Here’s how 'SoHo Karen' — who dissed Gayle King before her arrest in California — defended her actions: 'I'm Puerto Rican.'

·10 min read
Miya Ponsetto, aka "Soho Karen," seen in her booking photo after she was arrested Thursday afternoon for a fugitive warrant in connection with a recent assault in New York. (Photo: Ventura County Sheriff's Department/Handout via REUTERS)
Miya Ponsetto, aka "SoHo Karen," seen in her booking photo after she was arrested Thursday afternoon for a fugitive warrant in connection with a recent assault in New York. (Ventura County Sheriff's Department/Handout via Reuters)

Miya Ponsetto — the woman dubbed “SoHo Karen” after tackling 14-year-old Keyon Harrold Jr. in a New York City hotel on Dec. 26 over false accusations that the teen had stolen her phone — was finally arrested overnight on Thursday, in Ventura County, Calif., and charged Saturday with attempted assault, attempted robbery, endangering the welfare of a child and grand larceny, according to ABC News.

After creating the violent scene in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, Ponsetto returned to California, where she spent time lying low at her mother’s home in Piru, heading out to casually grab McDonald’s and, just before her arrest, digging what looks like a deeper hole for herself in an interview with Gayle King for CBS This Morning.

In footage of the interview, released Friday morning, Ponsetto, sitting alongside her lawyer, says she is “supersweet,” denies any claims of racial bias or wrongdoing, and accuses the teen’s father (Grammy-winning Jazz musician Keyon Harold Sr.) of assaulting her, all before ending the interview by holding a hand up to King and declaring, “All right, Gayle. Enough.”

But earlier in the saga, on Jan. 2, came one of the most insidiously problematic moments of all: Ponsetto, during her McDonald’s run, defending herself to reporters for her attack of the young man by saying, “I’m actually 22, so I don’t know what the problem is here,” before adding, “And I’m also Puerto Rican, so thank you,” apparently a way to explain that she could not possibly behave in a racist manner.

Yahoo Life spoke to experts in Afro-Latinx culture to get some help in breaking down why Ponsetto’s defense is inherently racist, and why such sentiments can be so damaging.

Anti-Black sentiment is not exclusive to anyone

In response to Ponsetto’s defense, Denise Diaz, co-director of Central Florida Jobs With Justice, tells Yahoo Life, “She demonstrates how anti-Blackness is something that isn’t always perpetrated by someone with blue eyes and blond hair. On a surface level, she said that to deflect her own biases and harm — at the same time being anti-Black by erasing the experience of Black Puerto Ricans.”

“To be clear,” Diaz explains, “some people might have said, ‘Oh, she’s a person of color, so therefore, this isn’t a Karen experience. It was something else. To a certain degree, this is what happened with Trayvon [Martin and George Zimmerman]. ‘[Zimmerman is] Peruvian, so therefore, this is not a racist,’ or, like, the fact that one of the Proud Boys leaders is Cuban.”

“Being Puerto Rican doesn’t mean that you fully understand the Black experience — unless you're Black — and it doesn’t absolve her of causing harm to Black people. She is capable of that, regardless of ethnicity,” adds Diaz.

Fordham University School of Law professor Tanya K. Hernandez also breaks down the problems with Ponsetto’s rationale. explaining, “Unfortunately, it’s a very typical response on the part of Latinos who don’t identify as Black and/or sort of live their lives like they’re either racially ambiguous, racially unidentified or viewing their Puerto Rican-ness as a race. For all those individuals, the typical response is to think of their own Latino identity as a shield against all accusations of racism. It’s the idea that their ethnic identity somehow makes them immune from anti-Black bias.”

The denial of Afro-Latinx heritage

Hernandez tells Yahoo Life that such a narrative “completely denies the obvious existence of many people of African descent … because it undermines the ability to continue with this light-skinned privilege that both exercises whiteness and, at the same time, wants to deny any culpability for doing so.”

Just last year, Orange Is the New Black actress Dascha Polanco found herself under similar scrutiny when she was called out for a tweet about the lack of Latinx representation among Emmy nominations — seemingly targeting the Black community — and then backpedaling by claiming Blackness. In a since-deleted Instagram video, saying that her words were misconstrued, she said, “It was not shading our Black community. Blackness is in my DNA, as a Dominican and an Afro Latina.”

And one year prior, Basketball Wives LA star Evelyn Lozada had a similar take when she was called out for her own anti-Black bias toward Nigerian castmate OG Chijindu — having called her a “monkey,” and committing other racially charged micro-aggressions throughout the show’s eighth season. As a defense, she quickly pointed out that she began identifying as “Afro-Latina,” which unleashed another wave of backlash when some critics pulled Lozada’s old tweets in which she denied having any affiliation with Blackness. In response, she posted an explanation of her own interpretation of “Afro-Latina,” citing the history of colonization on the island of Puerto Rico.

Diaz explains that although history plays a significant role, many people misinterpret its impacts, noting, “For Puerto Ricans, it’s constantly said that we’re mixed of Spanish from Spain, indigenous from Taíno and Black, so that then becomes the pass [for biased behaviors]. It’s complicated, but it’s really that we are a product of colonization, and people tend to romanticize that.”

She says, “I’ve been in spaces with other Puerto Ricans that are blue-eyed with blond hair and they’re like, ‘We’re all from Africa,’” which Diaz says minimizes her own experience as a Black Puerto Rican — but also notes that any such objection is usually “reduced to pettiness” if called out.

In a 2020 op-ed for The Americano, novelist Anjanette Delgado explored why she was wrong for identifying as “Afrolatina” in the past, recalling her own experiences, while also factoring in those of others within the African diaspora. She wrote, “I grew up thinking I was black because of my nose, and lips, and hair, regardless of skin color, and I was damn proud of it. The problem with that theory? It is born of old ideas that extend whiteness a greater degree of exclusivity than it does to other races, and it erases the fact that darker skinned people live a different experience than the rest of us.”

In a 2020 opinion piece for Al Día, Fordham’s Hernandez explained that “Latino racial attitudes facilitate the erasure of Afro-Latinos. Under the homogenizing banner of ‘we Latinos are a syncretic racially mixed single people’ known as ‘mestizaje’ (racial mixture celebration) imagines Latinos as a mixed-race population without ‘true’ Black people and in turn without anti-Black racism. However, this mythological tale of Latino racial tolerance gets disrupted when we listen to the narratives of Afro-Latinos who have been the victims of Latino discrimination.”

In the past few years, stars like Love and Hip Hop: Miami’s Amara La Negra have spoken out about Afro-Latina erasure. In her VH1 “Meet the Cast” video, she says, “There’s women that look like myself in every single Latin country, but everybody just admires and looks at the J.Los and the Shakiras, but I’m Latina too! What happened to us?”

Further, in a 2018 piece for Afropunk, Quinn Smith-Matta echoed that sentiment, writing, “Amara’s query is a valid one. With over 1.4 million Mexicans self-identifying as Black or having African ancestry in 2015 and Brazil being the second Blackest nation in the world, it’s almost absurd how the term ‘Latino’ has managed to secede itself from Blackness. Sofia Vergara, Mario Lopez, and other light-skinned and/or white-passing Latinx people have become the poster children for Latin America, failing to reflect the large Black populations in their respective countries of origin. However, this separation of Black heritage from Latino identity is not accidental.” Smith-Matta cited cultural policy as one of the main culprits.

“Afro-Latinx people have shaped the music, the food, the celebrations, and almost everything that draws so many people to these beautiful countries, and we have yet to get the acknowledgement we deserve. People love reggaeton and punta, but they don’t love us,” she added.

However, Hernandez says, it remains “taboo to talk about these things in the Latino community,” and that has inspired her to create a manuscript, in part to challenge “the visual of light-skinned and white skin as being the default for when you talk about Latino.” The forthcoming book from Beacon Press, she shares, is titled On Latino Anti-Black Bias: ‘Racial Innocence’ and the Struggle for Equality.

“The reason for that default is to try to act as if Latino is its own race, so that we don’t get into giving closer scrutiny to all the problematic anti-Black bias and anti-indigenous discrimination that exists within Latinidad,” Hernandez notes.

Diaz recalls her own childhood, saying, “I remember hearing ‘Arregla la raza,’ like, ‘You’re fixing the race.’ And the indicator of how you do that is getting with someone who was white, or social status things that you do to increase your proximity to whiteness. But Spanish isn’t owned by light-skinned people or whoever you see as this poster child of what it is to be a Latina or Latino.”

As far as SoHo Karen’s Puerto Rican defense, “there should be a bigger expectation that we check that,” adds Diaz.

“Because I'm a lighter-skinned Black Latina, or because I have more proximity to whiteness, I actually have to be more responsible in how I yield it and when,” she says. “We’ve always got to check, because there could be harm there. We just can't say, ‘Oh, I didn't know.’”

Finally, Diaz cautions, it's “really important” for everyone to examine “the nuances of how anti-Blackness is perpetuated — and when we perpetuate it, looking at how are we owning and minimizing the harm.”

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