Identity Crisis: Personal Reflections on Black and Brown Unity

As we race toward a minority-majority America, Black and brown unity is the linchpin in securing racial equity.

September 15th marked the start of National Hispanic American Heritage Month.  And like many brands and companies, I too thought about how we as an agency might acknowledge this celebration.  While considering our options, I reflected on my own beautiful yet complex relationship with the Hispanic community, particularly with those living at the intersection of Blackness.

“Boricua. Morena.” A young Eshena with her friend in ballet class.

I was raised in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a diverse neighborhood that has a history of being an enclave for emerging immigrant groups in New York City. Once a strong Jewish/Hasidic community, around about mid 20th century, the neighborhood saw the influx of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean population.  By the time I came along in the 80s, Lower East Side transformed into “Loisaida,” a rich stew of African Americans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, with a sprinkle of Asians and the remnants of Orthodox Jews.  Although I am Black with Southern roots, I was raised more on bacalao than fried catfish, more mofongo than mac & cheese.  My Spanglish speaking Black mother would code switch on a dime, and as a child, I often felt more at home with Boricuas than I did with other Afro-Caribbeans.  Yet despite my feelings of connection, there was also a knowing that I could never truly belong.

*WARNING* Potentially triggering racist language

The Lower East Side was referred to ‘Loisaida” by many, reflecting the Nuyorican influence on the neighborhood. SOURCE: Joe Conzo Photography

The first time I heard the N-word directed towards me was at the hands of an Afro-Latina. As is often the case on New York City streets, my mom got into a tense exchange with a Dominican woman we knew from around the way. As she turned away from the argument, the woman slipped into Spanish and that’s when I heard it – “NIGGER.”  At first, I didn’t even think she was talking about us.  But when my mom exploded in reaction, I realized that that dagger was aimed in our direction.  As my mom proceeded to read her (now in Spanish), I stood confused.  How could she use THAT word?  She was more phenotypically African than I was, her rich brown skin reminiscent of my South Carolina-born grandmother.  How could she be so disconnected from her history that she didn’t realize that she was not only insulting us but also herself? It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I came to understand what was at the root of that incident.

One of the most insidious side effects of white supremacy is the informal creation of a global social caste system validated by proximity to whiteness, with capital B blacks making up the bottom tier.  Chattel slavery only cemented that idea.  So, for many coming to the States, particularly at the height of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement, the message was clear- to be African American in America is the worst thing you could be. When it comes to the Oppression Olympics, you might be a “chink” or a “spic,” but at least you’re not a “nigger.”  Despite the potential shared connection to the Diaspora, despite the common experience of subjugation at the hands of white supremacy, distancing themselves from Blackness became a survival tactic for some- even at the risk of self-hatred.

That moment on Delancey Street was unfortunately not an isolated incident.  Even outside of my personal experience, there has been a history of tension between Black and brown Americans.  These seeds of dissension were sowed by hundreds of years of indoctrination, cultivated by the divide and conquer technique of systemic racism.  There are intentional efforts to keep us in discord, walls built by the false construct of whiteness.  That woman used that word as a weapon because she could not see herself in our brown faces, could not see the blackness in herself.

Community residents in Chicago marching to support the Black Lives Matter movement and to call for unity. SOURCE: Anthony Vazquez, Sun-Times.

However, there are glimmers of hope. I’ve seen increasingly widespread usage of the term Afro-Latino/a, open discussions about shared heritage, joined fronts at Black Lives Matter protests.  As we race toward a minority-majority America, Black and brown unity is the linchpin in securing racial equity.  This has been an effort in progress for generations, but it requires daily intent from all of us to be fully realized. So this year, I will acknowledge Hispanic Heritage month by being more deliberate in reaching across the table, engaging my Latino colleagues in marketing and finding more opportunities to collaborate, and celebrating all the ways we shape and transform culture together.