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In a recent episodes of PBS’ Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, actress Michelle Rodriguez learned of the extreme lengths the Puerto Rican side of her family went through to remain light skinned.

To keep their family light, many relatives married first cousins rather than risk marrying someone from the outside who might produce potentially darker offspring.

Watch Michelle Rodriguez’s Puerto Rican Roots on PBS. See more from Finding Your Roots.

From The Root:

Gates found out that Rodriguez’ light-skinned paternal ancestors married each other at a surprising rate. In fact, three of the actress’ great-great-great-grandfathers were brothers, while all of her great-great-grandfathers were first cousins.

Our genealogist who traced your family tree in Puerto Rico called your family tree ‘a beautiful depiction of the consanguinity and endogamy on 19th-century Puerto Rican families,’ ” Gates told Rodriguez, who responded, “That’s an elegant way of saying you guys loved to do it in the family.”

Rodriguez was aware of her family’s colorism, but not the extent of it. Even within her immediate family, she felt the sting of it as her father’s Puerto Rican family was critical of him marrying a darker Dominican woman, Rodriguez’s mother.

Later, Rodriguez was shocked when she learned she was 72 percent European, 21 percent black and 6 percent Native American.

For all the concerns about colorism within the African-American community, compared to what happened in many Latin American and South American cultures, the American view almost seems enlightened. While there is a lot of discussion about color preferences and the privileges afforded to those who have lighter skin, the nature of American-style racism and Jim Crow laws fostered some semblance of togetherness or, at the least, some shared sacrifice amongst black Americans of all shades. Just the fact that someone light enough to pass for white would use the word “black” to describe themselves and their family – with pride – reflects of this.

So many black Americans, who in any other country would have self-identified as white or mixed, often solely identify as black in this country.

Often to the sheer befuddlement of our South American counterparts.

It’s not that you don’t have lighter and brighter tendencies here in the states, but there’s an ongoing debate, dialogue, and conversation going on about it in black American communities. When I read about something like this, even though I know how race and color are viewed differently in places like Venezuela, Cuba, or Brazil – it’s always shocking.

A friend of mine who is black American and Puerto Rican (and light complexioned) married a woman who was also Latino. We were the same tone and had the same hair texture. She would often jokingly say we looked as if we could be sisters or mother and daughter. But when I joked about how both our hair was so prone to frizz up with straightened because of our shared African ancestry, she bristled and insisted she was not black and had no black ancestry.

She was “Spanish.”

Her husband, who solely identified as black, pointed out that she was – by his definition and most Americans definition, black or white – as black as he and I, but because of her background she didn’t talk about it. Having long hair and being a lighter shade of medium brown had somehow gotten her out of the “dreaded” black category in her native country. To her, her husband and I were the weirdoes wanting to dump our light-skin and brown-skin “privilege” to be lumped in with people several shades darker. We were crazy.

Because where she was from, that was a shudder-worthy notion.

And I thought of her when I read about Rodriguez’ incestuous family history and her own befuddled reaction to it. Of how something that was so important to those generations in the past, now seems silly. Or even uncomfortably bizarre. As if she thought, “fine. You want to be light. You want you kids to be light and retain all the privileges that come with it, but you were willing to marry your cousins just to make sure you retained lighter skinned traits? The taboo of incest meant less than the perceived “lesser” status of darker skin? That’s pretty messed up.”

Even when understanding the historical context of it, that context still involves the ignoring of the biological imperative to seek out sexual partners outside of the family tree.

And that’s what discrimination does to people. Even in places where everyone is technically of a similar background. We will, as human beings, seek for ways to divide ourselves, to show who has less and who has more. We will find a way to create an underclass, an undesirable, someone lesser than, so when they are marginalized and oppressed, we will not fight for them, but instead see them as the inhuman “other.” And that fear of becoming what you hate, of being the “other” will make you settle for a lifetime of cousin-screwing, rather than risk the loss of all the advantages afforded to you when you can say you are not of which you’ve been taught to hate.

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