We first met Yaya Alafia (née Acosta) when she was a contestant on America’s Next Top Model. During the show, Alafia was one of the few women to embrace her African heritage and came off as decidedly pro-Black. The model turned actress studied Africana Studies and International Relations at Brown University and also has roots in both Nigeria and Brazil, but these days she firmly identifies as an African in America.
Despite growing up in Harlem, Alafia admitted she once embraced her Latina side more—“ It made me samba even harder” she explained to Michel Martin of NPR’s Tell Me More—but a study abroad trip to the Dominican Republic when she was 16 opened her eyes to the “self-hate” (her words) prevalent among many Afro-Latinos.
“Even though I had grown up in Harlem, kind of at the border of Washington Heights where the community is largely Dominican, I didn’t realize how deep-rooted the brainwashing went and how much self-hate there was,” she said. “Every time I got back home, my host mother would yell at me saying, ‘You’re going to burn out there. Don’t get too dark, you could be so pretty.’”
Alafia described the experience as heartbreaking, but encountered a similar kind of prejudice when she was a student living in Brazil.
“My neighborhood consisted of only lighter-skinned Brazilians, and so, if you were darker than a paper bag, you’re either poor, you were begging on the street, you were in the favela next door,” she told Martin. “It really outraged me because colorism is real too.”
Though Alafia embraces all aspects of her heritage and labels herself a “mutt,” she explained she doesn’t list all of the components of her background because “when people start to get a little too specific it serves as a divisive tactic.”
Instead, the new mom calls herself an African in America, something she hopes to pass on to her newborn son.
“I think unity is in order now,” Alafia explained, noting she grew up learning about Black history throughout the year. “So, yeah, I’m all about the diaspora, and I feel at home in a lot of places, but I am truly an African-American.”