ABOVE PHOTO: From left, symposium panelists; Malín Falú, DezMarie Thomas, Katelina “La Gata” Eccleston, Blanca Pacheco, and Jennifer Mota (Photos courtesy of Taller Puertorriqueño)
By Constance Garcia-Barrio
On February 25, panelists participating in the 27th Annual Arturo A. Schomburg Symposium tackled a painful topic: “Colorism: Shades of Oppression, Inclusivity and Power.”
The event took place at Taller Puertorriqueno, an organization which preserves and promotes Puerto Rican arts and culture located at 2600 N. 5th Street..
The symposium bears the name of Arturo Schomburg (1874-1935), a Puerto Rican of African and German descent.
He moved to New York. in 1891, took part in the Harlem Renaissance, and researched and raised awareness of what Afro-Latinos and African Americans have contributed to society.
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library System, is named for him.
“The idea for our first symposium years ago began with a conversation among a few of us about Afro-Latin culture,” said Evelyne Laurent-Perrault, an Afro-Latina activist and scholar, born and raised in Venezuela from Haitian and Venezuela parents.
Laurent-Perrault — an assistant professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara — and her friends favored the idea, but others felt it would be opening a can of worms.
Despite doubters, the ball got rolling.
“We didn’t know if anyone would come to the first symposium, much less it would become an annual event,” Laurent-Perrault said.
The first gathering at Taller Puertorriqueno’s old site had standing room only. Now it has become an international event with people attending from Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and other countries via Zoom, Laurent-Perrault said.
Laurent-Perrault co-moderated last Saturday’s forum with Nasheli Ortiz Gonzalez, executive director at Taller Puertorriqueno. Ortiz Gonzalez, a native of Puerto Rico, is also an award-winning fashion designer and entrepreneur.
Laurent-Perrault began the symposium by acknowledging that the event was taking place on land where the Lenni-Lenape lived for centuries, then she poured a libation, an offering to the ancestors.
Morning panelists included Tanya Kateri Hernandez, a professor at Fordham University School of Law and author of “Racial Innocence: Unmasking Latino anti-Black Bias and the Struggle for Equality.” The book documents the ways in which colorism is part of Latino anti-Black racism, Hernandez said.
She dismantled the myth that Latino cultures are racial democracies.
“The truth is that the darker you are, the more likely you are to find yourself in a low socio-economic status,” Hernandez said. “Sometimes people try to dispute that by saying, ‘But we love Celia Cruz [a popular dark-skinned Cuban American singer, 1925-2003],’ but loving Celia Cruz and anti-Blackness can coexist.”
Other Latinos claim that it’s “los viejitos,” the older generation, that holds on to colorism, Hernandez noted. However, Hernandez contends that colorism is alive and well among younger Latinos. Language referring to color suggests the importance of skin tone, Hernandez said. “Java” means high yellow or a light-skinned person of African descent.
“Trigueno is a light-skinned person of indeterminate shade,” she said. “I view colorism as one part of the totality of racism.”
Colorism shows up not only in personal relationships, but also in the employment arena, Hernandez pointed out. She used the example of a Sears department store in Puerto Rico run by Puerto Ricans.
“Dark-skinned people were sent to the warehouse to work, no matter what qualifications they had,” she said. Only fair-skinned people were hired for sales positions.
Her book shows that “it’s possible for a historically marginalized group to experience discrimination and also be discriminatory,” she said.
Ellis Monk, associate professor of sociology at Harvard and the author of “The Unceasing Significance of Colorism: Skin Tone Stratification in the United States,” was also a panelist.
Colorism, discrimination based on skin tone, is a long-standing and global phenomenon, and is found in Asia and India as well as in the U.S., Monk said.
Color stratification plays out in different ways, he noted. He mentioned the case of Walter White (1893-1955), a journalist and activist who looked white. White’s appearance allowed him to investigate and report on lynchings of Black people in the South.
On the other hand, in the criminal justice system, the darker one’s skin, the greater the chances of being arrested, Monk said.
“Darker-skinned women have a higher probability of being connected with people in the criminal justice system,” he said.
Colorism spills over into medical technology, Monk noted. He said that pulse oximeters, the device that clips onto the end of a patient’s finger to measure the blood’s oxygen level, is less accurate for darker-skinned people, because it was tested on people with fair skin.
“Inaccurate readings can result in delayed treatment,” Monk said.
Panelist Luis Martin Valdiviezo Arista, born in Peru, has a doctorate in social justice education from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Valdiviezo Arista discussed how “las castas” (“the castes”), the system of racial classification according to the proportions of one’s African, Indigenous, and Spanish blood in colonial times, set the stage for colorism after Peru gained independence from Spain in 1821. Generally speaking, the darker one’s skin, the lower one’s position, he said.
“Colorism can be interpreted as a consequence of these processes of social domination induced by racist ideologies,” Valdiviezo Arista said.
To this day, the racial hierarchy works against Black and Indigenous people, according to Valdiviezo Arista.
“A friend of mine had cosmetic surgery so that he would not look Indigenous,” he said.The symposium focused on the consequence of colorism, and it also pointed toward possible solutions.
Change begins with awareness, Hernandez said.
“We must take an unflinching look at ourselves,” she said. “Are we acting in a way that maintains anti-Blackness?”
Dr. Georgina Falu, director of the Falu Foundation in New York City, stressed the importance of writing grants that would lead to education and services for Afro-descendant communities. She gives grant-writing workshops.
Several panelists emphasized the need to educate teachers, children, school administrators and others about colorism. Social workers could apply for continuing education credits for Saturday’s symposium. In the future, teachers may be able to do so as well.
Participants also said that anti-racist education must start early in a child’s life. Children’s books like “We All Belong,” by Alex Goss and Nathalie Goss, and “Skin Like Mine,” by Latasha Perry, were mentioned.
“The fundamental issue is that we are all Africans,” said Zenaida Mendez, director of the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, El Barrio Firehouse Community Center .
“We reach and empower women,” said Mendez, adding that as a dark-skinned woman, she often faces colorism. It would help to experience other Black cultures, she believes.
“There’s Barlovento in Venezuela, Blue Fields in Nicaragua, and many other places,” Mendez said.
The symposium included a delicious meal and a second panel discussion on colorism in everyday life, but attendees and the panelists in both sessions reached the same conclusion: Colorism is a lose/lose situation. In order to dehumanize someone else, you must also dehumanize yourself.
To learn more about Taller Puertorriqueno, visit: https://tallerpr.org/.