marrying someone white to “arreglar la raza” which translates to “fix the race”; or through remarks on curly natural hair being “cabello malo” which translates to “bad hair”. Comments like these are frequent and I never really questioned or understood how problematic they are until I got older. In Latin America, beauty standards for women are very clear and enforced in the media. For example, in popular telenovelas or soap operas, white Latinas are more represented than Latinas of African or indigenous descent. Additionally, socially and professionally straight hair is favored, and natural hair is perceived as unkempt. “Despeinada” or “greña” are common words in the Dominican Republic to describe people who choose to rock their natural hair. As a young girl, I always felt my prettiest when my hair was straightened and continuously neglected my curly hair in my teenage years. A memory that comes to mind is at a young age not wanting to get into the pool at birthday parties because I didn’t want my straightened hair to get wet and as a result “look ugly”.
When I was 12 years old I moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil. Brazil also has a large mixed population as it is estimated to have received around 5 million African slaves during the Atlantic slave trade period, more than any other country. During my time in Brazil, I noticed microaggressions and subtle differences in the way I was treated in certain environments compared to my white friends. There, I attended an international school and the environment I was in was very privileged, therefore I acknowledge that this shaped many of my experiences and access to opportunities. Despite this, I still noticed that I was treated differently if I went to a store alone than when I went with my white friends. When visiting my friend’s houses in upscale neighbourhoods I would be asked if I was the housemaid and told that I had to use the service elevator (it is common in Brazil for buildings to have a separate elevator for domestic employees) amongst other events. In my head back then, I believed that If I also had expensive things like my friends then the problem would be fixed. However, even if you display the same conditions, stereotypes and biases still come to the surface.
To conclude, I acknowledge that I am still on a journey of becoming more aware of my own biases and unlearning harmful behaviors. We all have them. I believe acknowledgment is the first step for change, which is why I urge you, as we return to this new “normal”, to continue to actively engage in this conversation. Reflect on your attitudes and listen to others’ experiences, because for many, microaggressions and subtle covert facets of racism are present in many aspects of our day-to-day life.