It will be difficult for many Dominicans to deny their African ancestry outside of their country because by most standards, especially in North America and Europe, many of them look and are considered ‘Black.’ Many Dominicans possess phonotypical features ascribed to ‘Blacks’ such as darker complexions and curly hair. However, the notion of ‘Blackness’ in North America varies vastly from that in the Dominican Republic (DR). While many North American adhere to the ‘one drop rule’, in which people who to have ‘one drop’ of African blood is considered to be ‘Black,’ in the DR, the term ‘Black’ or the notion of being African is rarely mentioned, let alone accepted as part of an individual’s makeup. Many Dominicans refer to themselves as ‘Indian,’ despite being of African, Awarwak and Spanish ancestry and categorize themselves in terms of the various colour hues; “oscuro” for the darkest skinned, “canela” for those of medium hue, and “claro” for those with the lightest complexions. These categories also correlates with their established social hierarchy, with those possessing lighter hues situated at the top. However, the term ‘black; is rarely ever used unless it relates to ‘outsiders’ such as their Haitian counterparts.
As a person who is proud of her African ancestry, I could not help but react with disappointment at the dominant mentality espoused by many Dominicans. To me, a denial of one’s ancestry and roots is the ultimate manifestation of self hate. However, as with most issues relating to race and culture of colonized people, everything must first be placed within its historical context in order for one to gain an understanding of the rationale behind why people in the DR do not identify themselves with their African roots.
The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti and the two nations have always had a precarious relationship. Haiti gained it’s distinction as the first Black led Republic in 1804 after slaves led a successful revolt against the French. This also resulted in Haiti’s succession over the entire island, which resulted in it having rule over its then predominantly Hispanic Dominican Republic for 22 years. The Spanish colonized the DR and after they gained victory over the Haitians in 1844, they have made it a point to identify solely with their former Spanish colonizers. Since then, most political rulers have embarked on policies that have a direct bias against Haitians, who for most people in the DR were the ultimate manifestation of ‘blackness.’
Although it has been argued that upward to 90 percent of the DR exhibit features attributed to ‘Blacks’, leaders of the nation, the most famous of being former President Trujillo (who ruled from 1930 – 1961), fostered a culture of hate against Haitians and by extension Blacks (it should be noted that despite his efforts to conceal it, Trujillo’s maternal grandmother was a Black Haitian). Haitians and Blacks were positioned as being economically, culturally and socially inferior and as a result, most people sought to identify with their European colonizers. Colonization and its discourse fostered a heightened sense of the ‘Us’ vs ‘Them’ mentality whereby whose complexions appeared closer to the Spanish colonizers were deemed to be superior. Additionally, the implementation and continuation of an obvious deportation policy bias targeting Haitians in the DR demonstrates that this mentality still permeates the very fabric to Dominican society.
The issue surrounding the denyail of African roots in the DR was summed up very well by a young Dominican man who noted that “There was a sense of ‘deculturación’ among the African slaves of Hispaniola….an attempt to erase any vestiges of African culture from the Dominican Republic. We were, in some way, brainwashed and we’ve become westernized.” Despite this noted ‘brainwash,’ many Dominicans are forced to evaluate their identity when they leave their country and relocate to other countries in North America and Europe. In these new environments, many of them face almost the same level of discrimination as their other Black/African counterparts and are forced to assume the position of ‘outsider.’ In many ways, they are forces to embrace their ‘Africaness’ as a means to attaining a sense of belonging and community.
In recent years, many Dominicans have embarked on a campaign to foster an embrace of their African roots. There has been a rise and development of Black pride organizations such as Black Woman’s Identity and many intellectuals have been lobbying for the incorporation of African roots, history and culture within Dominican society. While this movement continues to face a lot of challenges, many remain hopeful that one day Dominicans will embrace their African roots and ancestry with deserved pride.