Don’t Be a Coconut: Checking Viviana Leo’s “White” Rican Privilege

Today, a friend posted a link to Viviana Leo’s recent piece in The HuffPost Latino Voices, “Racism over Rice and Beans.” Reading it was… infuriating, to say the least. The fact that HuffPost would give a platform to someone spewing such ignorance was disappointing, and I found myself both angry and defensive for my people.
In her piece, Leo tries to address her friend, Sunil’s misconceptions about Puerto Ricans when he asks her why she’s “nice and polite,” mentioning that other Puerto Ricans are “loud and rude”. Leo answers Sunil, and the audience for whom she is writing, with an attempted debunking of the stereotypical image of Puerto Ricans usually found in mainstream media. Where Leo fails, however, is in holding herself up as a different kind of Puerto Rican, unlike those “rude”, “loud”, “ghetto” ones.

Viviana Leo tells us some Puerto Ricans are drug dealers, maids, and prostitutes but “there are many more who are not”. The subtext here, and throughout the piece, is that Leo herself is different from those Puerto Ricans.

Some will laud the article, and see in it values they hold and uphold. These same folks will say – like Leo herself – that they are tired of being told they’re ‘acting white’ for them. Because in Leo’s worldview, as evinced in this article, the ends of the spectrum are “ghetto” and “white”, with folks like her on the ‘whiter’ end of that. Others, like myself, will see that Leo plays into the problematic Othering of Puerto Ricans that her friend Sunil, and the greater society as a whole, ascribe to.

As a light-skinned, ‘mixed’ Puerto Rican myself, I was absolutely offended at the way Leo chooses to Other our people, utilizing the word ‘ghetto’ to efface the complexity of our marginalized community. She makes sure to tell us she’s middle-class, and educated, and was raised in the suburbs safe and sound. Good for you, Viviana Leo, but it doesn’t make you better, or a better Puerto Rican. It’s hard not to notice she says this while letting us know she’s “light-skinned”. Leo’s racialized use of the term ‘ghetto’, and her embrace of the label “white” – although she’s Puerto Rican – are also problematic. “White people”, Leo tells us, “are depicted in a million ways”, but in the midst of this she makes sure to inform us she “hates that term, being white [herself]”.

It’s great for Leo that she’s never been loud in public, or worn name-plate jewelry, or ever sold or used drugs. Clearly, any Puerto Rican who has done those things is not complex. They’re just “ghetto”, and as such don’t represent the kind of Puerto Rican Leo aspires to be: the kind of Puerto Rican who has the “right” to feel indignant about (mis)representations in the media. Is it only light-skinned, middle-class Ricans who have that right?

It’s hard not to notice that Leo seems to juxtapose her light-skin and her ability to pass alongside her middle-class, educated privilege. All the while making “Ghetto” a racialized (read: Black and Brown) counter-point, Clearly, those Puerto Ricans are a “different breed”.

While Leo somewhat attempts at taking the white gaze to task for essentializing us and our communities, at some point she throws the most marginalized members of it under the bus.

Not once does she dive into the complexity she begins to bring up. She mentions, briefly, some justifiable anger after the migration, and the poverty and racism those first-generation Puerto Ricans in New York endured. But not once does she stop to think that maybe those “ghetto” Puerto Ricans, the ones who use and/ or deal drugs are responding, in the limited ways they have, to the trauma of colonization and semi-forced migration. Maybe those “pimps” and “prostitutes” are doing the same, and reenacting the most problematic aspects of our machismo culture, a problematic gender dynamic that transcends class and education levels.

Let’s fight back against stereotypes, Viviana Leo, but let’s not play into the hands of a dominant culture intent on dividing us against each other. Some might say I’m attacking you here and in calling you out, I am also playing into that. Let me be clear:

If I didn’t care about how you perceive us, and how your perceptions read to people outside of our community, I wouldn’t have taken the time to write this. Clearly, you have an interest in how we are portrayed. I’m gently taking you to task for playing into the most problematic aspects of that portrayal.

Let’s also be clear: You’re not white. Neither am I. We benefit from skin-color (and class) privilege in a white supremacist cis-het patriarchy. Let’s acknowledge that. But no matter how light-skinned we look, or how ‘white’ we are perceived, Puerto Ricans as a whole are racialized as Other. Instead of being a proponent of your own privileged ‘interpretation’ of what it means to be Puerto Rican, and demonizing any others, maybe that conversation could have been a teaching moment. Instead of cutting yourself off as you began to elaborate on the complexities and horrors of the colonization of Puerto Rico, the trauma of migrating to a new land, and the process of becoming Othered, you could have told Sunil about that history. You start to take these problematic stereotypes to task, and then stop to go off on a tangent affirming your difference from the real-life counterparts to those stereotypes. Instead of supporting a complex reading of that stereotype, or problematizing how “ghetto” gets read, you read ghetto just the same as the mainstream media chooses to. In lieu of doing any of that, you distance yourself from a large portion of other Puerto Ricans.

You may not be “acting white” when you tout your upbringing, or your poise, or elocution, or any number of things so many of us get taken to task for. But you are upholding that white supremacist cis-het patriarchy.

And isn’t that so much worse?

Originally published on La Respuesta

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