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Dominican Identity: Whitening an African Diaspora

Por Bernardo Cáceres
February 2016
Though fair-skinned, and raised by a woman of Irish and Italian descent, I’ve never considered myself white. My father was from the Dominican Republic, so growing up, my skin color did not matter. I lived in a housing complex with a majority of black and Latino tenants, and only ever associated with my Dominicanness. In my eyes, my mother was never a “white woman”. She cooked Dominican and Puerto Rican food, her friends and “relatives” were the Puerto Rican women in my community, and even picked up a New-YorRican woman’s accent. To my friends and I, my Dominicanness allowed me to assert my place on the black side of the racial struggles in the United States, say the “n-word”, and disassociate completely with my whiteness. This was never weird to me. I did not find myself having to ever defend my blackness or reject my whiteness in the eyes of my friends. I lived in the community and faced the same struggles that came with it along with my peers. I didn’t sound white, and I didn’t want to be white.

            My introduction to the Dominican Republic’s chaotic history was in my seventh grade social studies class. Our teacher, Mr. Weaver, told us about the massacre of the Taíno race on the island of “Hispaniola” practically immediately after Christopher Columbus’ arrival onto the island. I was utterly shocked, and saw it as validation that my people, the Dominican people, were just as oppressed by the “white man” as the ancestors of my black friends.

My best friend, Allah Smart’s grandmother was from Jamaica. In their family pictures, I was always the white sheep, multiple tones lighter than anyone else. But my skin color rarely came up. In middle school, Moya (what we called his grandmother) told us one day that being Jamaican and Dominican was almost the same thing. She told Allah and I that we were more related to one another than our skin colors might show. That resonated with me so much. I understood that our island’s shared a history, and took pride in it. In my community, whiteness was not a good thing, and I was proud that I did not have to be associated with it.
            After years of schooling in public schools within my community, I went to Bard High School in Manhattan. This was my first experience in a predominantly white school and I was surprised when I started making so many white friends. My style of dress changed, and I began to spend less time in my community. In college, this predicament only amplified. In a predominantly white private school, I became extremely self-conscious and defensive of the fact that I could so easily pass as one of my white colleagues at Bard. I found myself feeling the need to assert my non-whiteness both in school and at home.
This senior project was a product of that. In my second year I took a class with Tabetha Ewing called “Captivity & Law”, where I delved so much deeper into the Dominican Republic’s history than I could have ever imagined in middle school. But as I learned the history of the island, I grew angry at the Dominican Republic. I now knew that Dominicans were descended not only from Spanish colonists and the few Taínos left, but also from African slaves that truly built both nations on the island. I read Fanon’s explanation of the “colonized individual” and was mad at how colonized the Dominican people became. C.L.R James’ Black Jacobins told the story of black slaves rising from oppression to create the first black nation in Haiti. These slaves then went on to disband the Spanish colony on the east and make way for the creation of the Dominican Republic. But in the Dominican Republic, I knew from visiting my father’s home in Santiago, Haitians were looked down upon. In class, I read about Trujillo’s reign, and the genocide of tens of thousands of Haitians for the sake of whiteness in 1937, and was disgusted. While I was fighting for and because of my blackness in the United States, I began seeing my fatherland as the epitome of black, self, hate. How could my people, so obviously a part of the African diaspora, be this much in denial, and so ignorant? Why did I not learn about this history before? I wrote a paper at the end of the semester for “Captivity & Law”, expressing these frustrations. I knew immediately that this would be the topic I would focus on for my senior project, but had no idea just how much I had left to learn.
I know now that I was guilty of making the same mistake Silvio Torres-Saillant say most people make when considering their own ethnicity. “We must avoid large claims about any subsection of the human family, and we should always monitor our own racism, not only the one we might perpetrate against others, but also the one that might emerge when we think of ourselves, our people, our ethnicity, and the like." I thought I knew Dominicanness, and what it should be, because I was ‘it’.  I generalized the Dominican people based on the actions of the state and the ruling elite. In “Captivity & Law” I learned of the shared history between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, but still saw Haitians and Dominicans as mutually exclusive, framing the Dominican consciousness as the antagonist in their chaotic history.
My grandfather came to the United States in 1964 during the civil wars that resulted in Bosch being revoked of presidency and eventually the reign of Balaguer. My grandmother came in 1965, and my father and all of his siblings were brought to the U.S. in 1966. My grandfather was Balaguer’s bodyguard in New York from 1978 to 1986 when he took over as president again. My father took long walks with the aging man who was growing blind, and respected him. My father never told me about my family’s history or the reasons my grandfather moved the family to the U.S. He never wanted to talk about the era of Trujillo or Balaguer’s presidency. I was never actually explained what it meant to be a Dominican, but was aware of the necessary distinction between Dominicans and Haitians in the Dominican Republic. 
It was through this project that I learned my family’s history and learned that Dominicans, not only “Haitians” were oppressed and exploited by the ruling class that dictated Dominicanness as not black since the nation’s time as a slave colony. Eugenio Matibag’s book Haitian-Dominican Counterpointtells the history of the entire island of “Hispaniola” and emphasizes the sameness between the two nations. His book changed my perceptions of Dominicanness completely and made me realize that Dominicans were actually being oppressed because of their blackness still. Blacks in the Dominican Republic were never seen as Dominican. Those in power benefitted from a system in which blacks were not seen as citizens, and thus not afforded the same rights as others. This meant that people in the Dominican Republic who were black weren’t acknowledged nor given the same treatment as Dominicans, but as Haitians, and were labeled as such.
Lawrence De Besault’s President Trujillo: His Work and The Dominican Republic, and Joaquín Balaguer’s La Isla Al Reves, paints a picture of the grip these men had on conceptions of Dominicanness. Trujillo and Balaguer literally wrote the nation’s history, and propagated a Haitian “problem” in the country that men before them had already begun to exploit.
Silvio Torres-Saillant’s Introduction To Dominican Blackness explains the possibility for the discovery of Dominican Blackness in the United States and in the homeland in the aftermath of the great silences imposed from 1492 to 1996. With Dominicans more aware of this history, a change in how black Dominicans are treated seems inevitable. But there remains much work to be done.
In 2013, the Dominican government ruled that any person born to undocumented, “Haitian”, parents after 1929 was not Dominican. In 2014, “Haitian” Dominicans in the Dominican Republic and Haitians on the other side of the island took a stand against these rulings asking President Medina for changes to his policy, making it possible for Dominicans to get citizenship. President Medina and the Dominican government denied that these rulings were racist, and passed a bill supposedly making a “path” to citizenship for these black Dominicans. However, President Medina’s bill, promising “a country without exclusion and without discrimination,” only created a pathway for these black Dominicans to apply for permits as migrant workers. But Amnesty International reports that as of January of 2015, only 5,345 Dominicans were able to acquire the documents needed to apply for these permits.
As of now (2015), over 200,000 people in the Dominican Republic remain legally stateless. These Dominicans are the children of Haitian migrants who weren’t given documentation during the era of Trujillo, or those whose families started a life in the Dominican Republic years before, who’ve had their citizenship revoked during these times of amplified anti-hatianismo. With no papers (ID, etc.) or rights as citizens, these Dominicans don’t have access to the same education, jobs, health services and insurances other Dominicans have. Though classified as “Haitian” by the Dominican government, and too often by their Dominican neighbors around them, these Dominicans have no home in Haiti and live and contribute as part of the Dominican Republic’s community. 
The Dominican people have yet to fully come to terms with what it actually means to be a Dominican. The government can still frame anti-black policy as anti-haitian, and anti-immigration – something that Dominicans in the Dominican Republic were trained to be compliant with. Instead of marching on the streets in defense of actual Dominicans, other Dominicans continue to follow in their government’s footsteps, and reject Dominican blackness.
 
Refusing to acknowledge racism as a problem in Dominican policy keeps the people of the Dominican Republic in the same dark place they have been forced in for centuries. The Dominican Republic’s history of self-definition in opposition to black Haiti, anti-hatianismo’s violent defense, propagation and exploitation during the era of Trujillo, and the lingering anti-Haitian policy has made it easy for Dominicans to separate themselves from what they’ve been forced to see as different. Without the Afro-centric conversation so present and encouraged among Dominicans in the United States, the Dominican Republic is doomed to carry on the same tradition of black denial. With so much confusion and chaos centered on this topic, Dominicans in the homeland and in the United States must ask themselves how and where the conversation starts.

Extract from a Bard College Senior Project, Dominican Identity: Whitening an African Diaspora by Bernardo Caceres.  To read the complete project, go to:  http://digitalcommons.bard.edu/senproj_s2015/197/ 
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La Voz, Cultura y noticias hispanas del Valle de Hudson

 

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