Looking at Race Beyond the US
Written by: Emely Rijo
“Did you say you’re Latina?” Woman 1 said confused.
“Yes, I…” I said softly (As I was interrupted).
“She said, she is Black” Woman 2 said louder.
I remember the time I arrived at my new high school my father made me fill out some papers the school required, one of the questions asked about my race. I automatically selected White because one: it only gave me the option for a race, not an ethnicity, and two: It did not have anything that related to me. I thought, “Maybe it’s simply asking for my skin color because in the Dominican Republic I am considered white.” Then, my father saw I had chosen white as my race and he said that it was not right, because the United States system uses White as a race rather than a way to identify in terms of skin color or ethnicity. So, I had to get up and tell the lady that I was a Latina and that it was not a race but an ethnicity. She looked at me and said, “Well, you have to fill out what is closest to you.” What was that supposed to mean? Later on, I realized that the United States has a different system for identifying Latino migrants. Especially Dominicans, who have a different way of identifying themselves. In a country that is full of immigrants, the American system seems to have a lack of understanding of the manner by which Dominicans identify themselves. This issue has created conflict with other minority groups that do not understand either the Dominican history and may disrespect Dominican identity by incorrectly applying a label.
When one does not appear white, people always seem intrigued to know about your identity. As a Dominican who migrated to the United States five years ago, I have faced many challenges when explaining where I come from. Many find it hard to believe that I do not identify myself as Black. In the United States, the “One drop rule” prevails and anyone with 1% of African descent is considered black (Winthrop 2014). Americans view people from other countries in a “binary colored fashion” that is either Black or White (Winthrop 2014: 99). This is where many immigrants’ conflict begins when living in the United States. Throughout history race was not necessarily defined in the Dominican Republic (Simmons 2009: 31). Due to differing views between these two countries, there is a lack of understanding in regards to Dominicans’ position in terms of race and identity. Many Dominicans choose not to identify as “Black”, despite having African ancestry. This position is not well understood in the United States because the American system does not necessarily recognize colloquial terms such as mestizo, indio or morenito, terms commonly used by Dominicans. The American system forces Dominicans, along with other Latinos, into categories that many do not find they can identify with.
In order to understand Dominicans’ perception of their identity, one must look at the Dominican history which provides insight as to why most Dominicans choose not to call themselves black. The Dominican Republic shares the island with Haiti; in 1801 the French who colonized Haiti took over the Dominican Republic for twenty-two years (Howard 2001: 28). This resulted in a negative relationship between the two countries due to acts of abuse and violence that the French and Haitians imposed on the Dominican Republic (Zinn, 2001). The discord resulted in a need to differentiate and separate one country from the other. Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship (the 1930s – 1960s) was a vigorous effort to embrace Dominican identity and to ensure separation and distinction from Haitians (Simmons 2009:28). Like the anthropologist Simmons (2009) mentioned throughout her research, Trujillo held resentment towards Haiti due to the abuse and suffering Dominicans endured during the French dictatorship. So, Trujillo applied ideas similar to those the colonizers had implemented in the past in the Dominican Republic. If Haitians spoke French, Dominicans had to speak Spanish. If Haitians had Western Africans descent, Dominicans had North African descent to show that Dominicans were lighter skin and belonged to the Spanish world.
The aforementioned terms are some of the few words Dominicans utilize today as opposed to identifying themselves as Black: they use indíos (meaning dark skin), taínos (an indigenous group), blancos (Whites) mestizo (a mixture of two races) or mulato (a mixture of white and black). These are some of the ways Dominicans classify each other which represents their awareness about race and ethnicity based on their experiences. Nevertheless, when Dominicans migrate to the United States, they begin to develop a new perspective on race and ethnicity. As the anthropologist Duany (1998) mentioned, Americans have the belief that if one does not look white enough then they are considered black. The United States system has a binary system for classifying people. Duany (1998) also states that many Dominicans, as well as Puerto Ricans, struggle with the racial concepts there exist in the United States because when filling out forms or the census they are required to choose a race that does not pertain to them. Sometimes applications do not even give the option of not choosing a race if none of the ones provided represent them. As a result, many Dominicans and other Latinos are placed in a complicated position since many do not know how to identify themselves in terms of race. Understanding Dominican history is just one way of understanding many other Latinos’ conflicts (Dany 1998) with regards to race and ethnicity.
Emely Rijo is a Dominican who moved to the United States five years ago. Due to her experiences in the United States, she has become interested in the Dominican identity and the way the United States perceives identities. She is a current junior at Denison University with a double major in Global Commerce, Spanish, and a minor in Anthropology and Sociology.
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Pérez, Yadira Hazel. 2014. “Sensing Difference: Whiteness, National Identity, and Belonging in the Dominican Republic.” Transforming Anthropology, 22 (2): 78-91
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Winthrop, Jordan. 2014. “Historical Origins of the One-Drop Racial Rule in the United States.” California Digital Library. https://cloudfront.escholarship.org/dist/prd/content/qt91g761b3/qt91g761b3.pdf?t=n5ev ba.