Since I moved abroad to Colombia last March, I’ve adapted to a plethora of cultural differences; from the intricacies of hailing a Taxi to the faux pas of turning down food. Though there are many aspects of life in the South American nation that I absolutely admire and enjoy, one thing that has yet to sit well with me is being addressed by skin tone. Whether hissed at me by random men or thrown into everyday greetings, terms like morena, negra and negrita all invoke a slight cringe, and I believe their use subtly perpetuates colorism in a society that tries to sweep racial issues under the rug.
Currently living in the capital of Bogota, each day I leave my house to go to work or run errands, I’m guaranteed to be greeted at least once as morena and every now and again as negrita. As a brown-skinned person your complexion is casually tossed out in salutations and interactions in a way that affirms your appearance is seen as “other” in the Eurocentric standards of Colombian society. And although there are terms such as blanca and rubia used to describe very light-skinned or white people, I have yet to hear anyone who fits the bill be greeted as such.
At times it seems racism and colorism run so rampant in the culture that it’s quietly digested as the norm in the way oppression tends to be accepted through time.
Some Afro-Colombian friends have attempted to explain the use of morena and negra/negrita as a simple tradition whose meaning can range from flirtatious to neutral or offensive depending on the tone and intention of the speaker — with morena being more socially accepted. But being greeted and labeled in terms of skin color can not be separated from the way race and complexion play a role in a society that has historically associated whiteness with ideals of beauty and value — a pattern we can find mirrored throughout Latin-America and communities within the African diaspora. Keeping a person’s skin tone at the forefront of social interactions only gives way to upholding these social casts.
In an article titled “Is it Really Skin Deep?” infUSion magazine writer Monica Vega states:
Presently, in countries such as Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Brazil [colorism] is deep-rooted in their societies and manifests itself in areas ranging from education to employment. Studies conducted in Brazil show that light skinned people finish nearly 9 years of education, while those with darker skin finish 7.6 years. A similar situation occurs in Peru, Colombia, Mexico and other Latin American countries. The differences in education are parallel to the differences in employment and income. In Mexico, 10% of individuals with light skin have highly qualified positions, while only 5% of those with darker skin have similar positions. In Colombia, those with light skin earn twice as much as those with darker skin.
Home to the third largest population of African descendants along with a large Indigenous community, many Colombians pride themselves on living in a multi-ethnic country and the reality of racial discrimination is often downplayed or outright denied. Yet, the cultural hierarchy of race and complexion is something I have witnessed this firsthand.
As a black woman, I’m often watched closely while shopping or soliciting high-end areas of Bogota — an indication that my presence is not expected or welcomed. I’ve had people believe they are complimenting me by saying I don’t have what they consider “ordinary black features” or congratulate me for appearing lighter after visiting colder climates. I’ve gone through a staffing agency that had to double-check the profile of the company they sought to match me with in order to be sure that they are willing to hire black people. And as an English teacher, I’ve had students question me on why the term “nigger” is considered offensive — in their mind equating it with the Spanish word for black (negro) and emphasizing the lack of critical engagement, awareness, and education on racial issues.
All of these situations have shown me that while addressing brown-skinned people by skin tone is widely accepted in Colombia, it reflects a culture rife with ingrained racial and color casts.
And though I may never understand all the social nuances here, I can never brush off being called morena or negra/negrita as simple terms of endearment or a neutral greetings. I have learned through experience that these labels are loaded by a legacy of degradation and discrimination towards darker skinned people, particularly those of African descent. So whether uttered with a smile or casual glance, they will continue to be received as soul-wincing micro-aggressions, reminding me that no matter where I am in the world my race and complexion will be a major factor in the way I’m viewed and treated.
Shahida Muhammad was raised in Philadelphia and is currently based abroad in Colombia. Her writing tends to lie within the spaces of Black culture, identity, and womanhood. For more, follow @ShahidaMuhammad on Twitter.