The view that anthropologist Barbara Abadía offers in this interview helps us put into perspective the racial justice concerns of the twenty-first century.
What has historically been silenced under the hegemony of the white man, which denies and dismisses what is different, has begun to show fractures and impact the ease by which the order established by culture was naturally accepted
Discrimination and segregation are phenomena of rejection that have persisted throughout the history of civilizations. However, the visibility and justice that drive today´s claims mark the challenges of our times and of days to come.
When investigating racial relationships in Puerto Rico, the United States, and other countries, as well as in your writings, you have used the term racialization. Tell us how this has helped you.
Yes, I use it as a theoretical tool to explain how racial discourses are built in Puerto Rico and particularly, to stop thinking in terms of race-racism exclusively, to stop thinking of people with pity (stop pitying people) or considering that this problem involves black people only. Hence, racialization helps me to explore academically how these speeches are presented and where they come from, but above all, I´m very interested in assigning responsibilities. It is like, when people talk about poverty and they say, “Poor people are poor because they want to be”, or “Black people are in these situations because they want to”. Hence, I rather think in terms of systems and how they operate to place people in those spaces.
Racialization allows me to extrapolate these notions in a wider way and that is why I use it as a tool, especially in Puerto Rico, where we are in denial of the existence of anti-black racism. There is this idea that we are one huge Puerto Rican family, that we are a mix, and we are all the same. Racialization allows me to explore other ways of viewing how we socialize around race as well.
How did you stir from this starting point towards your country´s music?
Well, I think that that I had a special interest in racial topics since I was a little girl, but couldn´t articulate them until I was at university. I have always paid special attention to anecdotes that my family told me about how they were victims of anti-black racism. Ever since I was little and even before I was born. I have two older brothers who were born with a lighter skin tone than mine, curly hair texture but different and green eyes; so, when I was about to be born, those were the expectations, a light-eyed baby; but I was born with dark eyes, hair, and skin. My mom had all this (these) worries, not because she didn´t love me, but because she was uneasy about what to do with me, as an example of how to fix my hair. So, from a very young age, my hair was straightened but now I am letting my natural hair grow for two year (years). It is a learning experience. One grows up and thinks about these topics, but does not know how to articulate them, how to go about them. Today I know that my body can become a tool to visualize blackness, resistance, etc.
It was because of this song that I continued walking through this path that I had started when I was very young, of thinking about how people in Puerto Rico are racialized. Racialization allows people not only to think about their physical characteristics associated with blackness, but also about the matter of gender, class, and nationality.
While attending the University of Puerto Rico for a master’s degree in Communication, I looked for a thesis theme. I have always had an interest in music. My grandfather self-taught himself a native rhythm called plena. I grew up watching him singing and playing music, my uncle and mom as well. When I saw my mom playing this rhythm I didn´t question why she was the only woman in my family who did it or why in other places in Puerto Rico, where you could see this rhythm, there were never other women participating. But it wasn´t until my master’s degree that I finally paid attention to a song that I had heard my whole life, that talked about a visibly black family in Puerto Rico. Carbonerito was the spark that got me thinking about other songs that referred to black people in Puerto Rico and how they are described. This became my thesis project and later was published as a book, Musicalizando las razas: La racialización de Puerto Rico a partir de la música (Musicalizing races: The racialization of Puerto Rico through its music).
This project allowed me to think about the critical theories about race and how to incorporate them into communication theories that, in the United States, are used in law to think about why there are more black men than any other people incarcerated in this country, and how social sciences took this concept to explain other social phenomena. It was because of this song that I continued walking through this path that I had started when I was very young, of thinking about how people in Puerto Rico are racialized. Racialization allows people not only to think about their physical characteristics associated with blackness, but also about the matter of gender, class, and nationality.
Do these studies allow us to think anything new about how identities are built?
I started my project as part of a master’s degree in Theory of Communication, but I ended up studying Anthropology. People associated what I was doing with anthropology, not with communication. There is this idea that communication has to be one thing and anthropology another, but the two disciplines converge, feed from each other. I didn’t stop being a communicator when I became an anthropologist. I used music as a tool to study blackness in Puerto Rico, but I could have done it from education, media, literature, or other registers and I believe that the result would have been the same. It wasn´t a surprise to recognize anti-black racism in my country, but the research did show me how denial manifests itself, how we don´t talk about it. The song Piel Canela (Cinnamon Skin) refers to a non-white woman, but why not say black and instead talk about the exotic spice, why the Romanization? The same happens with all representation of blackness, in literature, in the history books taught in Puerto Rico, in song lyrics.
We first have to start talking about racialization, systematic and structural racism. Nobody is born a racist and we have to understand the difference between the terms race, ethnicity, and xenophobia because they are often confused. Everybody can suffer from discrimination…
What do you think has been happening today that allows you to speak about these topics in the way that you do?
I always recognize my black ancestors, of course, because of them I am here today. I not only have inherited their skin color, their hair, and their broad nose, characteristics associated with blackness, I have also their strength and desire. It´s contradictory because ever since I was a little girl I´ve had to learn to defend myself, to be aware of the places I walk through because of the way people will treat me, to prevent my black body from becoming a threat. I had the privilege of having had an education, but to excel at school took a lot of sacrifice. I always had to give the best I had to not be placed in the stereotype box of the black girl who will not get anywhere. I became a professor and published books. I am very honest through my writing, I write a lot from my subjective view because the academy does not teach us to think about ourselves from within, they are not aware that we minorities can be a source of knowledge. It´s not just about reading that book by a white, male author and living with that idea of supremacy. Fortunately, I´ve received a lot of support for sharing my ideas and knowledge throughout the years and this has given me much strength.
This experience I had of not being able to have these conversations with my family during my upbringing years, I don’t want it to be repeated with the new generations. Perhaps I have put a very great responsibility on my shoulders, but I would like them to feel that it is possible, that when we must denounce something, we have to do it.
In the year of the pandemic, there is a political and social context that drives movements to fight for racial equality. How do you see justice today in this context?
Although we´ve seen great enthusiasm regarding movements like Black Lives Matter and talking about police brutality, we are still seeing every day that violence has not decreased. The difference is that today people film what happens. Having said this, I am grateful for all the forums that have been created, especially after George Floyd´s murder in May of 2020 because they have allowed us to talk about this; but this cannot be a trend or just a few minutes talk on a radio or TV interview. How can I explain all this in five minutes when people still don´t understand what anti-black racism is? We first have to start talking about racialization, systematic and structural racism. Nobody is born a racist and we have to understand the difference between the terms race, ethnicity, and xenophobia because they are often confused.
There is something political, not biological, that makes us think that white is superior, anti-black racism ends up being a systemic and structural issue.
Everyone can suffer discrimination, white women, white men too. In the United States, when asked to select a race, many people from the Latino or Puerto Rican community refuse to check the ´black´ option or more than one racial category. It can be seen that a great number of members of the Latino community of the United States keeps identifying as white, even though they are not treated as such. I believe that we have to change the way in which we deal with this topic, hold people accountable, change the way we go about the topic.
We can always be more precise about the difference between race and ethnicity to start organizing the reality better…
When we talk about race, we should really speak about humans because in reality there is only one race. But we still establish differences around the way people look, their physical appearance, we talk about yellow, white, and black race, and we associate their hair texture and their skin color to each one. So, race is talked about from a biological point of view, when we really should be talking (about it) form a political perspective due to being a social construct as well. And, since anthropology and biology are subjects created by white people, they have also determined these categories and the way we see them today.
Ethnicity is more associated with customs, the language spoken by a group of people. For example, talking about Puerto Rican is talking about our ethnicity, because people associate that to our geographic space, the Puerto Rican archipelago, speaking Spanish, the food we eat, the music we play, our traditions, customs that go from one generation to another, to groups of people that may not look physically alike. So that is why race is more related to something physical and ethnicity to traditions.
It is a big topic, but what do you think has happened throughout history for black communities to still live in the same unequal conditions they´ve always lived in?
Black communities are still vulnerable and poor. We are fighting against the monster that is white supremacy, even when the number of non-white people is greater. There is something political, not biological, that makes us think that white is superior, anti-black racism ends up being a systemic and structural issue. This way of thinking is taught to us through media, through the history we learn at school, where there are few visibly black figures, especially in Puerto Rico and the United States. Representation is very important because if you don´t feel represented, you don´t even think about it. I can tell from my personal history that it is not expected for a black girl to be a professional, or that there will be a black president or Pope. Normally people say, ´you´ll be good at sports or hip-hop singer, not anything else´, or ´you´ll end up in jail´, because walking down the street becomes a threat.
when we talk about anti-black racism, we need to talk from both masculinity and femininity, because the experiences of a black man in Puerto Rico are not the same as the ones of a black woman. These connections transform into more ways of oppression that we receive as black, poor women.
There were movements in the 60s and 70s, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, many other people who have fought for racial equality in the United States. More recently, we had the election of Barack Obama, the Black Lives Matter movement since 2014; but again, I feel like we are fighting against a monster with too many heads. It´s even more complicated when we consider that people in our own communities don´t join these movements just because we have to survive. In politics, now with the elections, people say, ´we want equality and human rights´, but that is too vague. What about the anti-racist issue? What do you propose to do about that in your presidential plan? And it turns out that there is nothing about that, there has never been anything about that, so I think that we have to re-activate the way we think to reach more visible and tangible changes.
Obviously, we live in a time where we have to connect disciplines, speeches, and knowledge. What can you tell us about this connection between race and gender?
It is super important, and as you say, to think about connections. This is a concept that many black feminists started using in the 70s, in the Combahee River Collective, a collective of black women, many of whom identified themselves as lesbians. They said, “we are feminists, but we don´t feel that we are separate from white-, upper- or middle-class feminist movements. Their claims do not include us, they do not have the same experience as we did”. So, it is very important to talk about the connection between race and gender. In Puerto Rico, when we talk about anti-black racism, we need to talk from both masculinity and femininity, because the experiences of a black man in Puerto Rico are not the same as the ones of a black woman. These connections transform into more ways of oppression that we receive as black, poor women.
Being an anthropologist, I have the opportunity to publicly manifest what I observe because of the knowledge I am able to (can) acquire. But I cannot talk for all black women in Puerto Rico because they have not had the same experiences I have had and not all of them consider certain experiences as acts of violence. Maybe I see the fact that someone touches my hair as a form of violence, but maybe another woman with curly hair like mine thinks that it is all part of the checking process, ´they´re just doing their job´.
It is very important to think about all these connections because we can recognize more situations, explain in a new way: the ways in which (how) these acts of violence and racial discrimination manifest themselves and we can also explain what structural and systemic racism is in Puerto Rico, the United States, and Latin America.