We Must Confront Anti-Black History in All Forms in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter

In early June, a viral video captured Dominicans dressed in all black chasing out a group of people from the Inwood section of Upper Manhattan. The video sparked debates on Twitter about colorism, Blackness and tyranny within the Dominican community. Some called the confrontation a racist act informed by a long Dominican history of colorism and anti-Blackness, while others defended the vigilante group, arguing that they were “protecting” their neighborhood from being looted.

This conversation prompted me to think about my own subjectivity growing up in the Dominican Republic and the United States, the lack of anti-racist practice within my community and familial silence around Blackness. I am a multiracial Dominican. To some in and out of my community, I am white-passing. My reckoning with my racial identity began when I was a boy in the Dominican Republic and continues today.

The first five years of my life, I was raised by my paternal grandmother, an Afro-Dominican woman who did not like to talk about her race. When I asked her about her father, she often mythologized his Blackness as rumor and folklore. She’d say, “There was a rumor that my father’s father was a Haitian man, but I never believed that.” For a long time, I wondered if she was ashamed of her father’s race and ethnicity. I wanted to know from where this denial came.

My grandmother was a young woman when she fell in love with a white-passing Dominican farmer who impregnated her with a son. Before their son was born, this farmer emigrated to the U.S. where he started a new family. That Dominican farmer was my grandfather, and their son was my father, a multiracial Dominican man who wore his abandonment on his sleeve. My father died before I summoned the courage to talk to him about his Blackness and mine.

Then there is my mother, who many see as a white woman. Family and friends affectionately call her, la rubia (the blonde). She never talks about Blackness. Growing up, I heard stories of my maternal Spanish great-grandmother who came aboard a steamer to the island. We knew almost nothing about her, yet her story fed an intense marvel within me that I thought was mere curiosity. But it wasn’t simply that. It was an idealization of the Spaniard; the whiteness that I often saw celebrated in our Dominican history, popular culture and community that made me want to know more about her. No one seemed to deny being a rubio/a or a blanco/a — at least not like many denied being negro/a, moreno/a and Haitiano/a. It appeared to me that regardless of the social context, being white was a compliment while being Black, in some contexts, bordered a slight.

Why did we talk about Blackness and whiteness in this way? From where did our language for race come from?

Now, in this critical moment of anti-racist protests stemming from the state-sanctioned murders of Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others, it is critical for us in Dominican and Latinx communities to come to terms with our histories of anti-Blackness and Black denial, which is the history of how we see ourselves. Learning, discussing and teaching this history to our families and friends is an act of anti-racism.

In response to the viral Inwood video and ensuing discussions about anti-Blackness, Harvard Professor of Latinx Studies Lorgia García Peña calls for the “dismantling of anti-Blackness” within Dominican and Latinx communities. She states, “Anti-Blackness is a pandemic. It affects every nation. To be surprised that there is anti-Blackness among Latinx communities — be it Dominican, Puerto Rican, or Mexican — is to misunderstand where racism comes from.”

So, where does Dominican racism come from?

The racist discourses that emerged from the Dominican Republic are a product of the island’s complex history of racial hierarchies, colonial forces and dictatorships. The truth is that we’ve inherited a racist discourse that too often frames Blackness as subjugation.

Anti-Blackness in the Dominican Republic as a Colonial Project

The social construct of race in the Dominican Republic and in the diaspora is bound up in histories of conquest, genocide, slavery and tyranny that started with Christopher Columbus’s arrival to the island in 1492. Named Santo Domingo, the island became Spain’s first permanent settlement and a catalyst for the expansion of the Spanish empire into the southern hemisphere. White Spaniards ruled over the colony, controlling a plantation economy that prospered on the backs of Taínos and enslaved Africans. In 1697, Spain ceded the western part of the island to France, subsequently named Saint-Domingue. By the turn of the 18th century, the population in Santo Domingo was approximately 125,000, of which about 40,000 were white landowners, around 15,000 were free multiracial people, and some 60,000 were enslaved Africans. This demographic sharply contrasted with the population of Saint-Domingue, the wealthiest colony in the Caribbean at the time, 90 percent being enslaved Africans.

In 1804, after 12 years of bloodshed between self-liberated slaves and French imperial forces, the Haitian Revolution came to an end. Led by Toussaint Louverture, Haiti became the first Black republic in the Americas.

It is a mistake to talk about Dominican race relations, racial optics and the Afro-Dominican experience in the modern world without talking about the fact that this once Spanish colony bordered — and then became a part of — the first Black republic.

In 1821, Santo Domingo gained fleeting independence from the Spanish crown and became the Republic of Spanish Haiti under the presidency of José Núñez Cáceres. A year later, in 1822, Haiti annexed the Republic of Spanish Haiti, unifying both nations and bringing to an end slavery on the entire island.

For 22 years, the island remained united until the Dominican War of Independence in 1844 when an army of Criollos, multiracial and Afro-Dominicans claimed independence from Haiti. This was the birth of the first Dominican Republic, but this independence was also short-lived. Seventeen years later in 1861, Spanish forces recolonized the Dominican Republic. The country remained under the sovereignty of Queen Isabella II until the Dominican Restoration War of 1865, when the country regained its independence.

Liberation, however, did not put an end to the island’s racialized slaveholding discourse. Liberation never does. Brown University Caribbeanist professor Dixa Ramírez argues in her book Colonial Phantoms that 19th-century Dominicans were a majority free Black population that “lived beyond the purview of any colonial oversight whether urban or rural. It should not be surprising, then, that distinct racial discourses would emerge from a slaveholding society structured in relationships not immediately legible to the novice imperial gaze.” Nineteenth-century Dominicans, like Dominicans today, Ramírez continues, strived to make themselves seen — that is, “legible within New World histories and narratives that have erased, misunderstood, or inserted them as inferior Others.” Moreover, equally important to being seen, is Dominicans’ ability to refuse the terms by which they are defined.

Race often takes center stage in Dominican — and Latinx — cultural acceptance and refusal. The racial hierarchy, the ultimate formula for oppression in post-slaveholding societies, became a stratifying measure of power, intellect, beauty and legitimacy.

No other figure in Dominican modern history was more concerned with appearances than the 20th-century dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. Trujillo enacted anti-Black and anti-Haitian policies and laws that, in tandem with the country’s complex racial and colonial history, gave way to a modern discourse for Dominican Blackness. Trujillo was an Afro-Latino who often “wore makeup to lighten his skin.” He institutionalized anti-Haitianism, which Lauren Derby argues “is essentially a class-based prejudice, a rejection of the sub-stratum of Haitian cane cutters who are seen as patently subhuman.” In 1937, Trujillo ordered the execution of 15,000 Haitians who were accused of stealing cattle. The massacre became known as the “Parsley Massacre” because of the regime’s cruel way of distinguishing Afro-Dominicans from Haitians. When Dominican soldiers confronted Black people along the border of Haiti, they held up a sprig of parsley and asked them to name it. “If the person responded by trilling the “r” in perejil (Spanish for parsley), he would be free to go. Anyone who didn’t trill the “r” was thought to be a Haitian Creole speaker — and was likely to be killed.”

Trujillo’s anti-Haitianism went hand in hand with his efforts to whiten himself and the nation. His government privileged European immigrants in and out of the island. A year after the Parsley Massacre, Trujillo offered up 26,000 acres of his properties for the settlements of 100,000 European Jews, adding more Europeans to the predominantly multiracial nation. For 20th-century Dominicans living on the island, and for those who self-exiled to the U.S. and other parts of the world, Trujillo left a racist scar that impressed upon us the myth that European ideals were signs of power, beauty and class. Ramírez states that, “The ruling elite had always sided with these European ideals.” The pressures to be white or to be white adjacent were enough to help “compound Dominican elites’ ‘silence on race.’”

Anti-Racist Movements Today

Today, many Dominicans on the island recognize that “silence on race” in the face of Black lynchings is a fatal form of anti-Blackness. On June 9, for instance, amid a global pandemic that has ravaged the island, an anti-racist group of mostly Afro-Dominicans and Haitians known as Reconocido (Recognized) gathered in Santo Domingo’s Parque Independencia. They stood in solidarity with Black Lives Matter demonstrators protesting worldwide police brutality and state-sanctioned violence against Black people. One activist called their gathering “un acto de solidaridad, un acto de amor contra el racism por lo que le pasó a George Floyd, otro negro asesinado por el racismo” (“an act of solidarity, an act of love against racism for what happened to George Floyd, another Black man murdered because of racism”). Reconocido protesters were met by counterprotesters, “an ultranationalist organization dubbing itself the Antigua Orden Dominicana (Old Dominican Order),” who put out rallying calls on social media days before calling for citizens to “defend against the Haitian invasion.”

“Defend against the Haitian invasion,” like Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” has become a slogan for far-right nationalists on and off the island. Antigua Orden Dominicana interpreted the June 9 protest not as a vigil for George Floyd, but rather as “una propaganda para asentar su programa de fusión y ocupación en República Dominicana” (“propaganda to establish Reconocido’s program of fusion and occupation in the Dominican Republic”).

In New York City, too, many Dominicans show that they will not partake in a deadly silence. Black Lives Matter protests in the streets of New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, Instagram and Twitter conversations about how to talk about anti-Blackness to our family members, and donations to bail funds constitute part of the work we must continue to do to dismantle our inherited myths about Blackness.

Dominicans, a historically colonized and enslaved people, have always looked toward a distant, unrealized future. Many of us are meeting this moment with cultural dexterity, openness and solidarity. Together, we must confront our inherited traumas and the ones unfolding before us.