As an individual who self identifies as Black-American I used to find myself cringing when having a conversation with some Afro-Latinos, more specifically Dominicans, about race. My friend and proud Dominicano who was born in America lives by the Dominican proverb, “I’m not Black.” I used to wonder how… how Sway? His lips are full with African heritage, hair coiled like wooly Black Jesus, and nose wide with all sorts of negro pride, but no, no he is not Black.
I live in Los Angeles where we have people of all walks of life. We have our Persians in Beverly Hills, our Armenians in Glendale, our Blacks in Baldwin Hills, Koreans in KTown, but we don’t have a large concentration of Dominicans. In fact, our Dominican population in LA is disappointingly dismal. If you are Dominican and look like Zoe Saldana’s kin you’ll most likely be coded as Black or perhaps mixed. For my friend being seen as Black was not something he could easily come to terms with, as he preferred to self-identify as Dominican or Hispanic. Being from the states where someone as Anglo looking as Mariah Carey is considered Black I struggled to understand his rationalization.
The Dominican Republic is a Caribbean nation that shares the island with Haiti to the west. It was explored and colonized by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage in 1492. The DR was already inhabited by the native Taíno, an Arawakan people, who variously called their island Ayiti, Quisqueya (Kiskeya), or Bohio. In 1501 after many indigenous people were killed by disease, forced labor, famine, and mass killings, Spaniards began to import African bodies as free labor. So basically, you had a collage of Spaniards, Africans, as well as the surviving Indigenous procreating and shaping the racial composition of the Dominican Republic.
The aforementioned composition closely echoes that of Northern America, but where some Dominicans and Black Americans differ is how we self-identify with our racial makeup. This difference should be placed in a historical context to understand the contemporary. In the United States the one drop rule assigned anybody with 1% of Black blood as being Black. That rule still seems to be present in the fabric of our American consciousness. For example, we all know that Halle, Obama, and Zendaya are ours.
In the Dominican Republic many categorize themselves in terms of the various color hues; “oscuro” for the darkest skinned, “canela” for those of medium hue, and “claro” for those with the lightest complexions. In the states we can champion for team light skin vs team dark skin all we want but, we know what it is when the cops show up… we Black.
Like in many places, including the United States, lighter skin in the DR comes with a set of privileges while having a darker complexion can present some disadvantages. For example there was an established and detailed plan to whiten the Dominican Republic under President Rafael Trujillo. He had an open-door policy, accepting Jewish refugees from Europe, Japanese migration during the 1930s, and exiles from Spain following its civil war, but was known to expel Haitian immigrants.
Getting back to my friend, he was approaching a stop sign and decided to fully immerse himself in Cali culture and commit a California stop, which essentially means you never come to a complete break and you instead cruise slowly. Within a few moments he saw police lights flare up in his rear view mirror.
Disclaimer: This is not a LAPD horror story.
The officer was perfectly polite and respectful but he still had a job to do so he swiftly wrote my friend a ticket and bid him a good day. My friend was all set to drive off when he glanced down at the ticket and saw something that immediately surprised him. In the description area of the ticket the officer had marked him as (cue the horror movie music) Black.
Huh? How could the officer possibly think that this chocolate colored, curly hair, full lipped, thick nose friend of mine was Black? He was Dominicano through and through! He ate sancocho, spoke Spanish, loved Bachata, and visited Santo Domingo when he was two. But despite his being fully immersed in Dominican culture, his race when experienced through the North American lens, is unarguably Black.
My friend continues to only identity as Dominican, as though Dominican is it’s own separate race. This would be like an African American saying I’m not Black I’m a Los Angelino or Atlantan. While it is wonderful to be proud of one’s country, island, or nation, resistance to acknowledge and flat out deny a select part of our heritage is disappointing. As far as my friend goes I have to respect that our cultures have informed the way we experience our racial identity. While he may be a shy, beautiful, and sometimes awkward Black male in my eyes, he is unapologetically Dominicano in his own.
A Digital Marketer based in Beverly Hills, California, Brittany works with the PR firm Eileen Koch & CO.