A Puerto Rican finds himself in the ‘collective black’ race
America’s history of racist cartooning
“Latinx” gets a place in the dictionary
‘Mi negro’: Embracing my blackness as a Puerto Rican man
Several years ago, at the height of New York’s stop-and-frisk policing policy, two officers stopped me at West 125th Street and Broadway and insisted that I was carrying a knife. I was walking from Columbia University’s campus, where I’ve taught seminars on Latinx identity since 2010, after picking up a couple of books at the library. Because I wasn’t teaching that day, I was wearing a backward baseball cap, worn-out jeans, and a long-sleeve T-shirt, attire that apparently made me look like a criminal suspect.
The officers were Latinx with complexions similar to mine, but in that moment, they made a racialized judgment about how I represented a culture of criminality often associated with black and Latinx people. They stared at me with insistent eyes, demanding that I hand over a weapon that I didn’t have. They had been signaled by my unkempt appearance and the furtive movement of my hand toward a keychain holder protruding from my right front pocket, a plastic Puerto Rican flag in the shape of an island. They were operating in the context of 125th Street, a dividing line between the largely white collegiate neighborhood of Morningside Heights and the predominantly black gentrifying neighborhood of Harlem.
The officers looked blankly at my university ID and reluctantly questioned me for several agonizing minutes, then decided I was not who they were looking for. But the experience reminded me that I can never escape my racial identity: In a society ruled by a binary perception of race, my complexion classifies me as “other,” but at any point in time, what I’m wearing, where I’m standing and how the sunlight hits my skin will color how I’m judged.
The author, as a child, poses for a photo with his father. (family photo)
Puerto Ricans — the racially mixed descendants of Native Americans, European colonizers and African slaves — defy the binary racial categorization embedded in U.S. society. For most, defining themselves by race is a daunting task that often ends in defiantly choosing “neither,” “other,” or “mixed.” Some embrace the labels Hispanic, Latinx, or “brown” as their racial identity, even though those labels do not constitute a defined race, according to the prevailing rules.
I am from a working-class background, cannot be considered a white Latinx by mere appearance, and at times have actively chosen to identify as black. I came of age in the 1970s, when New York-born Puerto Ricans like me reconnected with our African roots often obscured by the island’s official culture. The blackness of being Puerto Rican was part of my New York experience. Bugalú, a Latin music fusion genre, praised ham-hocks-and-corn-grits soul food and foreshadowed the Caribbean influences in the creation of hip-hop.
In many ways, Puerto Ricans in New York became part of a “collective black,” a concept developed by sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva to highlight the common racial and social class interests of African Americans and other racialized groups. Even though they were not culturally, ethnically or physically the same, they are seen and treated similarly by the dominant culture. But within my own family, the concept of race was an enigma, an idea we never discussed.
The author, as a child, sits with his father. (family photo)
Since I was a child, my mother has often referred to me as “mi negro,” translated as “my dear.” It’s a common term of endearment for Puerto Ricans and appears at the very end of Pedro Pietri’s poem “The Puerto Rican Obituary”:
Aquí to be called negrito
means to be called LOVE
When my mother called me “mi negro,” my conception of the word did not include blackness. It simply implied closeness, caring, pronounced “neh-gro” and not “nee-gro,” a word that was in the process of becoming obsolete in the lacunae between the civil rights movement and the black nationalist movement.
But my father, who was significantly lighter-skinned than my mother and had a better command of English, never called me “negro.” The differences between my parents in terms of language use and complexion — and the contrast between my father’s mostly lighter-skinned family and my mother’s mixed, somewhat darker clan — were not discussed in my childhood home. But they were always clear and colored my view of myself.
America’s long and not-so-distant history of racist cartooning
Australian cartoonist Mark Knight of Melbourne’s Herald Sun was under fire this week after he published his reaction to Saturday’s U.S. Open women’s final — and in doing so, summoned vile imagery that was largely popularized during the Jim Crow era.
In a cartoon that mocked the heated exchanges between runner-up Serena Williams and chair umpire Carlos Ramos, Knight depicted the 23-time Grand Slam champion as a pacifier-sucking young child throwing a tantrum. He drew her with facial features reflecting the dehumanizing caricatures of black Americans common in the 19th and 20th centuries, including the excessively large lips made popular by minstrel-show characters and the title character in 1899’s “Little Black Sambo.”
Such caricatures were parodied in the ’60s by underground comix creator R. Crumb, through his character Angelfood McSpade. And Spike Lee — who, while attending an earlier U.S. Open round, hailed Williams’s greatness as on par with Muhammad Ali’s — created a powerful montage of such racist pop-culture caricatures in his 2000 film “Bamboozled.”
But political cartoons continue to find themselves mired in controversy for offensive depictions of people of color. Cartoons that depicted President Barack Obama as a pimp or — as some interpreted a 2009 New York Post image — a chimpanzee, were widely deemed offensive. In 2009, a cartoon pictured Sonia Sotomayor, then a nominee to become the first Latina on the Supreme Court, as a piñata.
On Wednesday, the Herald Sun provided its response to critics of the cartoon by doubling down. The newspaper republished Knight’s Serena Williams image as part of a front-page montage of Knight caricatures — including of President Trump — with the headline “WELCOME TO PC WORLD” and the text: “If the self-appointed censors of Mark Knight get their way on his Serena Williams cartoon, our new politically correct life will be very dull indeed.” The cover includes the cheeky label “Satire Free Zone.”
British journalist Charles Thomson tweeted: “In 100 years’ time, this cartoon will be viewed no differently than old images of Jim Crow, or the newspaper cartoons drawn of Jack Johnson. Mark Knight has just drawn his way into the history books.”
‘Latinx’: A nod to inclusion or an offense to the Spanish language?
When the final letter in “Latino” or “Latina” is replaced with an “x,” it’s hard not to notice.
The gender-neutral word “Latinx” is increasingly the preferred terminology to describe people of Latin American descent and has become so popular that it was added to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary last week.
Proponents insist that the word is necessary in the name of inclusion, especially for those who are LGBT and gender-nonconforming. But its use is still controversial and often prompts visceral reactions for some Spanish speakers, who sometimes encounter it online before they hear it used in person.
“The term was coined within queer Internet groups. That was where it was used first and foremost,” said María R. Scharrón del Río, a professor of psychology at Brooklyn College who uses the pronouns they/them.
“Latinx” first surfaced in popular usage more than a decade ago, though Scharrón del Río points out that the LGBT community used it long before then. According to data from Google Trends, which tracks the popularity of words in its search engine, Latinx spiked in popularity in 2016.
Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster, said the ‘x’ construction could become a model that spreads to other languages with grammatical gender agreement, such as Filipino or French. But the decision to add it to the dictionary was an objective one, he added.
“The job of the dictionary is to follow the changes in the culture that are expressed in the language,” Sokolowski said. “The only constant in language is change, and we want to keep up.”
While the term has increased in frequency as an alternative to the collective Latino, Latino/a or Latin@, some argue that it’s insensitive to the Spanish language, in which all nouns carry a gender and there is no obvious way to pronounce the letter x. When Latinx-focused publications such as Remezcla use the term, it’s often met with criticism.
In a Facebook comment for a Remezcla story, reader Sandra Velez said the publication’s use of “Latinx” amounted to “Anglicizing the Spanish language.”
“Do they hate or revile their Hispanic/Latino ancestry so much they are willing (unwitting?) accomplices in erasing their own heritage? Because that’s exactly what’s happening,” she wrote.
A Sociologist Examines the “White Fragility” That Prevents White Americans from Confronting Racism
(The New Yorker)
My English Name Was Inspired by My Favorite Childhood Actress, and I Don’t Regret It One Bit
What’s lost when you translate Korean immigrant life into sitcom tropes?
Viola Davis on What ‘The Help’ Got Wrong and How She Proves Herself
(New York Times)