Shades of black

Armstrong Williams
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Posted: Jul 23, 2003 12:00 AM

Latinos are segregating themselves in work and home, cutting off opportunities and generating feelings of inferiority as to their status in the community.

So indicates a recently released report by the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research at the State University of New York in Albany, which examines how Latinos practice forms of racism on themselves. According to the report, Latinos who consider themselves white tend to make more money and live in predominantly white neighborhoods, while Latinos who consider themselves black have lower incomes and higher rates of unemployment and poverty.

The implication is that Latinos in this country are adopting American ideas about race and color. Along the way, they are ripping apart their own culture, reinforcing racial stereotypes and imbuing dark-skinned children with feelings of self-hatred and envy.

This is a desperate situation for a culture that has shown an amazing resilience to overcome obstacles and push into the American mainstream. According to a recent study released by the Spanish television network Telemundo, Hispanic household income and personal consumption spending are growing at a rate that far exceeds the rest of the nation. The study reports that employment of Hispanics has increased by 3 percent since 2001, despite a slumping economy. Hispanic representation in Congress also increased from 11 members to 21 since 1991, a 73 percent increase. There are currently 197 Hispanics in state legislatures, a 46 percent increase since 1991.

Indeed, there is a good argument to be made that Latinos have made more gains over the past 20 years than any other ethnic or racial group in America-and perhaps in the world. So, why are so many Latinos hung up on whether their skin is fair enough to pass for white?

The answer has to do with a culture in flux, torn between their heritage where dark-skinned people traditionally occupy the dominant sphere of influence, and an American culture that constantly bombards us with the notion that lighter skin equals success. Felipe Luciano, a reporter for the New York affiliate of Fox 5, has smacked directly into the American aesthetic. "I appear on black forums all the time, but I've never been invited on a Latino forum," says the dark-skinned Latino. "On radio, but not on TV. I've even had ad executives say that I was too dark and that wouldn't sell." Luciano finds this particularly galling since the majority of Latinos - Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Cubans - are traditionally dark.

Despite the fact that Spanish-speaking channels have pushed into mainstream television, there remains few opportunities for dark-skinned Latinos. There are no breakthrough Latino pop stars, movie stars, or TV stars that are black. All the soaps on Spanish TV have protagonists with straight hair, light skin and European features. The roles of maids or crooks are exceptions. These characters tend to be dark and menacing.

To some degree this fair-skinned fetish is a hangover from slavery, when light-skinned blacks and, in particular, mulatto children were granted more privileges than were the other slaves. Over time, a hierarchy of sorts developed around the idea that fair skin was more socially palatable. "I just think that there is an unspoken cultural attitude among whites and blacks alike, that if you have a fair-skinned black in there, they are probably more like white people than are darker skinned blacks. ... I think white people feel more comfortable around fairer skinned black people," says Deborah Mathis, a syndicated columnist.

A generation of young Latino viewers bombarded with the notion that lighter skin equals success have been conditioned to hate their dark skin, their hair, their lips and yearn to fit into the dominant aesthetic - a sentiment that gained expression in Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings": "Wouldn't they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blond, would take the place of the kinky mass Momma wouldn't let me straighten? My light-blue eyes would hypnotize them..."

It is this desperate yearning to assimilate, to be like the light-skinned Americans who occupy the dominant sphere of influence, that is causing many Latinos to practice racism against one another and to tear apart their own culture.