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 since Christopher Columbus set foot on the Western Hemisphere in 1492. 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? And moreover, what is negritude (Blackness)?



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 comments on how Dominicans don’t accept their blackness.

While the observation makes sense from an American context, there’s much more in the why and how of that thinking. But now, the “I no black, I Dominican” meme has become a joke about Dominicans.

But how did Dominicans end up at the center of the anti-Blackness discussion in all of the racist Americas? European colonial trauma, racial labels, Anti-Haitianismo, Trujillo, and the effects of those horrific U.S. invasions (which blocked our access to education).

This topic is deeper than a misinformed meme. Let’s get into it.


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.

First, the Europeans created this racial classification of people by phenotype (including “Black”) during the colonization process to dehumanize them and religiously justify slavery and cruel exploitation. 

The Concept of Blackness is Fluid & Differs Around the World

Second, there is no ONE globally-accepted criteria to assess everyone’s Blackness.

Is Blackness a culture? A phenotype? A shared heritage/history? A geographical origin? A lived experience? The answer can depend on where you live and your local history and social construct of race.

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

NEGRITUDE means Blackness in Spanish. Which signifies a spectrum of shades. There are not just two boxes: black or white (the one-drop rule common thinking in the USA). So a Dominican who is considered Black in the USA, may not be considered Black in Haiti, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, etc.

And by the way, not acknowledging color, or lumping everyone as Black when some have more light-skin privilege than others can also be detrimental. Because not all Black people are treated the same. Some may have Afrodescendancy but still not experience life being treated like a darker-skinned more Afrodescendant.

Who Can Claim Blackness?

Can I consider myself Black if I have a Black parent, but I can “pass” for white? How much African descent is enough to claim Blackness?

In addition to culture and geographical origins, Blackness is also a lived experience encompassing a series of oppressive conditions and structural challenges. Being “othered” places us at a disadvantage from the start in a white-centered society. 

There is not one defined answer or way of experiencing Blackness because 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.


Why Some Dominicans Say They’re Dominican Instead of Black

There are at least 10 reasons why this happens. Some innocuous, others drenched in a self-hatred common throughout the Americas due to 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.” Many people do not want to accept that there are Afro-Latinos.

2. Proximity to Whiteness

To survive racism/colorism, many immigrant groups feel a need to “other” each other as we are othered by those in power. People 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.

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, to be treated better, and survive.

This is particularly sad given the contributions of Black Americans who helped these immigrants 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 Caribbean people genuinely have no clue where we are from.

I used to ask my grandmother, “Where are we from?” And she would 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, like many Dominicans, was pulled out of school at 10 years old to work. How could I expect her to know about the Transatlantic Slave Trade, if she never got the chance to read and learn history?

When we tried to set up an improved education system in the Dominican Republic, the United States invaded us. They said that sounded too socialist. So they overthrew our democratically elected President Bosch and forced their neoliberal economic policies.

4. Dominican Republic’s Dictator Culture

Also, after the American invasions, the United States backed our most notorious dictators (Rafael Trujillo and Joaquin Balaguer). Both hunted 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. So activism, progressive education, and speaking out against injustices were unthinkable! You could die!

This dictator culture still lingers today.

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). They understandably fear that the blacker they are perceived, the worse they will be treated. Hence, many Dominicans, like many underprivileged groups, aspire for proximity to whiteness to better the quality of their lives in a racist society.

Throw in the global European beauty standard, and anti-blackness becomes ingrained 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 had Haitian heritage. Like Hitler, he believed in “improving the race” by eliminating the people who were perceived as Black: 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. 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”?

Gerry with her family, leading the Dominican Heritage Tour

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

This has been used to deny Blackness and claim that our society is not racist since we’re “all mixed.” But it is. Today, the Dominican people with the most power, access to better opportunities, and wealth are those closer to whiteness. And the Dominicans treated the worst and in poverty are the most Black. This “one singular mixed-race” ideal helps maintain a facade of racial ambiguity in the minds of Dominican people. 

Tenoch Huerta writes about this myth in Mexico, too. I highly recommend his audiobook: Orgullo Prieto.

8. El indigenismo: Using Indigenous Heritage for Black Erasure

The pursuit of reconnecting with our indigenous Taino ancestry is a beautiful thing. Sadly, it has also been misused. For centuries, through literature and official discourse, the Dominican-Spaniard elites (“criollos”), idealized the indigenous over Black. By the 1800s, they were often labeling what was indigenous Taino (“indio”) as more appealing than what was African or Black, which they deemed ugly, savage, and undesirable.

This continued through the 1900s, with Dominican 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 worldwide. 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

This has inevitably led to a subconscious fear of suffering from colorism. 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 questioning Cardi B or Amara La Negra’s blackness, simply because they speak Spanish. Or perhaps we didn’t have the language/education to identify our Blackness. Ouch.

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 100% Black people from the American perspective of race. But to him, they weren’t dark enough.


The Racial & Cultural Roots of Dominicans 

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 Culture 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: This 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.

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


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 island’s population. This was due to the continuous import and then the Spanish leaving for other parts of the continent. Enslaved African people at one point quadrupled the Spanish population of the colony. This explains why most 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 secret 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.

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.


Antihaitianismo in the Dominican Republic

Fran Afonso
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

“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 also a race thing: Many will say the issue against Haitians is “illegal immigration.” However, Americans, Europeans, and Venezuelans live illegally throughout the Dominican Republic without the same repercussions or treatment. 

The Inhumane Court Ruling Against Haitians

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. 

Haitian Deportation & Inhumane Raids

Taking a page from the USA, President Abinader has launched a ruthless deportation campaign against Haitians. 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.

An Immigration Crisis

Haiti and the Dominican Republic are countries plagued by poverty and insecurity. Currently, about two million Haitians live in the Dominican Republic, with many more trying to find refuge in the Dominican Republic, especially after the Haitian President’s recent assassination.

Many believe that France and the United States should pay Haiti reparations. What do you think?


So, Are Dominicans Black?

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

Here’s what’s certain:

  • MOST Dominicans are Black (as defined by the USA)
  • MOST have African descent. 
  • ALL Dominicans are considered Latinx and Hispanic.
  • ALL Dominicans (unless they didn’t grow up in the culture) have African cultural influence because our Dominican Culture is heavily composed of Afro-heritage.

If we define Blackness as having 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.


Conclusion

​​It would be overly simplistic to assume Dominicans are just anti-black as if we chose antiblackness. But the reality is that this results from 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!


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. 


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: Dominicans of Haitian descent advocating for inclusion in Dominican society and the end of their situation of statelessness 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 of 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 to abolish capitalist exploitation and racist and patriarchal oppression. 
  • Haitianos en RD: Community of Haitian immigrants in DR advocating for the defense of Human Rights and promoting common interests. 
  • 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.

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.


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.


Bibliography Sources

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6 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.

    • Gerardo De Los Santos says:

      Thanks for the tons of information in this article. I learned several things or where better clarified. The only problem I see is that the article is based in how USA defines BLACKNESS. I had live in the USA for most of my adult life but still refused to fit in the box that the US had put me in. I am a Dominican of mixed races and I feel I can claim all of them and the USA does not have the right to place me in that box. I know of most the atrocities committed by the Spaniards in all Latin America but I recognize that I have African blood, indigenous blood and also European blood, so I have the to claim all of them or any or some of them. It is my right as a human being. Just because the US says that one drop of black blood make me black I don’t have to accept that. The differences between Haiti and DR are not just of color and you know it. When Desaline and his army decided to kill and eliminate all white people in Haiti was not DR or Spain decision. It was Desaline decision. So we should educate ourselves on the entire concept.

  2. Heidi says:

    I am black I had an argument with someone if Dominicans are black. I was mad because a while ago some Hispanic kid said they could the N-word because they were technically black. I read this whole article and still don’t understand. are Dominicans black just because they go through some of the same struggles? I want to know because I know I’ll get into a conversation like this again.

    • cain says:

      their saying that Dominicans are of african american descent and hispanic descent and were even made into slaves but people tend toreject their claim to being african american because “their not black enough” which ends up with them rejecting their own blackness when asked despite the fact that most dominicans are as black as can be

  3. Benjo08 says:

    Hi! I want to start out by congratulating y’all for this article. I have never been lucky enough to fall on articles written by open-minded Dominicans who understand that blackness is not a curse and it’s part of who the a large part of the Dominican people is. By the way, I am Haitian.

    I’ve had the opportunity to visit the DR several times, sometimes as a transit to other countries, other times just as tourist. For instances for my first wedding anniversary I took my wife to Santo Domingo. I was there for 6 days and I loved it until the 4th day. On the 4th day , I had an experience at a bank (I think the bank’s name was “La Popular”. Just to exchange some US dollars for Dominican Pesos, I was asked to provide my passport, the arriving and departing dates, the name of my host, the name of the street and the number of the condo, the name of the condo, the number, even the floor number. I was so upset and so angry that I had to go through all that after I handed my passport with my visa clearly sealed inside it. I knew that I went through that just for being a Haitian because other people who were obviously from the US and from European countries didn’t even have to show their passports. So, I left with the intention to never visit the DR again in my lifetime. When I got to the hotel, I told my wife what happened, she wanted us to leave right away to go back to Cap-Haitian, Haïti. But the next two days we were encouraged so much by the church we visited. We had the best time worshipping among Dominicans who treated us like we were two people of their own. They were so loving and so kind that we hoped we could stay longer to worship with them again. I personally was also encouraged by a Dominican brother from New York who apologized and expressed regrets for what happened to me. That day, I was reminded that a few racist Dominicans don’t define the Dominican people and that there’s a whole lot of kind and respectful Dominicans out there. Again, thanks for this great article. God bless y’all. Keep up the awesome work y’all are doing.

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