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.

So 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… Today, many of us grapple with the notion of our Dominican identities. Both ethnic and racial. What are we? Are Dominicans Black? Latino? Mulatto? Taino Native American? All of the above? 


Table of Contents


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 that’s been going around. “I no black, I Dominican”, it goes. How trite. And so cheaply does it reduce such a complex topic. But it’s 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?

We’re going to cover all that plus: European colonial trauma, racial labels, Anti-Haitianismo, Trujillo, and the effects of those horrific U.S. invasions. Because this topic is deeper than some dismissive meme.


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 culture and a shared Black American history. So a Dominican might say “No, I’m not Black, I’m Dominican”. As in, “wait don’t erase my Dominican identity, it’s very culturally distinct from Black Americans”. Which may be an innocuous response… or not.

2. Proximity AWAY from Black Americans

This mentality is often committed by many other Latinx groups (not just Dominicans) such as many Haitians, Jamaicans, Nigerians, etc. who look at Black Americans as “lesser-than” and try to distinguish themselves from them. In the case of some Dominicans, it might be “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 has no control of. 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.

Also, the United States backed our recent dictators who hunted down and killed 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.

4. 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. Or the smaller chance of having a good quality of life. Hence, many Dominicans aspire for proximity to whiteness to better their lives in a racist society.

All that, plus the European beauty standards of 2022, and anti-blackness becomes ingrained in us through both subtle and overt ways. Such is the embarrassing and heartbreaking case of Sammy Sosa bleaching his skin

5. 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+ dictatorship still remain in the Dominican culture today.

6. 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 worse and in poverty are the most Black. This example (of many) dismantles the myth that there is no structural racism, nor any race but one “mixed” race. When the social construct does indeed exist and is evident in the structural hierarchy. 

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

7. 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 Native-American 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. 

8. 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 of these Dominicans don’t realize they are “Black” as defined in the USA until they leave the Caribbean. 

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.

9. Rejection by Other Black Communities

Many Dominicans are often confronted with rejection by the Black American or Black African community. I remember showing someone in Zimbabwe a picture of my family and he shook his head “they are not black”. I nearly fell off my chair because by the American perspective of race, they are Black people. But to him, they weren’t dark enough. So instead, he said they were “colored” but not Black. This links back to our definition of “what does it mean to be Black?” And why it depends on where you are and how it can be deeply complex to define.


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 Roots of Dominicaness 

Dominicans are primarily a mix of West African, Spaniard, and indigenous Taino descent. The percentage of each heritage can vary greatly by person, of course. But culturally, our heritage is largely comprised 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 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.

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.


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 racial classification of people by phenotype (including “Black”) was created by the Europeans during the colonization process as a way 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 means 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. 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. 

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 when we can claim to have African ancestry, that doesn’t necessarily imply being “othered”. Some may claim some 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 and there are also various nuances to consider such as cultural upbringing, passing privilege, and wealth. But a major component of Blackness today that we cannot ignore is the perception of race which greatly influences the way in which we’re regarded by others.


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 have some 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, the Chinese-Dominican communities that have lived in the country for generations.


Haiti & the Dominican Republic 

We would be remiss to discuss Blackness in the Dominican Republic without mentioning Haiti. By now you’ve probably heard of the tensions between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Our countries have had a tumultuous history rooted in European colonialism. But Haiti has played a pivotal role in the Black liberation movement throughout the Americas, including within the Dominican Republic. Yet despite Haitian contributions (abolishing slavery and independence movements throughout Latin America), there is a large Anti-Haitian sentiment in the Dominican Republic. Why is that? Here’s a quick recap.

A Quick History of Haiti & the Dominican Republic

As you know, Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the island of Hispaniola. Popular and misinformed opinion in the Dominican Republic indicates that the Dominican-Haitian tensions began with the Haitian invasion (or occupation) of 1822.  And many Dominicans are taught that Haitians enslaved Dominicans for 22 years, subjecting them to all kinds of abuses and discrimination. 

Here’s what we know happened.

Haiti gained its independence in 1804, becoming the first free Black nation in the Americas and the first to abolish slavery. So Haitians were called by many Dominicans to free them from slavery and govern on the not-yet-Dominican side of the island (Santo Domingo). Thousands of soldiers from the Haitian military of Jean-Pierre Boyer were escorted from the border and no one was shot and no machete was flung in protest. Once they arrived, Governor Núñez de Cáceres gave them the keys of the city and did not put up a fight. Their first order of business? Unifying the island and abolishing slavery.

Origins of Dominican’s Tensions Against Haitians

But these revolutionary achievements were seen as a threat to the European and United States powers in the Americas. Their economies needed enslaved labor to thrive, hence they feared the idea of other free “black nations” rising. 

So here’s how the tensions began:

  • Haitians repossessed the church property
  • Agricultural revolution and reform which redistributed from the elite to the people
  • Changed all paperwork to French for official matters
  • The French bullied the Haitians into paying a crippling tax as compensation for losing their slave labor. This tax was imposed upon the entire island (including now Dominican side) because at the time the island was unified under Haitian rule.
  • The introduction of racial differentiation of both countries by U.S. American officials. Source.

Antihaitianismo in the Dominican Republic

By Fran Afonso
  • “Antihaitianismo” means discriminatory and prejudiced sentiments against Haitians which is rooted in antiblackness. 
  • Antihaitianismo has continued today primarily because of a poor education system, Eurocentric history-telling, and internalized antiblackness. 

It’s a race thing: Many will say the issue against Haitians is “illegal immigration.” However, that is inconsistent reasoning. White Americans, white Europeans, and white Venezuelans live illegally throughout the Dominican Republic without the same repercussions. 

Antihaitianismo Example 1: The Inhumane Court Ruling Against Haitians

A young Dominican of Haitian descent participates in a protest in front of the National Palace in Santo Domingo, demanding the human right to Dominican nationality, 12 de julio de 2013. ©Fran Afonso

In 2013, a Dominican court ruled to strip birthright nationality from most Dominicans of Haitian descent. The sentence retroactively removed citizenship from Dominican nationals of Haitian parents or grandparents born after 1929. Rendering half a million people stateless. Without documents, these Dominicans of Haitian descent can’t study, work, open a bank account, get married, or vote. 

Antihaitianismo Example 2: Haitian Deportation & Inhumane Raids

President Abinader has launched a ruthless deportation campaign against Haitians, and lately, his administration has targeted pregnant women/mothers. Although it’s been reported that birthing clinics are overwhelmed by expectant Haitian mothers, the execution of these deportations is not just cruel and inhumane but also disregards due process in violation of Dominican law.

The Duality of Our Coexistence (Haitians & Dominicans)

overlooking mountains of haiti
Gerry touring the Haitian side of the island with Atlas Travelers who bring Dominican travelers to see Haiti

Despite antihaitianismo and the antiblackness projected onto Haitians in the Dominican Republic, it’s also common to see cooperation, solidarity, and community between people of both countries. However, dynamics of power affect those relationships.

If you’re interested in an educational tour to Haiti from the Dominican Republic, join one of Atlas Travelers group trips. Local Dominican, Jenny Checo takes Dominicans to Haiti to see “la otra cara de Haiti“. Read all about the experience here.


Efforts & Social Activism in Dominican Republic Today

It’s easy to think that with our Afro-appearance and strong Afro-rooted traditions, Dominicans would be a beacon of embracing Blackness. Sadly, that is still not the case.

However, many Dominicans are actively fighting for progress. There are several initiatives and efforts against anti-Blackness and colonially-rooted systems of oppression. As well as working towards reconnecting to our history through a decolonial and antiracist lens.

From New York City to Santo Domingo, many of us are outraged when we see racial injustice. 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!

Dominicans Organizations & Activists to Support

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 lense.
  • Haitianos en RD: Community of haitians immigrants  in DR advocating for the defense of Human Rights and promoting common interests.  
  • Junta de Prietas: Feminist Antiracist, decolonial collective for the dismanteling 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 interoreneurshit 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”
  • Taino Studies: Research & workshop on Afroindigenous cultural studies, native medicine and Taino language.
  • 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 decolonial educators to follow/support:

  • 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).
  • Carlos Campillo: Incredibly knowledgeable historian about Dominican and Haitian history. He’s also a lawyer, speaker, and gender activist.
  • 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-Domiican history.
  • Miss Rizos: One of the first natural hair salons in the Dominican Republic for curly hair. It has helped revolutionize the way we look at our Black hair. 
  • Soyciguapa: “Radicalmente antirracista y decolonial. Feminista.”

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 are having more access to information and are thus being provoked to question their own 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!


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 technical training in management and protection of Cultural Heritage. She 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.

Ruth has developed research projects in the cultural and educational field, and more currently participates in studies with a decolonial and anti-racist approach for the preservation of local resistance memories. She has also coordinated the archaeological project Monte Alegre I, and expedition to locate the sugar mill where the first slave rebellion took place on the island within the framework of the V Centenary of the rebellion in 2021. 


About the Co-Author: Gerry Isabelle

Gerry is the founder, editorial director, and blogger at Dominican Abroad.

Dominican Abroad is a multicultural media platform focusing on travel, culture, and lifestyle. We believe in intentional and informed travel experiences. That means that we not only practice being mindful of the cultures and traditions of the countries we travel to but that we also are keen on informing our fellow travelers so that as a community we are traveling with knowledge and respect for the countries we visit. 

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


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