Fifth annual BlackStar film festival, part two

Nana Dijo: One tough question, many answers

Musicians and directors Bocafloja and Cambiowashere conduct a deeper exploration of this subject with the Philadelphia premiere of Nana Dijo (Nana Said); Irresolute Radiology of Black Consciousness, a short documentary that asks the simple question, “Has anyone ever discriminated against you because you are black?” The answers are complicated.

One of the many interviewees in 'Nana Dijo.' (Photo courtesy of BlackStar)

Shot in black and white, the film is composed of interviews with people from several different countries — Uruguay, Honduras, Mexico, Argentina, and the United States — examining how these cultures see and define black and white. What’s surprising (or isn’t) is that these cultures’s discriminatory attitudes toward gradations of skin color is similar to that in the United States.

Neither here nor there

Many of the film’s testimonies come from darker-skinned Spanish-speaking people who have been discriminated against by their lighter-skinned Spanish-speaking peers. One man describes his embarrassment of growing up in the United States as a “black” child with the last name Martinez: because he looked like an African-American with no Spanish ties, his friends didn’t consider it normal when they discovered his home’s Spanish décor, and his mother’s knowledge of Latin music and cooking. When he got older, his Mexican co-workers would talk about him in front of his face — not knowing he spoke fluent Spanish.

One woman recalls being discriminated against by her own family. Once, as she was tediously combing her mixed-race daughter’s hair, her cousin walked in and said in Spanish, “That’s what your mother gets for marrying a black man.”

Another woman, half-Mexican and half-black, remembers a lonely childhood. When she tried “to hang with the Mexican girls” in middle school, they would tell her she was “too black” to be their friend. When she tried to hang with the black girls, she was labelled Mexican. Later in life she married a black man, and her family would tell her that their partnership made sense. She was, after all, “the black one” in the family.

Along with the discrimination black people experience based solely on physical appearance, comes certain criteria that seemingly validate the label. Many of the interviewees in Nana Dijo who were not considered black admitted to expecting certain behavior from people of color.

One white-skinned Spanish man says that there are “many evil blacks out there, but many good, too,” and shares that his grandfather is black. He notes that he would never consider himself black; he wants no parts of the negative connotations associated with the culture. “Violent,” “dirty,” and “shitty” are just some of the descriptions given by participants throughout the film.

The unkindest cut

The problems that surface with mixed-race relations, from discrimination to racism to identity crisis, make it a little bit clearer to me why interracial relations are scarce and why minority cultures, although seen collectively by most whites as minorities in the United States, are reluctant to intermingle.

Discrimination within your own culture can hurt more than anything, because it’s not expected. The expectations placed upon you, the offensively low standards — you have to look like this, talk like that or enjoy these things — these are what determine within the culture whether you are or aren’t black. In general society, you need only meet the skin color requirements in order to bear the label.

I’ve been dancing that tango (er, Electric Slide?) my whole life, trapped in a limbo between two cultures that didn’t want me. I’m not mixed-race myself, but ask my family members or elementary schoolfriends, and they’ll tell you that based on how I speak, how I dress and what I like, I don’t meet the criteria of being black enough.

The question hits home

As a child, because I learned early on to enunciate my syllables, classmates rejected me for "talking proper.” Years later, my white mentors and professors urged me to “’unlearn’ my urban accent;” I don’t sound educated when I drop my G’s.

During my first year at a majority-white university, I felt the loneliest I’d ever felt in my entire life. My roommate and her friends would invite me to dinner with them out of kindness, but I couldn’t relate to them. They all came from the same background. They had cars — and REFRIGERATORS — and other luxuries I couldn’t afford. They held hour-long conversations about things I cared nothing for. They took turns doing each other’s hair and makeup — and I would watch from my bed, withdrawn, aware that if I participated, they wouldn't know what to do with my brown skin or kinky hair.

One day, when the question was asked what we’d like to do later in life, I admitted I’d love to voice a Disney princess. One of them responded, “You’re too late! They already have a Black princess!”

When I came home and transferred to my community college I discovered a better way to make friends: I found others like me. They were like me in the sense that they were trapped between cultures and unable to find a place in either one. My best friend, who is half-black and half-Filipino, doesn’t make many Asian friends because when they look at her they see black, while black people look at her and see something exotic, foreign — but not before asking to touch her “good hair.”

My boyfriend, a Palestinian born and raised in the worst parts of Philly, has mostly black neighbors and friends. But he is disturbed when, before getting to know him, all they can see is his skin color:

“Look at me. What do you think I am?”

“I mean, you’re Middle Eastern. You’re Arab. I know that.”

“But what color is my skin?”

“White.”

“Exactly. And that’s what they see when they look at me. But I’m not white.”

When asked the question, “Has anyone ever discriminated against you because you are black?” one multicultural interviewee in Nana Dijo explained perfectly that in our culture, that thing called diversity is assumed to be “mere folklore” — if it is even acknowledged at all. There’s only black and white, like the film’s color scheme.

Another, a man of few words, answered the question in simpler terms: “No, and the day that they do, I’ll kill them.”

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