We were socialized from an early age to name blackness. To taunt it, to call it names. My friends and I compared skin colors as we played the “who’s blacker?” game.
“You’re blacker than me, Perla!”
“Haitiana, you lose!”
My parents groomed an identity that privileged straight hair and lighter skin, while compromising my kinks and self-esteem.
“I need 25 dollars to straighten Perla’s greña. It looks messy. She needs to look good for picture day.”
My inherited black skin and kinky hair were my parents’ greatest shame and the butt of my friends’ jokes.
La Raza Dominicana, a term that refers to Dominican people and culture as a collective, is actually used to highlight the Dominican Republic’s pluralities. The term celebrates all of the racial, ethnic, and cultural origins that have positively influenced expressions of Dominicanidad. Like Cuba and Brazil, the Dominican Republic has an extensive history of racial mixing between Indigenous peoples, enslaved Africans, and European colonizers. Yet under Spanish rule, colonizer violence and disease diminished the Indigenous population from 400,000 to 60,000 people by 1508, leaving a population of mostly miscegenated people (Howard, 31). As such, the DR has a population of primarily black people. According to current statistics, the Dominican Republic has an afro-descendant population of nearly 8 million people, the fifth largest black population outside of Africa.
While the colors and aesthetics of Dominican people are endless, it is important to keep in mind that white supremacy still operates insidiously in miscegenated societies. Dictator Rafael Trujillo rose to power in 1931 with a “re-Domincanization” nationalist agenda. Trujillo’s regime bolstered the myth that Haitian immigration into the Dominican Republic was ruining Dominican identity and territory. Trujillismo redefined Dominican identity to fall in line with Hispanidad — what it meant to be of pure and superior, Catholic, white, Spanish blood (Howard, 31). They banned and demonized all expressions of Africanity, like the practice of Santeria, and deemed them anti-Dominican and subversive to the regime. The peak of Trujillo’s aversion to blackness surfaced during the Parsley Massacre in 1937. In nearly five days alone, the regime murdered roughly 30,000 Haitians and Haitian-Dominicans. In fact, Trujillo encouraged white European immigration (Howard, 31). During the 1930’s, Trujillo offered the province of Sosúa as a safe haven for 100,000 Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi regime. By providing them with land and resources, Jewish refugees were able to self-entrepreneur companies that still have lasting legacies of wealth today. This decision might have been influenced by Trujillo’s desire to have Western nations overlook his brutal massacre at home. Haiti, under Trujillo’s regime, was constructed as the antithesis to all things Dominican. In opposition to a neighbor that suffered from blackness and poverty, savagery and voodoo, the DR under Trujillo was a country thriving at preserving whiteness while ostensibly promoting civility and modernity (Howard, 31). By instilling fear in the population and killing non-supporters, Trujillo maintained power while gaining the loyalty, respect, and trust of the people. Consequently, his beliefs gained frightening legitimacy.
This historical chain of events constructed Dominicanidad in direct opposition to Haitianism. Dominican hostility toward Haiti has been sewn into the fabric of Dominican identity. Very early in my life I was taught how to express Dominican nationalism before I learned what it meant to be black or mixed-race. My expressions of Dominican nationalism were uninformed and racist. I was socialized to think of Haitians as lesser people. I was taught to laugh at Haitians and separate myself from them. When I defended what I knew about the Dominican Republic, I spoke of beauty, wealth, and culture. When I referred to Haiti, I spoke of dirt, demise, overwhelming blackness, and mystification. In my emigrated circles of Dominicans, we made sure to express these sentiments of nationalism to protect ourselves from our fears.
We feared our own marginalization. We absolved ourselves from our oppression by internalizing and regurgitating notions of superiority and privilege. In condemning a humanity, identity and history that so deeply influenced ours, we perpetuated the historical belief that Haitian blackness threatened Dominican identity.
These expressions of Dominican nationalism are implicit anti-black sentiments. At the height of the Dominican-Haitian deportation crisis two summers ago, my circles demonized and blamed Haitians for “infiltrating our lands” and asserted that “enough was enough.” “This isn’t racism; we are reclaiming what is ours!” The hegemonies and racial tensions of the mainland still hold true in Dominican transnational communities. Represented especially by the infamous kink-destructive “Dominican blowout,” white (read: colonized) is the preferred aesthetic. Adding to this, the plethora of skin categorizations used to describe blackness–indio, moreno, trigueño–is indicative of an unspoken code to avoid negro. Embracing any physical, cultural, or spiritual blackness is considered undesirable and rendered as “other.” The histo-political marginalizing of blackness in the DR created a colorist Dominican culture that becomes even more compounded in the United States. When black Dominicans fail to interrogate the implications of their blackness in a context that systematically scrutinizes and polarizes black people, black Dominican lives become ever more vulnerable.
So much of what has come to define blackness is perception. To our oppressors, blackness is a monolith. White people are not socialized to understand blackness through its multiplicities and pluralities, but rather through skin color, racialized physical features, and uninformed stereotypes.
If we observe the media, people such as Sandra Bland and Trayvon Martin were unfairly brutalized because of their blackness. As Dominican people, we need to interrogate this and understand that we too can and will be taken advantage of because of our blackness.
As a black Dominican, I am not exempt from the social violence and shaming that also affect my black American peers. My blackness and my Dominicanness are not mutually exclusive, and if I claim one it does not mean that I am distancing myself from the other. In fact, I am becoming more conscious of how rhetoric around Dominican nationalism has shamed my blackness and taught me to separate myself from it in order to be a “model minority.”
The point here is that Black Dominicans need to be more critical and nuanced in the ways we define and advocate for our identities. Much of our history has been manicured for us to have fraught relationships with our black ancestry. It is our duty to intentionally move against that history to interrogate the ways in which systems of power and oppression move through us. In unpacking the racist construction of our Dominican identity, we can come to understand how it manifests itself differently and is perceived differently in distinct spaces. While my black family members simply understand me as a Dominican woman in the safety of our home, in public spheres I am black and other. I am Jezebel. I am Sapphire. By the nature of our white supremacist, capitalist, sexist, racist, and classist society, I am at the intersection of the burdens of domination. Mi Dominicanidad does not come to my rescue when police assume I am a sex-worker on the street. Mi Dominicanidad does not exempt me from being patronized by white men. I cannot fall back on my Dominicanness to protect me from racial prejudice and discrimination.
I encourage black Dominicans to think critically about our culture and history to become aware of anti-Haitianism, anti-blackness, and the ways in which they shape our identities. We need to collectively push back on anti-blackness in our jargon, customs, and social realities. In a world that operates under an overarching anti-black agenda, black people can’t afford to perpetuate anti-blackness when our livelihoods are vulnerable.
Howard, David. Coloring the Nation: Race and Ethnicity in the Dominican Republic. Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2001. Print.