Many have been shocked to see recent photos of retired major league baseball player Sammy Sosa. Not only is he wearing green contact lenses, but his skin tone is considerably lighter than usual, something which he claims is the result of a skin “rejuvenation” process, some reports say. The once dark-complexioned, undeniably African-looking Sosa now looks more like Ricky Ricardo from “I Love Lucy”. As the late Nigerian activist and musician Fela Kuti would have said, it appears that Sosa is guilty of having a “colonial mentality.”
Throughout the African diaspora, black people internalized the racism they experienced under slavery and colonial rule. Bad habits are hard to break, and there is still self-hatred among black people today. With years of conditioning, societies were made to believe that blackness was bad, and anything associated with blackness was inferior and undesirable.
This problem is also prevalent in Latin America. For example, Brazil has the largest black population outside of the African continent at 90 million, which amounts to roughly half of its people. Yet, despite their conspicuous presence in society, black Brazilians face discrimination, poverty, and lower education and health standards than whites. According to a “racial atlas” created by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Federal University of Minas Gerais, 65 percent of the poor and 70 percent of the extremely poor in Brazil are of African descent.
In the Dominican Republic, Sosa’s country of origin, people are overwhelmingly black: 90 percent have African ancestry. Yet only 11 percent identify themselves as black. And as UN experts found, there is “a profound and entrenched problem of racism and discrimination against such groups as Haitians, Dominicans of Haitian descent, and more generally against blacks within Dominican society.”
A strong anti-Haitian sentiment is rooted in the country’s history. Haiti is a former colonizer of the Dominican Republic, as was Spain. Yet, Dominicans only celebrate their independence from Haiti. Haitian cultural practices are viewed as inferior. The government has engaged in mass deportations of Haitians – and sometimes Dominicans mistaken for Haitians – while also attempting to deny citizenship to the Dominican-born children of so-called “illegal” Haitian immigrants.
But a large reason for this hatred of Haitians is a denial of Dominicans’ own African origin. Simply put, sometimes it is difficult to stare at oneself in the mirror. For years, under the Hispanidad movement, the government of the Dominican Republic emphasized the nation’s white, Spanish and Catholic heritage, and conveniently left out the black part.
The Dominican Republic is a nation whose hairdressers are known for their hair-straightening prowess and most Dominican women get their hair straightened. Although dark folks are the overwhelming majority, black skin, wide noses and ‘pelo malo’ (bad hair) do not fit the standard of beauty. So, hair relaxers and skin whiteners are in, and people will call themselves a number of things, such as Indian, burned Indian, Moreno and cinnamon – anything but negro (the Spanish word), or black. This is what years of submerging your culture will do.
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Certainly, the U.S. is not immune from this color-coded mentality. African-Americans historically internalized racism by pitting light-skinned blacks against dark-skinned ones, and using paper bag tests for admission to exclusive clubs. Black newspapers and magazines in the 1920s through the 1960s often featured advertisements for skin bleaching creams. Typically, with promises of “lighter, brighter skin,” these ads blatantly associated white skin with beauty and success, and depicted dark skin as ugly. Meanwhile, people of color in America still fight against the Madison Avenue standard of beauty, which usually takes the form of a malnourished white blond fashion model with slight facial features.
Sadly, some celebrities of color join in the color-coded madness by lightening up and going under the knife themselves. And people of all colors and ethnicities risk mutilating their faces and bodies to look like distorted cartoon characters.
Sammy Sosa and others must realize that try as you might, you cannot bleach out your history.