Sitting on a panel regarding colorism to a standing-room-only crowd of Latinos should be an anxious moment to hold space as colorism is a topic we keep as an unspoken truth passed through and by generations. The conversation part of a panel with others is the easy part, it’s the Q&A where I begin to breathe quickly as the pace is harried at best, and panelists are left to respond promptly and succinctly to what feels like rapid-fire questions, which are rarely softball questions and feel more like hard balls racing at 100 miles per hour.
The final question comes to me during the Q&A: ‘How can I speak to a family member regarding calling their daughter Negra? I take a mental note, and to my chagrin, almost instinctively, I feel my lips pursed, brow furrow, and head shake.
Okay, here I go! I take a deep breath and mentally run a quick roster of potential responses with the awareness that it has been said it is appropriate to wait for 9-seconds to respond, which can seem like a lifetime and often is more than a person can bare to hold and wait in silence for the pregnant-pause to unfold.
Internally my thoughts are racing through a dialog regarding power, family dynamics, awareness, and mentally settling on Cultural Competency. I respond to my thoughts. “Yes, I will speak through the lens of Cultural Competency.” I will draw from my experience as a person who also had the pet-name Negra, a term of endearment in Latin America used lovingly, never offensive. Yet awareness through an Americanized2 lens, Negra resides in very close proximity through spelling with the N-word here in America. Negra felt and meant something else to me as I worked through enculturating to American norms.
“Wait”, I caution myself; “..what about just a call for awareness of the potential impact of using the pet-name is equally important to the user as it is for the recipient, in this case, the niece.” The intent of Negra as a method to convey affection is historically and potentially fortified through colorism and a history of female oppression, and here, the ultimate lesson is that words matter.
Choose them carefully.
I will call for an uncomfortable conversation with the family regarding privilege, oppression, and how Negra potentially identifies a negative legacy to the niece. Holding space to address, “[through] position[s] of privilege … weight of centuries of unequal power relations between white male landowners and [Afro Latina] female slaves …[Blanca vs. Negra] assumes buena presencia [good (white/wealthy) appearance] …” 1.
Smiling and knoding I affirm to myself, “Yes, I will speak to the potential of colorism in Latino communities.”
“No!” Recommend open communication to gain an understanding of her sister’s use of Negra as a cultural bond and tie it to Latino culture, where Negra is seen as a culturally accepted norm of the beauty of Latinas of Mexico, Central America, and South America.
I will advocate for a history lesson and research before holding the conversation. Make the request for the questioner to be a Scholar Ally to do the research, which will ground conversation as generational familial advocacy and growth (which be aware may not be wanted).
I will recommend the practice of inquiry and Socratic Questioning from my training as a teacher to facilitate an exploratory conversation regarding the intention of Negra for this family and, most of all, the child who is the center of the conversation.
*Sigh* (seconds are ticking by)
Hold up, “…is that what I wanted as a young immigrant? Is that what I needed? I really want to say, “it’s not my [your] place to say whether the practice is right or wrong.”2 It is her parent’s role to make clarifications to set the standards and norms with their daughter, not through an outsider looking in, as tone and context also have a primary role in culture that is often negated. Negra is one exemplar of that truth.”
The answer is complicated and does not need to be challenging when done through compassion and authenticity.
Your role in this as the sister-ally is to convey awareness. In Spanish and across Latin America, the word Negra does not have the negative connotation it does in English/America. I understand the want to force a pivot in this regard to meet personal perspectives vs. those of others. The family exists within worlds; ultimately, one does not translate to the other.
And that is okay.
I am ready and back to the moment.
I assembled my thoughts and am ready to share my story. With that clarity, the 9-second pregnant pause has proven to be too much for the moderator to hold who offered a softball response to a hardball question.
About the Author
Monica is an Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Advisor to the Research Shield, the Education Shield, the Health System, and Shared Services. She has worked extensively within Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity spaces over the last 15 years. Including within Wisconsin K-12 urban classrooms, Wisconsin and Minnesota Higher Education, and on various Equity Committees and Boards such as the Minnesota Association Of Professional Employees Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion committee (MAPE EDIC), Minnesota Association of Community Corrections Act Counties (MACCAC), the Ramsey Corrections Advisory Board (CAB), and the Volunteers In Corrections (VIC) board. Monica has a bachelor’s degree in Education from Carroll University, a master’s degree in Education with a focus on Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and a Diversity and Inclusion Certificate from the University of Minnesota. Monica spends her time reading, writing, as an urban gardener, and kayaking on the Chain of Lakes in MPLS.