Bushwick pol accuses challenger of switching race identities for political gain

Darma Diaz and Sandy Nurse
Bushwick Councilmember Darma Diaz (left) accused her challenger Sandy Nurse of switching racial identities to suit her political needs.
File photos

Bushwick Councilmember Darma Diaz accused her political challenger Sandy Nurse of switching between racial identities to suit her campaign needs at a recent virtual panel discussion.

“How do you have the right to say, ‘I’m Afro-American today, and tomorrow I’m Latina.’ The conversations are different,” said Diaz at an online talk about race identities with the think tank The Black Institute on Feb. 25. “It’s real and it’s dynamic to see how people change who they are based on the conversation, the movement, the narrative — that’s not how it should be… To me it just pisses me off and that’s the bottom line.”

Nurse, who is making a second run at unseating Diaz, was born in Panama as the child of a white American mom and a Black Panamanian dad who immigrated to the US, while both were serving in the Navy in the Central American country. She lived in Panama until she was about 5 years old, before moving with her family to different military outposts around the globe, including Cuba, South Korea, and Japan, and eventually settling in Bushwick in 2009. 

Nurse said her first language is Spanish and she describes herself as Afro-Latina, adding that she also has siblings from different mothers in Puerto Rico and still has family in Panama.

Diaz, who was born in Williamsburg to Puerto Rican parents, criticized Nurse during the online discussion last week after being asked about white people co-opting other race identities.

“Within my [Council] race, there’s a candidate that’s gone from a white mom, a Black dad, born in Panama, being Panamanian, Latinx, Afro-Caribbean, to now Latina,” Diaz said. “For me it’s definitely been truly challenging when individuals impose or pretend to be what they’re not.”

Councilmember Darma Diaz during a virtual panel with The Black Institute on Feb. 25.Screenshot

Following the round table, Nurse shot back at Diaz, saying she weaponized race against the upstart candidate.

Nurse also condemned Diaz for ignoring the complex racial experiences of New Yorkers who identify as Black and Latinx, especially in the 37th Council District that is mostly represented by both communities, spanning the neighborhoods of Bushwick, Cypress Hills, Ocean Hill, Brownsville, and East New York. 

“Darma basically says that you can be Latina or you can be Black. Millions of Afro-Latinas here in New York City, and around the world, disagree with her offensive comments,” Nurse said in an emailed statement on March 3. “It’s concerning that she would want to weaponize race against someone in her community. Her anti-Blackness and inability to comprehend the complexities of race makes me concerned about her ability to represent a community that is predominately Black and Latinx.”

The two politicos who are running for the Democratic nomination in the June primary have battled before in the 2020 primary for the seat, after then-Councilmember Rafael Espinal abruptly ditched public office to head up the Freelancers Union at the beginning of that year. 

Diaz had the backing of Brooklyn Democratic Party honchos, and her volunteers were able to get a judge to boot Nurse — who positioned herself as a more progressive upstart candidate — along with all other hopefuls off the ballot last year for insufficient petition signatures.

In a follow-up phone interview, Diaz denied having any bias toward Black Latinx people, saying she was merely criticizing Nurse for campaigning at times as a Black woman and then as a Latina. 

“I’m getting really annoyed of people throwing the race card,” Diaz told Brooklyn Paper. “It’s as if she needs to appeal to the narrative of the moment, that’s what I’m offended by.”

The freshman legislator cited her past work as a staffer for the late area Assemblyman and state housing honcho Darryl Towns, who was Black, and said that just because someone was born in Latin America, it does not necessarily make them Latina.

“If I am born in Zimbabwe, I am Zimbabwean?” Diaz asked. “Me going to Israel, does that make me a Jew?”

Diaz accused Nurse of trying to appropriate a working-class identity by identifying as Latina, despite coming from a more privileged background. 

“Someone like she that was born of privilege it’s offensive that she assumes all these personalities,” Diaz said.

In response, Nurse acknowledged that coming from a family that served in the armed forces brought with it privileges for her parents like stable housing, income, and healthcare. She added that her dad’s background was far from privileged, having come to the country undocumented before joining the military to gain a path to citizenship. 

“My father left Panama, made it to Mexico, crawled through a fence in Arizona and made it to Jamaica, Queens,” Nurse told Brooklyn Paper. “The privileges of being a child of a US service member — especially when they’re coming into that service from desperation — is not necessarily a privilege.”

In a follow-up statement, Diaz acknowledged complex racial identities and said she wanted to move to more pressing issues facing the district. 

“As a proud woman of Puerto Rican descent, I like so many others from my island recently found out that I have roots of Haitian, Afro-Caribbean, and Spanish heritage — I understand that identities are complex and personal,” said in the statement. “I appreciate the diversity of my opponents’ backgrounds, and hope that we can come together to address the critical issues facing the most vulnerable members of our community. New Yorkers are facing a housing crisis, a health crisis and an economic crisis — any moment not spent focusing on these issues detracts from meeting the needs of the people of our district.”