Understanding Blackness in the Dominican Republic + Are Dominicans Black?

ppl holding hands of different colors

Did you know? The Dominican Republic was the first country in the Americas to be invaded and colonized by Europeans. And the first to receive enslaved Africans. These are just two of many other “first” atrocities that began in 1492 when Christopher Colombus set foot on the Western Hemisphere. As such, we have endured one of the longest and most traumatic histories of ethnic genocide and racial slavery. And then most recently, we were invaded twice by the United States, resulting in two dictatorships and ongoing American imperialism.

Invasion. Native genocide. Imperialism. An oppressive dictatorship. It’s no surprise that we’re still recovering. Picking up the pieces. With most of our population too busy in survival mode to wonder: “Am I black?” or “Where did my ancestors come from?” 

But after being the layover stop for so many voyages from around the world and a history that has been intentionally white-washed and erased… it makes sense that many of us grapple with the notion of our Dominican identities. Both ethnic and racial. What are we? Are Dominicans Black? Latino? Mulatto? Taino, Arawak, Carib? American? All of the above? 



Dominicans & The Anti-Blackness Conversation Today

An interview with American comedian Godfrey launched a meme that has overly simplified an important and complex topic.

There’s that pesky meme of the comedian Godfrey that’s been going around. “I no black, I Dominican”, it goes. The full context of the video is important here: Godfrey speaks on the value of the Black Panther film, and eventually comes to a reflection on how Dominicans don’t accept their blackness. And while the observation makes sense from an American context, there’s a lot more in the why and how of that refusal. The “I no black, I Dominican” meme has become a joke now whenever the topic of Dominicans comes up in non-Dominican spaces. But how did we end up in the center of the anti-Blackness topic in the Americas?

If you’re genuinely curious, continue reading for the scoop on European colonial trauma, racial labels, Anti-Haitianismo, Trujillo, and the effects of those horrific U.S. invasions. Because this topic is deeper than a misinformed meme.


What Makes a Person Black? Who Can Claim Blackness?

Gerry with her mother and grandmother. Is she black?

Before we answer the question “Are Dominicans are Black?” Let’s lay some foundation.

  1. First, the Europeans created the racial classification of people by phenotype (including “Black”) during the colonization process to justify slavery and cruel exploitation. 
  2. Second, there is no ONE universal criteria to assess one’s Blackness. Is it a culture? Is it a phenotype? A shared heritage/history? A geography? A lived experience?

Well, the answers to all of that usually depend on the history and social construct of race in where you live. That’s because…

The Concept of Blackness is Fluid & Differs Around the World

Let’s step AWAY from the American lens. The United States does not rule the dictionary. So let’s look at the topic holistically.

NEGRITUDE means Blackness in Spanish. Which, to us, signifies it’s a spectrum. There are not just two boxes: black or white (common thinking in the USA). That’s because there are many shades to the conversation of Blackness. A Dominican who is considered Black in the USA may not be considered that in Haiti or Zimbabwe or the Dominican Republic. There is no ONE globally accepted definition of exactly who is and isn’t Black.

To an American, being Black usually means how you look or the “one-drop rule”. In many other countries, though, it’s not as used or there are multiple categories of Blackness. Not acknowledging color, or lumping everyone as black when some have more light-skin privilege than others can be detrimental. 


Why Some Dominicans Say They’re Dominican Instead of Black

There are at least eight reasons why this happens. Some innocuous, others drenched in a self-hatred that is commonly found throughout the Americas–a result of colonial trauma. 

1. Afro-Latino Erasure

Often the label of “Black” in the United States is given to Black Americans not just as a phenotype, but as a marker of shared culture and history. So a Dominican might say “No, I’m not Black, I’m Dominican” to say, “wait don’t erase my Dominican identity, it’s very culturally distinct from Black Americans”. 

2. Proximity to Whiteness

This mentality is often committed by immigrant groups, regardless of race. In an effort to survive racism/colorism, many groups feel a need to “other” each other as we are othered by those in power. What this looks like is immigrants who are perceived as Black in the United States but not in their countries, come to the US and create a division between themselves and Black Americans, who they’ve been taught to look down on by the country they seek opportunity in. Hence, “I’m not Black. I’m Dominican.” It comes from both prejudice against Black Americans and a self-preservation technique that many BIPOC have had to use throughout history: vying for proximity to whiteness for basic rights, in order to be treated better, and survive.

This is particularly sad given the contributions of Black Americans who helped these very immigrant groups live in the United States thanks to the Civil Rights Movement, which produced the Immigration Act of 1965.

3. Poor Education & U.S. Imperialism

Many of us non-white folks from the Americas genuinely have no clue where we are from. I used to ask my grandmother, “Where are we from?” And she would scratch her head and shrug “I don’t know…. I suppose Spain at some point since we speak Spanish.” She was more preoccupied with survival and working hard, instead of philosophical queries about intangible things she cannot control. She was pulled out of school at 11 years old to take care of the household in the Dominican countryside. How could I expect her to know these things, if she never got the chance to read and learn history? 

And when we tried to set up an improved system of education in the Dominican Republic, the United States invaded us and overthrew our democratically elected President Bosch.

4. Dominican Republic’s Dictator Culture

Also, the United States backed our two recent dictators (Rafael Trujillo and Joaquin Balaguer). Both were notorious for hunting down and killing progressive educators, students, activists, and other intellectuals. Such was the murder of progressive journalist Orlando Martinez by dictator Balaguer. And of course, the famous Mirabal Sisters by dictator Trujillo. So activism and educating about/speaking out against social or racial injustices were unthinkable! This dictator culture still lingers.

5. Denial & Proximity Towards Whiteness From Racial Trauma

The popular books Passing and The Vanishing Half cover this topic quite well. They’re about Black American women who can pass for white and decide to shun their Black community in an effort to better their lives and access to resources. 

The same can be applied to Dominicans who deny their Blackness. They are coming from a place of trauma and sometimes self-hatred (internalized racism). The fear that the blacker they are perceived, the worse they will be treated. And the smaller chance of having a good quality of life. Hence, many Dominicans, like many underprivileged groups, aspire for proximity to whiteness to better their lives in a racist society.

Throw in the European beauty standard, and anti-blackness becomes ingrained in us in both subtle and overt ways. Such is the embarrassing and heartbreaking case of Sammy Sosa bleaching his skin

6. Dictator Trujillo’s White Washing, Eugenics & Genocide

Efforts to “whiten the population” have been a common political practice in Latin American countries. 

Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo aligned with white supremacy ideals, even though he himself had Haitian heritage. He believed in “improving the race” by eliminating the people who were perceived as Black: the Haitians and dark-skinned Dominicans. By any means necessary. He exacerbated tensions between the countries, deeming the Haitians as a threat to national security and sovereignty. (Ring a bell?)

These tensions culminated in the Parsely Massacre (1937), when Dominican military forces killed over 20 thousand Haitians, Dominicans of Haitian descent, and dark-skinned Dominicans. Men, women, children, and elderly people were murdered by the military forces and Dominican civilians.

Trujillo’s efforts continued in other insidious and subtle ways, such as promoting eugenics in the Dominican Republic, repressing music of African origin, and creating racial categories away from Blackness. The effects of his 30+ year dictatorship still remain in the Dominican culture today.

7. A Country Without a Race? Or “One Singular Mixed Race”?

It’s common to hear Dominicans identify as neither black nor white, but a raceless mix or “one singular mixed race”. This is referring to the fact that Dominicanidad is considered a melting pot of Taino, African, and Spanish.

This mix has been used to claim that our society is not organized based on race. But it is. Today, the Dominican people that hold the most power, access to better opportunity, and wealth are those closer to whiteness. And the Dominicans treated the worst and in poverty are the most Black.

This is also behind the reasoning why many deny Blackness and claim there’s no racism. Their flawed logic is that if everyone is mixed in the Dominican Republic, then there cannot be racism. This “one singular mixed-race” ideal helps maintain a facade of racial ambiguity in the minds of  Dominican people. 

8. El indigenismo: Using Indigenous Heritage for Black Erasure

The pursuit of reconnecting with our indigenous Taino ancestry is a beautiful thing. However, it has also been misused. For centuries, through literature and official discourse, the Santo Domingo-born Spaniard elites (“criollos”), idealized the indigenous over black. By the 1800s, they were often labeling what was indigenous Taino (“indio”) as pretty or noble and what was African or Black as ugly, savage, and undesirable.

This has continued through the 1900s, with Dominican anti-Black dictators negating our Black heritage by crediting our indigenous ancestry for our Afro-features. For example, up until a few decades ago, “indio” became a race to choose for those with a mulatto skin tone and straighter hair. 

9. Shades of Black in the Dominican Republic

As we’ll explain below, Blackness is not determined the same way around the world. In the Dominican Republic, a mulatto or mixed person may be considered “light” or “white” because they are relatively lighter-skinned than others in their community. So some Dominicans don’t realize they are “Black” as defined in the USA until they leave the Caribbean. Here are some terms utilized in Dominican society for the socially constructed shades of Black: jabao, indio, moreno, mulatto, trigueno, etc.

This has inevitably led to a subconscious fear of suffering from colorism and thus a desire for proximity to whiteness and Spanish heritage in order to survive. Also, as a result, Haitians have received the brunt of this colorism and fear of blackness.

10. Rejection by Other Black Communities

Sometimes, Black Dominicans are rejected by the Black American or Black African community. We see it all the time on social media– Twitter threads on Twitter threads questioning Cardi B or Amara La Negra’s blackness, simply because they speak Spanish or perhaps once didn’t have the language/education to identify their blackness.

I remember showing my Zimbabwean friend a picture of my family, and he shook his head, “they are not black”. I nearly fell off my chair because they are Black people from the American perspective of race. But to him, they weren’t dark enough.


Why Does Racial/Ethnic Identity Matter? 

For some people, pinpointing their racial identity is relatively easy. That connection to their heritage and identity serves as an anchor and a sense of belonging necessary for many humans. But for many in Latin America, due to colonialism and slavery, most of us are not afforded that insight. That’s often the case of Dominican and other Caribbean people.

And more so in 2022, race or ethnicity determine access to opportunity, safety, and privilege. Becoming aware of how we’re racially perceived is critical in an inherently uneven social system.


The Cultural Roots of Dominicaness 

Dominicans are primarily a mix of West African, Spaniard, and indigenous Taino descent. The percentage of each can vary greatly by person, of course. But culturally, our heritage consists largely of those three. On top of that, we’ve had some Jewish and Arab cultural influence, especially after the Spanish Inquisition.

That means being Dominican is a culture, a shared history, and/or a nationality. It is not a race. Ethnically and racially we are almost all mixed.


African Heritage in the Dominican Republic 

Experience some Afro-Dominican history and culture by listening to the sacred music of the Fiesta de Palo: in Villa Mella.
Fiesta de Palo, Villa Mella, Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic is home to the fourth-largest African diaspora in the world outside of Africa. So if you travel to the Dominican Republic, it’s very easy to see with your eyes just how much we were influenced by African heritage and ancestry.

  • Dominican Food: Is rich in African, Iberian, and indigenous influences.
  • Music: Our biggest music genres, such as merengue and bachata have deep African roots and incorporate African instruments and rhythms. 
  • Spirituality: Tainos and Africans were cruelly forced to convert to Catholicism or face death. So as a way to preserve our West African spirituality, we intertwined it into Catholicism. For example, La Regla de Ocha, Santeria, Los Congos, and Fiesta de Palo.
  • Dominican Spanish: The Dominican Spanish dialect is heavily influenced by Canarian/Andalusian Spanish, Taino words, and African syntax.

FUN FACT: Black Americans in Samana, Dominican Republic
After the Haitian Revolution, the Haitian government welcomed thousands of Black Americans to the unified island. Today, 8 thousand descendants of Black Americans live in Samana, Dominican Republic. And many continue preserving much of their Black-American culture, language, and history.


African History in the Dominican Republic

Congo drums in the Dominican Republic with roots from West Africa

The first enslaved Africans were brought to the island in 1502 by Nicolás de Ovando’s fleet and soon became the great majority of the population of the island due to their continuous import and the Spanish exodus to other territories of the continent. Enslaved African people at one point quadrupled the Spanish population of the colony. This explains why almost 90% of the Dominican population today is considered Afrodescendant or “mulatto”.

The island of Hispaniola (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic) became the gateway of racial slavery in the New World. However, it was common for the enslaved people to resist colonial rule through mutiny at sea, rebellions, and fleeing to the mountains where they created their own communities. 

The Maroons (enslaved runaways) became a formidable problem for the Spaniards. So the colonial authorities established a set of brutal punishments for the Maroons, including amputating limbs and flogging at the public square. But this didn’t stop them from rebelling. 

The Marronage (Cimarronaje) was more than just escaping the master’s house or the sugar plantation. It was also a space for preserving and embracing the practices and traditions of the African motherland.

Local Tour: Interested in learning more about Dominican Afrohistory? Check out this decolonial Afro-Dominican history walking tour in Santo Domingo.


Who Can Claim Blackness?

Can I consider myself Black if I have only one Black parent? How much African descent is enough to hold Blackness? What if I’m light-skinned and my phenotypic traits allow me to “pass”? Am I still Black?

OTHERING – In addition to heritage, Blackness is also a lived experience that encompasses a series of conditions and structural challenges (oppression). Being “othered” places us at a disadvantage from the start in relation to a white-centered society. 

And not all Black people are treated the same. So even if we can claim to have African ancestry, that doesn’t necessarily imply being “othered”. Some may claim Afrodescendancy and still not experience life being treated like a Black person.

In conclusion, there is not one defined answer or way of experiencing Blackness. There are various nuances to consider, such as cultural upbringing, passing privilege, and wealth. But it still stands– we cannot ignore the importance of how we are perceived racially, as it greatly influences the ways we are regarded by others in society.


So Are Dominicans Black?

Ruth leading an anti-racist workshop in Chavon, Dominican Republic

Here’s what’s certain:

  • MOST Dominicans are Black and/or of African descent. 
  • ALL Dominicans are considered Latinx and Hispanic.
  • And ALL Dominicans (unless they didn’t grow up in the culture) have at least some African cultural influence because the Dominican Culture is heavily composed of Afro-heritage.

If we define Blackness as having both West African biological descent AND/OR being of African cultural heritage, then YES, we Dominicans are Black. And the Dominican Republic is a Black country.

If we’re defining Blackness, only phenotypically, then the vast majority of our country is Afro-Descendant with a few exceptions. For instance, some Chinese-Dominican communities have lived in the country for generations.


A Growing Revolution: The Dominican Search for Identity 

Dominican-Americans on a heritage tour throughout the island

Thanks to social media, more and more Dominicans are reading and engaging in conversations about race and identity. We are creating our own media platforms (hey, like this one!) to exchange information, uncover our history, and educate each other. Simply put, some Dominicans have more access to information and are thus being provoked to question their racial identity more than ever before. 


Conclusion

​​It would be overly simplistic to assume Dominicans are just anti-black as if we chose antiblackness. But the reality is that this is a result of political and historical influences. It is important for us to explore and understand the social conditioning that led us to deny our blackness. Or rather, understand how our blackness has been denied to us. 

Below are sources to continue your reading!


Efforts & Activism in Dominican Republic Today

8M Feminist March

Many Dominicans are actively fighting for progress and against anti-Blackness and colonially-rooted systems of oppression. And many are working towards reconnecting us our history through a decolonial and antiracist lens.

From New York City to Santo Domingo, we take to social media, march on the streets, produce educational content (like this one), and denounce atrocities from our governments. 

This is part of the reason why the international community hears so much buzz about racism in the Dominican Republic and with the topic of “Are Dominicans Black?” We started the conversations ourselves!

Anti-Racist Dominican Organizations to Support

black women protesting dominican republic
Decolonial performance: “Nada que celebrar” by Junta de Prietas

These are just some of the many and various communities movements in the Dominican Republic to support:

  • Recononci.do: Collective of Dominicans of Haitian descent advocating for inclusion in Dominican society and the end of their situation of statelessness in order to have their rights of citizenship restored. 
  • Mujeres Sociopolíticas Mamá Tingó: Collective of women of popular sectors for social change through political incidence with an intersectional lens.
  • Junta de Prietas: Feminist Antiracist, decolonial collective for the dismantling racist and colonial practices through political action and education. 
  • Afrohistoria RD: Project aimed to promote Black History through immersive and educational experiences. 
  • Munecas Negras RD: Initiative that supports entrepreneurship among women and girls in the Dominican Republic.
  • La Voz de los Trabajadores: Movement for the abolition of capitalist exploitation and racist and patriarchal oppression. 
  • Afrodominicana: Anticolonial movement for justice and a Dominican Republic free of racism, fascism and discrimination.
  • Atlas Travelers: Showing a “different side to Haiti” and working towards bridging DR-Haiti the gap by taking travelers from DR on multi-day educational trips through Haiti.
  • Cero Discriminacion RD: “Somos Dominicanxs unidxs por una República Dominicana justa, igualitaria y libre de discriminaciones”
  • Dominican Abroad: Working towards cultural heritage preservation, cultivating meaningful dialogue, and amplifying BIPOC voices and history. We are also the hosts of the Dominican Heritage Tour.

Individual Activists and Educators to Follow & Support:

Conversa’o con Las Prietas en La Fabrica Contemporanea

There are just a few of many!

  • Ruth Pion: Social researcher and activist of Junta de Prietas. Founder of AfrohistoriaRD.
  • Jean Sano: Activist, Political researcher working at the UN, Human rights advocate, and founder of Artibonito (educational trips to Haiti from DR).
  • Fatima Gonzalez: Activist & Speaker
  • Ana Belique: Passionate and renowned activists doing beautiful things on the island and one of the women arrested on Tuesday for the protest.
  • Ochy Curiel: Antropóloga, investigadora, cantautora y activista antirracista. Su tesis doctoral aborda la problemática Sentencia 168-13 que desnacionaliza a cientos de miles de dominicanos.
  • Professor Remysell Salas: CUNY professor who teaches Dominican/Haitian history. He is a devoted activists and also hosts book clubs for those interested in reading about our decolonial history.
  • Quisqueya Lora: Dominican Republic-based professor and historian who specializes in Haitian-Dominican history.

About the Co-Author: Ruth Pion

Afro-Caribbean woman, social researcher and anti-racist and decolonial activist, co-founder of the Junta de Prietas collective. She studied Anthropology, has a master’s degree in Gender Equality, and has technical training in management and protection of Cultural Heritage.

Ruth is the creator and CEO of the AfrohistoriaRD project, which seeks to connect with the history of enslaved African people on the island of Hispaniola through immersive and educational experiences such as historical tours, workshops, and various training and interactive programs designed for all audiences.


About the Co-Author: Gerry Isabelle

Gerry is Dominican Abroad’s founder, editorial director, and content creator.

Passionate about cultural heritage preservation, she launched the popular Dominican Heritage Tours to connect Dominicans of the global diaspora back to their roots in the Dominican Republic.

Dominican Abroad also provides educational travel, culture, and lifestyle guides. We believe in intentional and informed travel experiences. That means that we practice being mindful of local cultures and traditions so that our readers travel with knowledge and respect.

Follow me on Instagram @DominicanAbroad to stay connected. Or subscribe to the newsletter for monthly travel + culture updates.


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2 thoughts on “Understanding Blackness in the Dominican Republic + Are Dominicans Black?

  1. Juana Isaac says:

    Gerry, thank you for this informative article. I am Dominican myself and came to the US when I was 5 years old but my parents never spoke about anything as you have described in this article.

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