by Stephanie Morillo
I’ve discovered that context is everything. Being a light-skinned Dominican-American raised in the Bronx, context has meant that relating to my identity – or just being seen – has been as mutable as the people I come across who ask me, “What are you?” or just assume I am (fill-in-the-blank).
I’ve gotten it all. In college, fellow Black college students thought I was Biracial or Puerto Rican. In Malaysia, I was assumed to be Eurasian (a European-Asian mix), or half Arab. Because of my last name, I’ve been mistaken for half-Filipina. Or Iranian. When I explained I was Latina, their only frame of references were the white Mexican women in telenovelas or Jennifer Lopez, who I’d been compared to because I didn’t quite look like the White Mexican heroines of television. My first day of teaching at a conservative school on Malaysia’s East Coast a student came up to me and said, “Miss, I thought you were Beyonce!” When I asked her why, she pointed to my long and very curly, multi-textured hair. While all of the other teachers in my cohort were getting predatory looks from men due to their blue eyes and long, fine hair, people were extremely confused by me. Phenotypically speaking, I was strange.
Growing up, I heard stories from my father about how my mother’s mother shrieked, “La nina va a ser negra!”, or “The girl’s going to be Black!” when I was born because my ears were dark and my dad is obviously “mulatto.” My parents both have a Black parent, but my dad’s mother is visibly Mixed. Both of my parents came out light; my dad had kinky hair and light brown skin with deep, hazel eyes, and my mother came out my complexion with a thin nose, dark green eyes and pelo lacio, which translates to soft, fine hair. In my mother’s case, she came out looking more like her mother’s family which could pass – and I’m sure did pass – for White. My mother’s mother didn’t look too fondly on my father because he was “Black” to her, never mind that her own husband was actually Black. But in the Dominican Republic, having money can whiten you, and my grandfather made a good living.
So here I come, light-skinned but looking a lot like my dad, and I had a full head of insane hair that no one knew how to deal with. My mother brushed my hair every morning, trying in vain to force down my edges with spray and gel – nothing worked. My dad had a better solution: from the age of 5, he’d take me to the neighborhood Dominican salon every Sunday morning. He didn’t want me walking around with a pajon (read: hair looking a hot-ass mess) and for a few hours I was subjected to deep conditioners (and, when I was a teenager, I’d get my edges relaxed every few months), rolos, and an intense blowout to force my hair into submission. Since no one in my immediate family had the multiple textures I did in my hair, no one taught me how to take care of my hair when it was curly. I began to see my natural hair as ugly and my dad still says my hair is “better” because of those Sunday wash and sets.
I always knew that I was Mixed but using that term felt strange on my tongue because I couldn’t quite pinpoint immediate ancestors that were of one “race” or another. Race in the Dominican Republic is extremely convoluted but it suffices to say that all Dominicans irrespective of color are culturally Dominican, though their life experiences and access to opportunities differ widely due to colorism and socioeconomic status. For me, I had enough dark people in my family and grew up in a Dominican neighborhood in NYC with enough dark and Mixed looking people that my seeing them as “my own” wasn’t far-fetched at all. But I internalized the resentment I experienced for being light-skinned, or just as messed up – being light but not being able to pass because of my hair and my body shape. White people were an abstract concept when I was growing up. To be oft compared or likened to people who had houses and went to summer camp and lived on television was a source of a lot of tension. I had wished nothing more than to have dark skin, and I often fantasized of having children that were darker, if for nothing else just so no one could deny them access to the very culture they were born into.
I overcompensated for my perceived “questionable Dominicanness” by learning as much about Dominican culture as I could. I was engrossed by the history, by the direct connections I was able to make to African cultures through the music and the food. I took pride in our unique strand of Spanish, the accent a meld of Andalusian/Canary Islander accents with those of the African slaves that once inhabited the island. Every single aspect of our culture could be traced back somewhere and by doing this research, I felt validated in claiming the Blackness I knew I had but couldn’t proclaim because of my skin.
To be clear, I’ve never denied that my experiences have been comparable to the injustices my dark-skinned friends and loved ones have encountered, and I never will claim that. It angers me to see what they have to put up with simply because of how society reacts to their darker skin. But people readjust their interactions with you according to who you claim to be, and when you are light-skinned but you rightfully point out you are not White, both Whites, Blacks and others in between shift their perception. My competence has been questioned, I’ve been “threatening” because my disposition exposes my inner-city upbringing, my hair has been touched and pulled by strangers before. Claiming Blackness does not imply that experiences with racism are equal for all who do. What it does imply is the existence of a common thread. We should all acknowledge that our struggles are different and decry the injustices committed against our brothers and sisters, but we cannot deny ourselves to ourselves, when we are being denied the world by the system.
Stephanie Morillo is a writer, singer and advocate for minority access and participation in the technology industry. She is a native New Yorker.