The question of Blackness: How conversations about Bruno Mars and Cardi B miss the mark
Erasing someone's Blackness rather than interrogating colorism, caste, power inherent to their experience is the wrong direction.
by Briana L. Ureña-Ravelo
There has been much conversation regarding Blackness as of late. What it is, when and how it matters, and who can and cannot claim it. At times the conversation has been very illuminating and compelling, but more and more it has become overwhelmingly caustic and mired in elitist, ahistorical, and colonial concepts of borders, identities, and experiences. Thinly-veiled xenophobia and racial antagonism has been levied towards Afro-Latinxs in particular.
Cardi B has, on many occasions, used her Instagram to display her Afro-Dominican and Trinidadian culture, spoken up for Black people and about Black American struggles, condemned racial profiling and police brutality, and discussed anti-Blackness and misogynoir as it concerns stripping and sex work and how clubs are discriminatory towards Black and darker skinned dancers. Bruno Mars, who isn’t faking an afro or the Puerto Rican ancestry that gave it to him, has openly discussed the credit all Western and honestly post-colonial genres of music owe to African Americans.
All of this leaves me with questions about why African Americans seem to have an obsessive need to interrogate them and their latest bright, 90s Afrocentric collaboration on the remix of “Finesse”. Their respective Blackness has been questioned at length, even as they each rep their ancestry and show love and support to the African American community, and even though Caribbean and Afro-Latinx music have had great influence in Black music over the centuries, especially blues, jazz, and hip hop.
The major reason seems to be the inability, or perhaps the refusal, to navigate conversations regarding colorism and castem with nuance, and thus a lack of knowledge of where mixed or ambiguous African-descendent people stand or belong, historically and presently.
“You’re either Black or you’re not!” is something that I have heard, over and over. The truth is that it isn’t that simple.
A racial caste system has existed since the creation of racial categories under European colonialism. Mixed, mestizx, metis, morena, trigueña, creole, quadroon, octaroon, mulatto. These are some of the many different names and categorization established for African-descendant people at the varying levels between “Black” and “white.” The different caste position names, their placement, and their power have fluctuated and changed depending on the needs of the colonizer, white supremacy, and the fight that Black people themselves have waged for their freedom and acknowledgement of their people and ancestry.
In general, under all racial caste systems, the closer to whiteness, colonial Westernness, and Europeanness you are – in ancestry and/or appearance, power, money, ability to code – and the farther from Blackness, the better. Here in the United States, much like in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and across the Caribbean, Latin America, and wherever else African people were kidnapped to or exploited, people with caste/color privilege could be free, could own enslaved Africans, and could benefit from their white father’s position and money if he had it.
Caste system still unofficially exist today in cultures wherever Black people were kidnapped to. There aren’t just “People who are Black”, all oppressed equally and the same, and “People who are not.” There are Black people of varying levels of African ancestry, class background, nationality and ethnicity, and skin color/phenotype with varying levels of privilege or power on that spectrum, because Blackness is a construct dependant solely on these dynamics and terms.
While Bruno Mars and Cardi B benefit from being lighter skinned, they don’t benefit from having African ancestry that is from the global south, something that African Americans do have. Historically, positions of power and visibility have been dominated by lighter skinned Black people of any nationality or ethnicity. Let us not forget the many passe blancs, mixed, and light-skinned African Americans, Caribbeans, Black Brits, Afro-Latinxs, and Africans in entertainment since the early 20th century. I can think of very few dark-skinned Black people, especially women, prominent in the media until recent years.
We have always had this problem with colorism, but it is one thing to bemoan the way that lighter skinned Black people are given certain preference and privilege and another thing entirely to say anyone with this kind of power within the racial caste isn’t Black or has no claim to Blackness at all.
What’s more, it is wildly revisionist and ahistorical to pretend that this trend of using lighter skinned or mixed Black people is new and that it only happens with those who are perceived as non-Black “Hispanics”. These people are Black, but they are being privileged by an ambiguity that they are able to inhabit like many Black people, including African Americans, before them.
In my experience, conversations about Blackness among African Americans often feel too quick to come for Afro-Latinxs or non-English speaking Afro-Caribbeans in a way that they do not come for others. But even in this, the conversations lack consistency. If we observe our history, from the early days of the kidnapping of Africans until now and find all the notable non-African American or mixed Black figures integral to African American identity, politics, resistance, culture and experience in order to remove them/their Blackness, then we would be without Audre Lorde, Tessa Thompson, Biggie Smalls, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Sidney Poitier, Kuwame Ture, Frantz Fanon, Beyonce, Marcus Garvey, Ceila Cruz, Wyclef Jean, Bob Marley, and so many more.
The fact of the matter is that Afro-Latinxs have always been a huge, unambiguous, integral part of Blackness as it is conceptualized in the U.S., just like African American Blackness has helped Caribbean and Latinx Black people, both in this country and in our homelands, shape our identities and movements.
Erasing someone’s Blackness rather than interrogating colorism, caste, power (or lack thereof) inherent to their experience is the wrong direction. Doing so will leave gaps in one’s own identity.
I am in no way saying that every person with an ounce of African blood is Black, or that passing as non-Black, which many of us can do conditionally, isn’t without its great amount of power. But to say that all African-descendent people who don’t look or act a certain way, or who don’t come from where you think they should, have no claim to Blackness at all erases cultures and people who have had an active hand in the creation and protection of the American concept of Blackness over the centuries.
This conversation creates a false binary in which African Americans are always darker skinned, unambiguous in their background, and sure in their Blackness while all Afro-Caribbeans and Latinxs are lighter skinned, ambiguous and/or passing in their identity and reticent to identify as Black. Not only are there plenty of light and passing Black people here in this country, but there’s plenty of coonery, anti-Blackness, caste violence, colorism and shame historically and now. And in the Caribbean and Latin America, many of us have been aware and proud of our African ancestry and history for centuries and proudly in allegiance with Black people globally.
We’ve been niggas for decades, even centuries before many others were. Our diaspora is older, our movements and history run deep. For every Cardi B or Dascha Polanco there is an Amara La Negra, Monica Veloz, Jessie Woo, Ceila Cruz, or Susana Baca. These conversations that wish to dismiss and erase the Cardis and Brunos because of their Latinidad also erases those of dark, unambiguous Afro-Latinxs like Amara La Negra.
Blackness exists across the world and there are many of us on our journey to reclaim our roots and deeper our Black identity. To police that process and call anything that doesn’t conceptualize Blackness exactly how someone else would want them to is irresponsible. When we call ourselves by our nationality or by our specific background, that does not mean that we do not know that we are Black or that we are not proud of our Blackness.
I refer to myself as Black, Dominican, Afro-Latina, Afro-Caribbean, and Afro-Dominican. They’re all connected and none of these labels mean that I think myself better or different than anyone else’s Blackness. It means that I am acknowledging the specific place where my diaspora was taken to and that history, all the good and the bad with it. I will acknowledge my privilege and the power I have within the racial caste system based on the lightness of my skin, but I will never relinquish my Blackness just because it doesn’t look the way that you want it to.
Briana L. Ureña-Ravelo. Writer. Community organizer. Errant punk. Ne’er do well. Afro-Dominicana. High Hex Femme.