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Will “White People Believe Anything” About Race?

Hello Meltingpot Readers,

Filmmaker Lacey Schwartz at the Brooklyn Historical Society

Filmmaker Lacey Schwartz at the Brooklyn Historical Society

Pardon the delay in posting, but we had some technical difficulties. But I’m back now. And so happy to be here to tell you about a great event I went to on Monday in Brooklyn. In honor of Loving Day, the Brooklyn Historical Society hosted a screening of Lacey Schwartz’s amazing documentary, Little White Lie, followed by a discussion with Schwartz moderated by my neighbor and friend, the writer Lise Funderberg. Needless to say, it was an evening well spent.

Little White Lie is a completely raw and honest racial identity story. Schwartz grew up in Woodstock, New York in the 80s and 90s in a “nice Jewish family,” believing she was “a nice Jewish girl.” The only thing was, her skin was really brown and her hair was really curly. Really curly. In the film we learn that Schwartz’s parents explained their daughter’s complexion and hair with the suggestion that she favored a distant relative from Sicily. He was dark too. Without giving too much away, they lied. That is, at least one parent lied.

The film is truly fascinating as Lacey goes back and retraces her childhood through her adult years, interviewing friends and family to see if they ever suspected that she was actually Black. As it turns out, the only person who ever guessed the truth behind the lie, was her high school boyfriend, who happened to be biracial himself. When interviewed, he was truly incredulous that nobody in Schwartz’s family ever suspected the truth. “White people will believe anything,” he said.

Perhaps it’s not that White people will believe anything, but rather, they’d prefer not to talk about race to such an extent that they would ignore a very obvious Black girl being passed off as White right under their noses. Or maybe it’s just that they didn’t have the language to start the conversation about a loaded racial topic? Or maybe, just maybe, they didn’t want to be rude and get all up in the Schwartz family business? Whatever the reason, this is a truly enlightening film that opens up a lot of questions about race, identity, color and family dynamics. You can see why I felt I had to be there.

At the end of it all, I was left wondering what it meant that an entire White community would accept a Black girl as long as they believed she was White. And therefore, if it isn’t skin color that makes a person Black, or White for that matter, what is it? I have ideas about how to answer that question, but I’d prefer to hear yours.

I’m listening and taking notes. And in the meantime, find a way to see this film. It’s worth it.

Peace!

The Afro-Spanish Alliance: What I’m Writing Now

Hi Meltingpot Readers,

So, most of you know that I’m knee deep in the research for my new book, Same Family, Different Colors. Currently I am at work on the chapter focusing on Latino families and their issues with colorism, and let me just say I feel like I’ve fallen down a Kinky Gazpacho wormhole like no other. It’s fascinating how far back the Afro-Spanish alliance stretches into the past, here in the United States, in the Caribbean, in Europe and of course, Africa. But despite the long history of cultural clashes, connections and co-opting, Black and Spanish remain unsettled in the Latino community.

So, these colonial Spanish Castas paintings didn't help, or rather they did help give the Spanish speaking world a social hierarchy based on color.

So, these colonial Spanish Castas paintings didn’t help, or rather they did help give the Spanish speaking world a social hierarchy based on color.

Perhaps you read about the Univision television host, Rodner Figueroa, who recently compared First Lady, Michelle Obama to a cast member of the Planet of the Apes? Or maybe you’ve heard about the horrific treatment of Haitians in the Dominican Republic of late? Or maybe you, like me, just happened to notice that almost every famous Latina beauty in the Untied States is on the fair side of brown (see, Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayek, Cameron Diaz as examples). This rejection of Blackness runs deep and wide and I’m trying to find out why. Of course there’s colonial Spain to blame, global White supremacy and good old-fashioned American racism, but still it seems like an unusual amount of effort is put forth in the Latino community to deny the Black behind the ears/the Black abuela in the closet/ and all of the other African family secrets everyone seems to have. Where is the love, I wonder? (Part of my research involves finding that Black love/Black pride, I hope.)

Make no mistake, Latinos in the United States are no more color struck than anybody else, if one could even quantify that. I just happen to be fixated on them right now because that’s where I am in my research journey. Not to mention, as a member of my own personal Afro-Spanish alliance, raising three Afro-Spanish kids, the research hits very close to home. So, that’s where I am. And that’s why I’ve been listening to this Concha Buika song on repeat. It gives me hope. Enjoy and you’re welcome.

P.S. If any of you dear readers identify as Latino and were raised /or are in a nuclear family where family members had/have different shades of skin and you’d like to share your story, whether there were/are issues or not, please send me an email to MyAmericanMeltingpot@gmail.com with Latino Story in the subject line. Thanks!

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due: A Call to Change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Hello Meltingpot Readers,

Did you ever stop to think why you get a day off for Columbus Day? What exactly is it we are celebrating? Some of us didn’t really celebrate anything at all today and reported in for work, but that’s beside the point. The real point is that celebrating the man who accidentally bumped into the American continent, thought it was India, and then tried to lay claim to the land for his European employers, despite the fact that the land was already inhabited, is kind of insane. I mean really, insane. As I saw on somebody’s Facebook page today, we should celebrate Columbus Day by breaking into someone’s house and then telling them that the house is now ours. Yeah, that would be more appropriate.

On national level, a lot of people think it would be more appropriate to honor the indigenous people of the United States on October 12 instead of Columbus. One such person, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, is a professor, activist and author with a new book out called, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Beacon Press). She has created a petition to send to President Obama to have the holiday officially changed. Two cities, Minneapolis and Seattle have already made the change, but Ortiz wants the entire country to come correct. I signed her petition. If you want to as well, follow this link to WhiteHouse.gov. It’s quick and easy and every single signature makes a difference.

What do you think about this issue? Should we change the focus of the federal holiday? I’m so listening.

Peace!

Can White Girls Co-Opt the “Booty?”

Hello Meltingpot Readers,

I’m trying to wrap my mind around the current “glorification” of big butts, brought to you by the likes of Kim Kardashian and Iggy Azalea, aka, not Black people. Recently Vogue magazine declared that we were living in the “Era of the Big Booty,” and actually credited Jennifer Lopez with starting the trend. Excuse me?

Then today, I finally get a chance to check out the video behind the infectious pop song by Meghan Trainor called All About that Bass. Basically it’s a self-love anthem for those girls with extra junk in their trunk. I assumed Meghan Trainor was Black, but she’s not. She’s very White. Check out her video:

So, at first I was feeling kind of duped. And then I was feeling like I was living in a Bo Derek braids moment all over again. (If you don’t know what the Bo Braids moment was, you can read all about it in my book Hair Story.) Really, White girls are going to get the credit for popularizing big butts? Did Sarah Baartman (aka the Hottentot Venus) die in pain and humiliation in vain? Can Black women get the credit for anything? Anything? And please note, that Trainor uses mostly Black women in her video which kinda says to me that she’s using Black women to bolster her claim, which gives credence to my theory that this is a co-opting moment.

But then I had to check myself? Well, at least ask myself this question. Do Black women own big butts? Is that something we can legitimately claim? Clearly not all Black women have big butts and many White women do. So, is my indignation misguided or misplaced? Is this the wrong issue to get worked up about? I had to wonder. And I’m still wondering. I don’t have a well-researched answer. I only know how I feel and that is that once again, it’s only when a White woman embraces it, can Black beauty be acknowledged. #sadsadsad

What do you think about the booty issue, dear readers? I’m so totally listening.

Peace!

Black Soap, White Skin?!

Hi Meltingpot Readers,

So, you know I’m working on my next book that will explore the role of colorism in American families. Right now I’m deep into the research, so the majority of my waking hours are spent trying to figure out why so many people of color only see beauty and self-worth in light skin. As you can imagine, it’s a search with no satisfying answer and it is almost impossible not to have a head banging moment at least once a day when I discover something even more ridiculous in terms of the lengths people have gone or will go to erase the pigment from their skin. Like Japanese geishas using nightingale poop in their facials because it reportedly lightens the skin.

And then yesterday, I saw this on the bottom shelf at the grocery store.

Black soap, white skin. What's wrong with this picture and this product?

Black soap, white skin. What’s wrong with this picture and this product?

Yes, it’s skin lightening soap, but that’s not what made me pause. It’s the fact that the soap is manufactured by the same company that makes African Black Soap. That just seems so wrong, so I did a little digging to find out who owns this nefarious company that promotes itself as traditionally African, yet creates products that would strip Africans of one of their most defining features, their dark skin. I guessed it might be a White-owned company, because they wouldn’t care much about the politics of identity and might be greedy enough to try to sell African pride and Black self-hatred on the same store shelf. Then I realized that skin lighteners are big business all over Africa today, so it could be an African company that simply tries to please all of its customer base. What I didn’t suspect is that Mandina Industrial Corporation, makers of African Black Soap and Skin Lightening Cream, was started by a Bangladeshi media tycoon in Brooklyn, New York.

The things you learn. Do you care who makes your soaps and shampoos? How often do you see skin whiteners on the store shelves? I’m so listening.

Peace!

My Kids are Food Snobs. Hooray!

Hi Meltingpot Readers,

This past weekend el esposo and I drove the boys down to North Carolina to stay with my parents for spring break. Granted it snowed there yesterday so they won’t be coming home with a tan and sand in their shoes, but hey, at least they’re down South.

El esposo and I only stayed for two nights, but we managed to go out for dinner one of those nights with my parents, my grandmother and an aunt and uncle. Sadly, where my parents live is a wasteland when it comes to fine dining options, and when I say ‘fine’ I simply mean places where the food actually tastes good and is made with fresh ingredients. We ended up at a Mexican restaurant that caters to the gringo population. Just to give you an idea as to how gringo it is, the complimentary chips that arrive at your table came with salsa and creamy ranch salad dressing.

I warned my kids to order something simple so that they wouldn’t be disappointed. So one kid got chicken enchiladas and the other got a taco and burrito combination plate. I watched my older son tuck into his enchilada and instantly knew the night wasn’t going to end well. He claimed the thing was full of cheese. “It’s an enchilada,” I hissed. “It’s supposed to have cheese in it.” I didn’t want his stank attitude to offend my parents and relatives. Mind you, these were relatives from the side of my family who still believe children should be seen and not heard.

Two seconds later, my other son screwed up his face and claimed there was cheese all over his burrito and he couldn’t eat it. Now, my younger son is not a big cheese fan in general, meaning unlike his brother and sister, he’ll eat cheddar, Colby Jack, parmesan and aged Gouda, but refuses to eat any cheese made from goat’s milk or with a stinky rind. So, I couldn’t figure out why he was having a problem with the cheese on his burrito. I assumed it was cheddar. I watched both boys pick at their food and eat the salad and rice on their plates and then claim they were too full to finish. The older one had a serious scowl on his face too, like someone had personally insulted him. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and tasted the offensive enchilada and realized the problem.

It tasted like American cheese. My kids have never eaten American cheese in my house. I don’t suspect they eat it anywhere else either, seeing as how I told them American cheese isn’t really cheese. In general we eat a lot of cheddar, Colby Jack and all sorts of goat and sheep’s milk cheese from Spain and Greece. My mother tried to convince my kids that it wasn’t American cheese, but my older son wanted the truth. He wanted to know why his enchiladas were so disgusting. He actually waited for the waitress to come back to the table and he asked her directly what type of cheese was used in the enchiladas. She looked at my son like he was crazy for even having to ask, “It’s American cheese,” she said. And I knew she was thinking, ‘You know that cheese you gringos like.’

My son was triumphant and aghast. He turned to me and said, “How can this be a Mexican restaurant if they serve American cheese? That’s just wrong.” I had to agree. It was so wrong. My mother rolled her eyes and huffed, “Your kids are food snobs.” And I proudly threw my arms around them both and said with a smile, “Yes, yes they are.”

That is all.

Peace!

And Speaking of Whitewashing Latino Identity: Have You Seen Disney’s First Latina Princess?

Princess Sofia. Not Quite Latina Enough

Hello Meltingpot Readers,

I hate to beat a dead race horse (pun intended), but sometimes I can’t help it.  Have your heard all of the excitement over the fact that Disney was about to introduce their first Latina princess, Princess Sofia?

I’d heard faint rumblings about it here and there, but it wasn’t until folks got a glimpse of the cartoon princess that the twitterverse blew up with cries of whitewashing. Apparently this Latina princess has milky white skin, blue eyes, and reddish-brown hair. She doesn’t speak Spanish, is voiced by a White actress and, well, doesn’t seem all that Latina. Of course, the controversy comes back to the issue we’ve all been talking about here on the Meltingpot regarding the race of Latinos. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Latino is not a race. It refers to a group of people living in the United States who come from Mexico, Central and South America (not including Brazil) and parts of the Caribbean. Latino people can be black, white, brown, and other. So, of course, some people think it’s okay that Princess Sofia looks like every other White Disney princess and pixie. Some Latinas look like that too. This is true.

But. And there is a big but in this story.

Princess Sofia, according to Disney, has a mother from a made up kingdom based on Spain. Her father is from a made-up kingdom based on Scandinavia. If a Spaniard procreates with a Swede or a Dane, for example, the resulting child is not Latina. She’s Spanish and Swedish. Racially, she’d be White. You could also call her a European. You could stretch and call her bicultural. What you could not call her, is Latina. I don’t care what she looks like.

Somebody at Disney has clearly realized their ginormous faux pas and is trying to do damage control by stating that Sofia isn’t in fact, Latina, but rather, she’s of “mixed heritage.” But they should really get a new diversity director over there because not only is ‘mixed heritage’ misleading when you’re talking about a kid with two European parents, they used the following line in their explanation of Sofia’s background.

For example, Sofia’s mom comes from a fictitious land, Galdiz, which was inspired by Spain […] this creates a world of diversity and inclusion that sends just the right kind of message to all children..” 

I’m sorry, I love Spain, but ‘diversity and inclusion’ are not the words I would use to describe its culture or its people. To read more about the Disney backtrack on Sofia’s Latina heritage, check out this story on the Huffington Post.

After the great commercial success of  Disney’s first Black princess, Princess Tiana, I guess Mickey and dem decided it was time for little Latina girls to have their moment in a glass slipper. Not to mention, it was time for Disney to have a product that would entice Latina mothers to spend insane amounts of money on Princess Sofia merchandise. Just in time for the holidays. Nice try Disney, but I’d call this one an epic fail.

Suddenly, I have a new appreciation for Dora the Explorer.

Peace!

Is Argo a Whitewash of Latino Identity?

Hola Meltingpot Readers,

This weekend el esposo and I went to see the film Argo. In case you haven’t heard about it, Argo is the movie based on the true life rescue of six hostages held in Iran during the infamous 1979 Iran hostage crisis. The hero of the story, Tony Mendez, is the CIA operative who concocted a plan to sneak the hostages out of Iran by disguising them as a Canadian movie crew. It sounds outrageous, and it was, but desperate times called for desperate measures and with Iran and the United State on the brink of war, the times were truly desperate.

The film, directed by and starring Ben Affleck, is really good. El esposo and I were on the edge of our seats, stomachs clenched in worry, for the entire film. I love this type of real-life suspense movie and will probably even use it next semester for a case study when I teach my class, Ripped from the Headlines. And I hear the Oscar buzz is already buzzing for Argo. There’s only one part of the Argo Kool-Aid I am not sure I should drink and that is the casting of Affleck to play the role of Tony Mendez.

In real life, Mendez is a Latino. And there has been plenty of backlash from some in the Latino community regarding his portrayal by a White actor. I don’t need to rehash the entirety of said backlash, but the two main issues cited are the fact that Latino actors so rarely get the ‘good’ roles in major Hollywood films, it seems particularly cruel to take a real-life story with a Latino main character and let a White actor have the job. The second issue is even more insidious and I’ll tell you why. Far too often the only roles Latinos get to play in Hollywood are negative stereotypes; gang members, gardeners, maids, etc. In reality, the hero of the Iranian hostage rescue happened to be a Latino man, but in the movie, that hero is White. So here you have a huge opportunity to diversify public opinion about the Latino narrative in America and it is completely lost.

The real Tony Mendez today.

I get it. I see the problem here. But here’s the one hiccup I have with the critics. Latino is not a race. Latinos come in every color of the rainbow, including white, so the whitewash outcry may be a little off base. In real-life, Tony Mendez and Ben Affleck don’t look all that different. In fact, if one didn’t know Mendez was of Hispanic descent, it wouldn’t be obvious. He looks White enough. And apparently Mendez didn’t grow up with his Latino father and barely speaks Spanish. As an actor/director, I can’t exactly fault Affleck for thinking he could play this role authentically. It’s not like he changed Mendez’s name or major physical characteristics.  And it’s not like Mendez has stated that he pulled his inspiration for the Argo project or his time in the CIA from his proud Latino heritage. So, did Affleck whitewash Mendez’s image or was his image already white to start?

Don’t get me wrong, meltingpot readers, I still see the problem as it was stated. I would guess that nine out of ten movie viewers who see Argo, or even hear about it, will not realize that the hero of the film is Latino. And I get that Benicio del Toro or Benjamin Bratt or Esai Morales could have played this role and that message would have been crystal clear. But identity politics are complicated and this isn’t a clear issue of Black and White or even brown. So who is right? Is Affleck casting himself another Hollywood whitewash? Did he have an obligation to cast a Latino actor? Does anybody know if Tony Mendez is upset over Affleck’s portrayal?

What do you think, dear readers? I’d really like to hear your opinion.

I’m listening.

Peace!