African-American & Hispanic: when race meets ethnicity meets Culture

Lala: black or Hispanic?

 The age old debate of whether a person can be black and Hispanic is still a hot topic among blacks.

For a long time, black Americans or African Americans have been more or less a single ethno-racial cultural group. They were all Baptist-Christians, English-speaking, soul-food loving homogeneous people. But, with the advent of newer black (of Indigenous African descent), into the U.S., and the use of the term African-American, along with Latin American Hispanic culture, there has been major confusion about the difference between race, culture and ethnicity.

I can’t say how frequently I have had to explain that Zoe Saldana is Afro-Latina, not half-black and half-Latina, but racially black, of Hispanic (Dominican) descent. Yet, people still don’t understand what this means. Bossip, for a while now, has taken issues with former MTV VJ and basketball wife, Lala Vasquez, who it has accused of denying her African heritage by stating she’s not African American but Puerto Rican.

 No matter how many times myself or other Caribbean or African-descended peoples come to Lala’s defense by trying to explain logic, it hasn’t stopped the madness. Lala is still accused of denying her African heritage (blackness) by calling herself Puerto Rican instead of African American.

Here’s the problem. Lala’s case is no different than mine or Wyclef Jean’s. I am not African-American and neither is Jean, or Nikki Minaj, for example.I am  Jamaican-Canadian, Jean is Haitian-American and Nikki is Trinidadian-American. However, we have not taken much heat for claiming this; at least nothing close to the amount of vitriol spat at the likes of Zoe Saldana or Lala Vasquez, who are Dominican and Puerto Rican, respectively.

There may be a few reasons for this. In the U.S., the term Hispanic is an ethno-racial/cultural classification. This not unlike the moniker African-American. Furthermore, African-American and Hispanic are considered mutually exclusive; that is, it’s one or the other but not both. Race, and/or ethnicity follows rigid lines in the U.S., unlike Latin America, and elsewhere. Moreover, Latin America has a notorious history of denying and ostracizing its African roots, even in the face of visible evidence. The combination of these factors cause for much confusion and madness when it comes to Afro-Hispanics (black people from Latin America). They are asked to choose sides. Black Hispanics are seen as ignorant, self-hating individuals if they identify culturally with their Hispanic heritage; even if they say they are racially black.

Many Americans, and particularly African Americans, don’t seem to understand that black and Hispanic are not mutually exclusive concepts; and furthermore, if they do accept this, the understanding is faulty. They may say, for example, Lala Vasquez is half-Puerto Rican and half-African American. In other words, they still don’t get it. Recently, I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to explain to separate persons on the Internet that Nikki Minaj is not half  black and half Trinidadian, and furthermore, she is not half Trinidadian and half Indian (South Asian).  Despite explaining repeatedly that both Minaj’s parents are Trinidadian,  of separate races: mother is black and father is Indian, many Americans still didn’t understand that it meant she is half-Indian and half-black, but 100% Trinidadian. They understand this no more than they understand that Lala Vasquez’s parents are both from Puerto Rico, making her 100% Puerto Rican; but that racially, she is of African descent (black).

In Latin America, as in Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and Europe, people identify ethno-culturally first. For example: a person from Nigeria, living in Nigeria, will describe himself as Igbo, Yoruba, etc. Outside of Nigeria, he’ll describe himself as Nigerian. Race will likely never play into his psyche unless he’s asked outright about his racial affiliation, in which case, he may say black or African. But, in the United States, race is everything. Race is how people, particularly, African Americans, define themselves. They are their race, firstly because that is what their society uses to define them.

To add to the confusion, while in the U.S. the term African American is used as a racial classification, to non-American blacks, it is not a racial classification but an ethno-cultural one. For example, to a person from Africa or the Caribbean, African-American means a person of [mostly] African descent whose ancestry in the U.S. can be traced to the 17th century slave trade. In other words, a Ghanaian will likely never classify himself as African American, regardless of the years he has lived in the U.S. He may say he’s Ghanaian, Ghanaian-American or even African, but not African-American.

Dominican-American actress Zoe Saldana

 Sadly, many Americans don’t understand this either. Even worse, they may be insulted that non-American blacks living in the U.S. refuse to identify as African-American, and they may accuse them of denying their race, especially if the heritage the person claims is considered non-black. E.g. Hispanic. This brings me back to the Lala Vasquez’s of the U.S. Caught between a rock and a hard place, it is almost impossible for a black Hispanic person to claim their cultural heritage without being held to suspicion and accusations of self-denial. (I am fully aware that many black Hispanics do treat Hispanic and black as mutually exclusive heritages, also. I am also fully aware of, and fully disappointed with the anti-African sentiments that are pervasive in Latin America. Raphael Trujillo and the Dominican Republic come to mind).

The point I am making is that African-Americans need to allow black Hispanics to claim their cultural heritage. They need to understand that Hispanic and black are not entirely disconnected classifiers. After all, Latin America received most of the black slaves that were brought to the Americas; most notably, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Colombia, etc.This means there are black people in these places. While these places do have their racial issues, it is still not acceptable to attack Lala Vasquez, someone who admits she grew up in  a Spanish-speaking household, eating Hispanic cuisine and listening to Hispanic music, because she chooses to embrace her Hispanic heritage, publicly. Lala, Zoe Saldana and Christina Milian have all stated they consider themselves racially black. If anything, they should be praised for breaking a racial taboo among Hispanic peoples: accepting their African heritage.

Americans, and black Americans specifically, need to understand that, as much as the American mainstream media would like all non-American blacks living in Western countries to conform to a monolithic ethno-racial culture, defined by the tenets of American Hip Hop culture (basketball, Ebonics, fried chicken, ghettos, etc), these people have their own cultures and traditions that mean something to them. They are not shunning the African-American category because they believe they are better than you (most non-American blacks consider themselves black and do identify racially with American blacks). However, they are no more African-American than a Greek-American is an Irish-American. If you say to a Greek-American that she is Irish-American, she will say I am not. She will tell you she is Greek-American. The term African-American should be understood similarly, as an ethno-cultural classifier and not a racial one. Africa alone has more ethno-cultural and linguistic diversity than any other place on the planet. In Nigeria alone, over 22 languages are spoken, by as many ethnic groups.

 In many ways, I understand the need of black Americans to classify non-American blacks as African-American, despite their resistance. The need to do so is the same need that drives Afrocentrism and racial politics in the U.S. Black Americans believe in racial unity/pride, and they are looking for ethno-cultural inclusion, a sense of belonging to something more historic and deep-rooted than what they have been left with after their ancestors were robbed of their heritage. But, there’s also a political angle. Classifying non-American blacks as African-American creates socio-political unity on the census which may be utilized by black lobbyists to gain funding for black causes.

I get this. However, non-American black people do not want their cultural heritage erased and replaced with a monolithic Hip Hop culture that doesn’t represent their roots, and has more negative stereotypes than good qualities.


About TCDH

Blogger with an opinion.
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8 Responses to African-American & Hispanic: when race meets ethnicity meets Culture

  1. Nice post.
    My experience is that many people who live in multi-ethnic Western societies, do not quite understand that there are mulit-ethnic societies all over the globe.

    As a parallel; my partner is ethnically Indian, born in Malaysia (where about 10% of the population is Indian, 30% Chinese and 50% Malay). It's not that complicated, but for some people, this seems to blow their minds. If she says “I'm from Malaysia”, people say “… but you like kind of Indian, are you like, part Indian or something?” and so on.

  2. Zaire Y says:

    Damn good post.

    I think this issue affects Afro-Latinos(or “black-tinos”) the most. At Keats when say I'm a Nigerian people know that blacks live in Nigeria. I'm not assumed to be running “away” from my African heritage. However blacks from South America(and the Carribean, to a lesser extent) are assumed to be getting “away” from being black because people don't associate Latin America with black people the same way they do Ghana or Cote d'Ivoire.

    Although I don't agree with the accusations I understand where they come from. Many people from Latin America and some parts of the Carribean actively reject their African ancestry. Couple that with living in the US and all the racial baggage/ignorance that comes with and you have a perfect storm.

    Im willing fo bet most people who fail to separate between race and ethnicity don't mean any harm, they simply don't know how to make the distinction. Which is hard when one lives in the US where race is nearly synonymous with ethnicity.

    You should check out oolibrice on YouTube. She is a Hatian that talks about this as well.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The problem arose when we BLACK americans became ashamed of the terms “black” and “negro” and started calling ourselves African-American. Personally I prefer being called black. Negro simply means black in spanish; nothing offensive there. Lala and Saldana are both blacks of hispanic culture. Cameron Diaz is a white hispanic.

    Somehow they forgot to teach these kids in eighth grade science class that there are only three races. It's not discriminatory, it's scientific fact. Even native americans are of asian descent.

  4. Mel says:


    While I understand your point, I disagree with the “3” races theory. There are many issues when it comes to the so-called “3” races theory. The science behind it is shady, and its history is rooted in political and scientific racism and colonialism that cannot be dismissed. I rather stay away from it, since it also has no relevance in social and modern realities of people's lives.

  5. Anonymous says:

    @ Mel

    If you want to truly cite scientific research, we are ALL descendants of Mitochondrial Eve, and therefore of African descent. Hispanic is in no shape or form a racial category.

    Part of me wants to stay away from it, but the term perpetuates the black denial and self-hate that divides the black American community.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Which is why I choose to simply identify as Black American…..Heck—Black people even claim the President as their own even though (to me)he is not a Black Americanor (dreading this) an African American—-But he plays on it. Another thing not mentioned but I presume you might go into at a later time is that: Those people of Carib, African, Cuban, etc hertigae not only do not identify with us; many view themselves as above us and place us (Black Americans) on a rung lower than them…..

  7. Mel says:


    Those people of Carib, African, Cuban, etc hertigae not only do not identify with us; many view themselves as above us and place us (Black Americans) on a rung lower than them…..

    I don't believe this is true. Many Caribbean and African blacks may be frustrated with African Americans, but I doubt they think they're better than them.

    Furthermore, this opinion of yours can be reversed. While SOME African/Caribbeans may think they are better off because they have “culture,” many American blacks look down on those cultures, dismissing them as primitive. During the Haitian earthquake there were many African Americans on message boards declaring that Haitians practiced evil, etc. Many black Africans are made fun of in the U.S. by black Americans, also. So, it's not as easy as saying black Caribbeans/Africans look down on black Americans. There's ignorance and prejudice on all sides.

    Another note:To understand where black Caribbeans/Africans are coming from, you have to remember that African Americans are the main representatives of black peoples in the world, and they've been represented poorly, likely due to American television bias, so many black Caribbeans/Africans may simply be frustrated with African Americans for not doing a better job of uplifting themselves financially/professionally in the U.S., so as to show a more positive image of blacks.

  8. Anonymous says:

    If you just look at Zoe Saldana & La La Vasquez or Rosario Dawson and didn't see their names you would see them as black people because they are black people. Look up African enslavement Hispaniola and you will realize that on the island of Hispaniola their were 12 Africans for every 1 Spanish citizen modern day Dominican Republic. That does not even include Haiti which was the French side of the island. Also the Taino indians were nearly wiped out only 5000 were left in a census of 1542 meaning the Tainos population on the Dominican Republic was all but gone and is really non existent. A majority of Dominicans are African with no Taino and no Spanish blood. Like Sammy Sosa, David Ortiz, Alfonso Soriano, ect ect

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