Coming Out As Black, When You Were Hispanic

Teen Elaine Vilorio spent years trying to make sense of her racial identity. She describes herself as Hispanic, but other people see her as black. Vilorio speaks to guest host Celeste Headlee about her recent HuffPost Teen blog, 'Coming Out As Black.'

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, a celebrity chef shares some tasty summertime recipes and juicy stories about his clients. But first, we'll turn to the issue of race and identity. The question of, what am I, is one that a lot of teens ask themselves and the answer can be quite complicated for multiracial kids.

It's something that Elaine Vilorio has thought a lot about. She's a high school senior, originally from the Dominican Republic. Over the course of her life, people assumed she was black and that bothered her. But two years ago, after she stopped chemically straightening her hair, the change in her appearance made her rethink her roots. She wrote about that in a Huffington Post piece titled "Coming Out as Black," and Elaine Vilorio is now here to tell us more. Welcome to the program, first of all.

ELAINE VILORIO: Thank you, I'm happy to be here.

HEADLEE: First of all, let me ask you, why did you phrase it that way, coming out as black?

VILORIO: Well, people have always asked me, you know, like you said, you know, if I was black consistently, and I've always denied that. So I thought that was a very fitting way, a very dramatic way to say that I finally have admitted, you know, this Afro identity, so to speak, when it's always been there. Coming out, I finally can say it out loud, and I can finally explain to people, yes, I have African roots in me and that's okay.

HEADLEE: Well, when you talk about racial identity, it's something you've written about quite a bit as well.

VILORIO: Yes.

HEADLEE: What is racial identity for you? Is it about the way you see yourself or how others see you?

VILORIO: I mean, it's a combination of both. I think people perceive me and they separate Afro-descendancy from, you know, the Hispanic identity. Hispanic identity doesn't really take into account that African racial root. You know, I see myself as a predominantly black Hispanic. And then other people, you know, they just see a mixed person, just mixed. Blackness isn't really, you know, acknowledged.

HEADLEE: You know, the Dominican Republic has kind of an uneasy relationship with race and...

VILORIO: Yes.

HEADLEE: ...and the darkness of one's skin. What did you learn about this issue, black versus Latina, during your time in the Dominican Republic?

VILORIO: When I came here, you know, I was really, really small. I never had gotten the question of what I was. I never really understood what that was. So when I encountered, you know, other kids who had grown up here more than I had and they asked me, you know, what was I?

And I was a little confused. I was like well, I'm from Dominican Republic and you know, they always said, oh well, you know, I thought you were black. And I had never gotten that. I'd never, for you know, for Dominican kids it's always, you know, you're Dominican. So national identity was placed above racial identity, whereas here I found that racial identity was pinpointed first.

HEADLEE: Although Dominicans, they identify - if you want to talk about black, they usually identify black as equivalent to Haitian.

VILORIO: Yes.

HEADLEE: And that's not seen as a positive thing. Being black is not considered to be positive in the Dominican Republic. How did that attitude affect the way you answered that question?

VILORIO: I had never consciously thought about it until a couple years ago when I stopped chemically straightening my hair. But I had always, you know, grown up with those subtle phrases like, stop being such a Haitian and you know, that's an equivalent to, let's say, stop being so stupid. The other day, I came home really, really tan and my mother was like, oh my goodness, you look like a Haitian, this is horrible. So you know, my mother was...

HEADLEE: What did you say to her?

VILORIO: Oh, I was like, oh my goodness, mother, you know, it's not a big deal, I'm just a little tan. But I was - it's something that I was used to. And I was thinking about this. I was like, man, you know, this just keeps coming up, this whole, you know, subtle racism type of thing. I've seen, you know, Afro-Latinos to use that phrase, Latinos who have obvious, you know, Afro descendancy separate themselves from blacks by putting them off, you know, using stereotypes like, oh my goodness, they're so uneducated and blah blah blah.

And I've always thought, well, you look like them. And they're referring to, you know, American blacks. I'm just thinking, so you look like them. You're putting these people in, you know, this category but what about you? And that's always been something that's bothered me.

HEADLEE: Well, when you say you acknowledged it, last year you actually wrote an article, "Another Latina Nerd Tells Her Story." In that, you talked about the confusion you've had over your racial identity and you identified very proudly, very firmly as Latina and Hispanic.

VILORIO: Yes.

HEADLEE: This year, you wrote another very firm, very confident, again, article, again in the Huff Post, in which you say, I am black.

VILORIO: Yes.

HEADLEE: So what changed?

VILORIO: I mean, I still identify strongly as a Hispanic because, you know, that is my culture. I - you know, my parents raised me on the values that they grew up with. And then also I had, you know, growing up in America and in the American school system. So I had, you know, that bicultural influence. But racially I'm black. You know, I can say that I'm black. And being black and being Hispanic, Hispanic being a culture and black, you know, being associated with a culture, yes, but also with a race, you can be racially black and you can be, you know, culturally Hispanic. And that was something that I wanted to combine and that I want to explore further and talk about more.

HEADLEE: I'm glad to hear you say explore this more, Elaine, 'cause, I mean, as a 40-something mixed race person, I can tell you that your journey into the world of racial identity is just beginning. Where do you go from here? What's your next step in kind of determining this? Or is there going to be a point at which you say, look, call me what you will, I know who I am?

VILORIO: I would like to educate people and breaking down, you know, a little bit of the stereotyping and the racism that goes on with people that are Hispanic and are racially black but then try to separate themselves from, you know, other black people here in the United States.

HEADLEE: Are you about to graduate, Elaine?

VILORIO: I am, yes. This June.

HEADLEE: Well, congratulations.

VILORIO: Thank you.

HEADLEE: Moving on to college?

VILORIO: Yes, that's right.

HEADLEE: Well, good luck in the future.

VILORIO: Thank you.

HEADLEE: Elaine Vilorio, a high school senior, for just a few more days, from New Jersey. She was kind enough to join us from our New York bureau. Thanks so much.

VILORIO: Thank you for having me.

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