I usually wear my hair in an afro, but for tonight’s Omega Psi Phi frat party, I switched it up and am donning a blowout. D, the master’s student I’m dating, likes it that way. And I, in my sophomore year of undergrad at Barry University in Miami Shores, want to impress him. I am wearing my most curve-hugging bodycon black dress, and when our eyes meet, I know he likes what he sees. And I enjoy being desired by such a polite and polished man.
When we began our three-year, on-and-off-again relationship, I loved how interested D seemed to be in me. A young Black man from Tennessee, he was intrigued by my Latine culture. He relished eating Caribbean food, often tested out his Spanish with me, and asked me endless questions about my life growing up Dominican in New York City. At first, his probes felt inquisitive — his hunger for knowledge was sexy — and his compliments were flattering. Until I realized the parts of myself that elicited his praise were all tied to my Latina-ness, the aspects that made me, a Black woman, foreign to him. He, like so many other men, Black and non-Black, exotified my Latina culture and saw my first language, Spanish, as a marker that altered my Blackness, that made my Blackness special.
D’s exotification was most discernible when he talked about me, especially in those moments when he did not think I was around to hear him. Once, I overheard him bragging about me to his friends, adding “plus she’s Dominican. She’s a Latina,” to underline my distinction. Another time, his friend referred to me as “the Latina,” signaling that the conversation I overheard wasn’t uncommon. There was one time, during a dinner with his friends, that someone mentioned how difficult it was to date Black women. Vexed, I bit back, starting my rebuttal with, “as a Black woman…,” an identifier that confused the other Black men at the table. At that moment, an epiphany hit me like a brick. I was dating a guy who is not interested in dating Black American women and is only interested in dating Black women who he can “other” in his mind by way of Latinidad or immigration.
I don’t know how or why it took me so long to see it. In so many ways, growing up in New York made me keenly aware of how women’s bodies are digested by men. As a child, I learned about catcalling while watching the men on my block stare at my mother’s derrière and make kissing sounds as we walked to the grocery store, the train station, or my school. I always got the sense that there was something about being confident that made women irresistible, and I always knew this was a burden that needed to be managed with both flattery and caution. What I was not prepared for was how to navigate this exotification in intimate relationships, when it’s no longer a stranger licking his lips at you from down the block but instead someone in your bed at night making comments about how your culture is their newest fetish.
As a Black Latina, men of all races and ethnicities will come up with their own ideas about who they want me to be to rationalize how they wish to treat me. But I am heavy on “it’s not what they call you that matters; it’s what you choose to answer to.” So I have made it my mission to push back against this male-centric view of women that categorizes us based on what stereotypical fetish men can imagine. These ideologies pit us against each other in the hopes that we are too busy fighting one another that we won’t be able to identify the real culprits in our demise. But we share an enemy, an aggressor who keeps us shackled. The common denominator is patriarchy, anti-Blackness, and all of the hierarchies that deny us the space to free ourselves and love ourselves through our own gaze.
Take the way Afro-Latinas are treated by Black men and non-Black men in the media. The reality TV show Love & Hip-Hop, for instance, has attempted to create dialogue on the many different facets of Black identity. One of the most difficult moments was during a tense conversation between Miami cast members Amara La Negra and Young Hollywood, where the latter enforced his own beauty standards onto the former by saying that Amara needed to look “a little bit more Beyoncé and a little less Macy Gray.” Young Hollywood, as many non-Black Latinos and Black Latinos, as well as Black American men, have created an ideal of what Black women should look like and that means that we are told we should sacrifice many of the things that make us feel our most authentic selves.
When we reject this hierarchy that is placed upon us by the exploitative male gaze, we heal something within us — even more, we heal something deep among each other. Sisterhood is the truest gold we can ever hope to own, and we deserve the opportunity to cherish the relationships we have and allow our bodies the freedom to exist outside of over-sexualization.
Growing up in New York’s Lower East Side, among other little Black girls, I’ve always known the power of sisterhood. Unlike the viral social media videos of light-skinned Afro-Latinas questioning their Blackness, I never had an identity crisis. I have always been cemented in my Blackness because it was all around me. And because of this, I can’t allow men to use exotification to “other” me from Black womanhood.
I learned from my first relationship that there is a price to pay if you choose to keep quiet and go along with the flow of someone’s poor romanticization of who they wish you were. To keep this older, intelligent, and beautiful man interested, I straightened my hair and played up my Latina-ness. It can feel flattering to be pedestaled or be seen as special, especially if that comes with adoration, material perks, and chivalry. But, ultimately, I knew I could never stay with a man who had an internalized disdain for women who looked and talked like his mother.
When we de-center men from our lives, we gain the freedom we have always wanted: to choose ourselves for ourselves. My body is mine to claim. It is not something for anyone to label, control, or fetishize. And I am not willing to sacrifice my wholeness for the comfort of any man.
I am glad that I listened to my gut and walked away from all the men who were not willing to see my humanity and cherish my body, my mind, and my spirit. There is indeed something special about Black Latinas, as there is something special about all Black women, but it is deeper and more profound than what many men can ever dare to see.