When I was five months pregnant with my son Rio, I couldn't wait to get one of those 3D scans that show you a translucent sketch of your baby to finally see his round jelly face. For months, I would put on a playlist of my favorite songs from Lauryn Hill, Nina Simone, ChocQuibTown, and Xiomara Fortuna, and I’d meditate while rubbing my belly and imagining what my baby would look like earthside. I envisioned a little face, tiny hands, chunky cheeks, and an angelic smile with perfect dimples. I was astonished when the ultrasound images looked just like the portrait I drew in my head. But when my partner and I showed our families the photo, things got interesting, in the way that they often do in multi-racial families that have not healed from colonialism.
There are many things that baby books don't prepare you for while you’re pregnant. Among them is how quickly your baby’s racialization becomes table talk and how to bravely disrupt cycles and challenge ideologies on beauty and race that harm young children. Living and giving birth in the Dominican Republic made it even more important to be vigilant and disruptive of the casual anti-Blackness that exists in the Spanish-speaking Americas. Since Spanish imperialists colonized Latin American land, there have been institutional and cultural pressures to blanquear la raza. If we want to live in a more equitable world, then we must see to it that we have healthy and intentional conversations about how we and those around us are impacted by the discriminatory and dehumanizing culture of racism and colorism.
Although my partner and I are racialized as Black, we do have non-Black ancestry as well. As such, our families are made up of people with various complexions, hair textures, phenotypes, and, consequently, experiences. When I gave birth to Rio, I was able to see how white preferentiation and colorism permeate within my own family. Rio was born a purplish hue; he had to be rushed to a newborn intensive care unit due to difficulties breathing. When he was finally able to come home with us, we spent months isolating from family and friends. Still, we sent daily photos to everyone through WhatsApp and kept them updated on his progress. Oftentimes, they’d respond by commenting on how cute and, to my shock, light-complected he was. I was floored and shaken by remarks that prioritized my son’s skin color over his well-being. I wondered how he would be treated once he got some sun and his skin darkened like his parents. Would people not find him obsessively cute anymore? Was this attention only due to his skin color? How would he be treated once his ambiguity shifted and it became easier to racialize him?
A part of me knew the answers to these questions already. As a Negra living in a world that devalues Black life, I keenly observe the language people use around me to determine if I am in a safe space or if I’m at risk of experiencing microaggressions and/or blatant mistreatment simply for the way that I look. As a mom, this anxiety has amplified. We know that little Black boys are punished harsher in schools. We know they are more likely to be criminalized and policed while playing outside. What we don't always know is how deeply our families have internalized toxic ideologies—like anti-Blackness, classism, sexism, and transphobia—and we especially don’t know how to talk about it with them.
As a poet, much of my art celebrates my Blackness, but I’ve often felt speechless when race and color came up in conversations about my son. When my partner and I went to Rio’s first doctor's visit with his pediatrician, she was enamored with our baby. La doctora, also a mother, told us, “He's so cute, and he's my skin color. I want to take him home with me; I’ll have the perfect pair of babies.” I stiffened in shock and discomfort, and then I smiled. When my partner’s cousins, who are mixed-race and have lighter skin, joked that “Rio denied his parents” and “took after our side of the family,” alluding to our baby’s lighter complexion, I had a similar reaction. I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t prepared.
While fielding comments from loved ones and strangers about cute newborns is expected, these remarks, which emphasized skin tone and tethered his adorableness to his lightness, hit different. I would call my mom annoyed. Each time, she would attempt to pacify me by saying the commentators don’t mean to offend and this is simply how people speak on the island. She also reminded me that I, too, was Rio’s complexion as a baby, and, like me, he would grow into his lovely brown skin. She wasn’t wrong, and that’s exactly the problem. As a direct impact of colonialism, the Dominican Republic, as well as many other countries in the Americas, still operates and functions under a sort of caste system; in this pigmentocracy, there is a financial advantage placed on those who exist on the paler end of the color spectrum and burden placed on those on the darker end. The whiter you are on this island, the more wealth you tend to have. With whiteness, and proximity to it, holding economic, social, and cultural capital, it is by no coincidence that lighter skin is preferred and celebrated.
But just because I understand the colonial legacy that breeds this ideology doesn’t mean I have to accept or tolerate it. Instead, I’ve decided to put an end to the color-obsessed commentary and use these remarks to have uncomfortable conversations with people I love about anti-Blackness, colorism, and colonialism. Perpetuating the same creeds that enslaved our ancestors, fueled caste systems, and incite ongoing racial violence and inequality doesn’t serve us; it harms us.
Still, I knew sermon-style lectures and theory-heavy literature wouldn’t be effective, not yet at least. So I developed some non-combative and accessible ways to start the conversations. I created some light, concise, and effective rebuttals that would let my loved ones know I would not allow any anti-Black or color-obsessed commentary. These refutations look like rerouting the conversation to my son’s growth: “Aside from his beautiful color that changes as he grows, he is also learning to be more loving and is developing a beautiful mind.” Other times, it's redirecting the discussion to his health: “Thank God for his health and may God continue blessing him with more than just a cute face but also a loving heart.” Sometimes, it's swerving the chatter to joy: “I, too, was his complexion as a baby. Melanin is different for everyone, and we are just happy that he is a joyous and healthy baby and loves being outdoors in nature and getting sun.”
During communal cafecitos, when we discuss the news, community events, and family gossip, I also make sure to sprinkle in conversations that might help them develop a consciousness around race. I connect specific injustices we are watching unfold in the news with the anti-Black ideologies I hear them or others espouse. I sprinkle in comments about the negative connotations used to talk about Black and Indigenous features and how language suddenly becomes positive when discussing white features. I ask them about their own childhoods and help them notice how we remain impacted by colonialism today. It's no longer acceptable for them to brush these things off as if it's not harmful to the next generation of kids who can internalize and/or perpetuate it.
I'm not alone, either. My partner also engages in these conversations with his loved ones. When his family makes these comments, he sternly reminds them that this isn't the way we want to raise our kids. We want them to love themselves and every bit of their inheritance as Afro-descendants, from their coiled hair and bronzed skin to their Indigenous cheek bones. His family was uncomfortable at first, as anyone who has normalized something harmful typically is, so we try shifting the energy in the room when things get tense to avoid our message getting lost in the heat. To do this, my partner says things like, “remember, we don't like those kinds of jokes.”
We set hard boundaries with our families, like challenging them to be more compassionate with each other, in the hopes that they replicate this same behavior with everyone else around them. For example, my partner’s dad makes fun of his wife’s coily hair, and she in turn jokes about his round belly. While they seem to have a light laugh picking at each other's insecurities, these jokes are rooted in texturism and fatphobia. Instead of laughing at their jokes, I remind them that quips shouldn't lower people’s self-esteem; instead, they should make people feel better. We want them to know that even if conversational bias has been normalized, it's not healthy. Although they may direct annoyed looks or uncomfortable stares at us, my partner and I stay firm.
Fundamentally, these conversations are therapeutic, and they’re helping us build a healthier environment for all of us. In our efforts to break cycles of internalized hate, our families have slowly caught on. Rio just turned eight months old, and his extended family is learning to choose their words wisely around him. Although our relatives might gossip behind our backs about how bold and blunt we have been with them lately, we are creating a healthier world for our child, one where the color of his skin is not a topic of discussion but rather a part of who he is and what makes him beautiful. This current wave of colorism and anti-Blackness has been centuries in the making, so it may take centuries more to eradicate it, but we are hopeful that our kids can grow up in a safer, freer world.