November 20, 2009

Preliminary Thoughts on Race and Color in the Dominican Republic

We arrived in Santo Domingo on Tuesday evening. We spent the whole day Wednesday looking for an apartment, and the whole day Thursday enrolling the children in school. Today is Friday, and, although there is still much to do, at least the kids are in school and I can get back to writing and preparing for my research in Santo Domingo.

We found an apartment in Bella Vista, one of the upper-middle class areas of Santo Domingo. Our apartment faces a huge park – el Parque Mirador del Sur – which is a great privilege. In addition, we can just barely see the Caribbean Sea from the window, as Bella Vista is on a hill and the Sea is not too far away. Even though we can’t take a dip every day, at least we have the reminder that the Sea is there.

As we have been hustling and bustling about quite a bit, I have only seen a sliver of Santo Domingo. Really, I have barely left Bella Vista, and thus have quite a narrow vision of the city. In Bella Vista, I have been amazed at the quantity of big, expensive, new cars. Every time I turn my head, I see an SUV, a BMW, a Mercedes, or another fancy imported car. Nearly all of the cars parked in the parking lots of the many gated apartment buildings are in good condition and expensive. In sum, there are a lot of wealthy people in Bella Vista.

I have also been trying to figure out the racial situation here in Santo Domingo. At the various places I have been – the bank, the cell phone store, the copy center – the workers have been of all shades, except for the very darkest. Without exception, all of the women I have seen whose hair may be naturally kinky have chemically straightened their hair. So far, I have seen no afros, cornrows, or dreadlocks.

The darkest people I have seen have been street vendors. One young man who sold us ice creams from a cart appeared to be Haitian, given his strongly accented Spanish. The others, I couldn’t tell, as I just saw them in passing. I saw two dark-skinned boys playing on the street corner the other day during school hours, and it reminded me that I have heard that Haitian children are not permitted to enroll in school in the Dominican Republic. I asked my friend how many Haitians there are in the DR. She told me that it is estimated that about one million of the DR’s eight million people are of Haitian origin.

I have not seen any people who appear to be poor who are white. At first glance, then, there is some sort of color/nation hierarchy here, but it is a bit complex, and I have yet to figure it all out. Really, the purpose of my visit here is to understand how deportees are able to reintegrate into society. However, in light of my long-standing interest in race and color in the Americas, it is hard for me not to think about those issues as well. In what I have read about the Dominican Republic, I have learned that, in the Dominican Republic, people only refer to Haitians as black, whereas dark-skinned Dominicans are called indios. I have also read that there is a color hierarchy, and that Dominicans don’t like to talk about race and color.

Yesterday, we took a taxi to buy the children’s school uniforms. Our taxi driver was fairly dark-skinned. I was tempted to ask him about racial issues here in the DR. However, having only been here a couple of days, I was concerned I would say something offensive. What I was thinking of asking him was if he would consider himself “negro” or “indio.” But, I didn’t.

That said, in the Internet cafĂ© yesterday, I noticed that the one of the employees called the other “negro” several times; I take that to mean that was his nickname. So, perhaps racial issues are not as delicate as they seem. So much to learn, so little time.


  1. Hello,

    This is my first time commenting. We may have met at CSA 2009 in Jamaica. As a Haitian-American, I was wondering are you presuming that every "black" person you meet in the D.R. is Haitian or were you just using the local labels for race (which connect blackness to Haitianness)? Also your friend who states that one million of D.R.'s people's are of Haitian origin (I'm not denying the huge migration of Haitians to D.R. even I have Haitian family members living in D.R.), could it be that there are actually black people of D.R. origin? I cannot believe that every D.R. person is of mixed or European heritage. And I think the continuous racialization of each nation (D.R.-white; Haiti-black) just serves to erase the racial/ethnic diversity that exist in both nations. I'm not trying to be negative/attack you just really interested in this topic like you are. Okay, I think I'm going on a rant so I'm going to stop myself. Enjoy your trip!

  2. Sophonie,
    Thanks for commenting! We may well have met at CSA - I was there!

    You are right - the two poorly-dressed, dark-skinned, barefoot boys I saw in the street - I did think they might be Haitian, because of their color and their poverty.

    It is not that I am presuming that the dark-skinned people I see are Haitian, but rather that I am wondering what markers Dominicans might be using to differentiate being black from being indio. Haven't gotten very far in figuring that out, though, as I have not hear anyone say indio yet. I have heard negro and moreno, though.

  3. As a Ghanaian-American woman who has just returned to Africa after spending 9 months living and working in the DR, I wanted to share my opinion on this topic.

    Before coming to the DR, a European/American work colleague warned us against sending any Africans as part of our Advisory team, especially if they appear to look "Haitian", because they would be discriminated against by the Dominicans.

    When I, (the lone African on our team) arrived to the DR, I had a New York City sized chip on my shoulder ready to confront any racism I would face. It took no more than 2 days to discover that the"colorism" thing was probably much ado about nothing.

    Every single day that I spent in the DR, from Santo Domingo, to the campo, I was constantly and persistently showered with compliments on my beauty by Dominican men. Now granted, they are NOTORIOUS flirts (I grew up in NY, so this is old news to me) however, the regularity and consistency of the praise did wonders for my self-esteem!

    Even Policemen (with guns drawn) at check points in the wee hours of the morning would pull me over and after seeing my smiling black face would tell me that God had blessed me and wave me through (I could have had WMD's in the back of my car, but they would NEVER bother me!) Female cops were a different story though...LOL

    Particularly, I wondered how white/fair skinned women felt in a society that seemed to adore black women, as demonstrated in their innumerable love songs celebrating the Morena Bella or Negra Linda who had stolen the singer's heart.

    In short, I was left with the impression that being a black woman was in no way a disadvantage in the DR. I'm not sure why this is made out to be such a big deal.

  4. Melissa:
    Thanks so much for your insights. I also have seen people call others "negra linda" or "negro lindo" and have thought about it some.

    There are a couple of things that might be going on. On the one hand, it continues to be true that I almost never see women with non-straightened hair in the DR. The only people with cornrows appear to be white tourists who get their hair braided at the beach. So, it is possible to think that the conceptualization of "negra fina" still exists, and that there can be an appreciation for dark-skinned beauties alongside disparagement for other markers of African ancestry.

    The other factor that comes to mind is that it is possible for an appreciation of dark-skinned beauties to co-exist with ideas that black men and women are less intelligent or capable than white men and women. I don't have any evidence that this is the case, but am just pointing out that it is possible.

    What I have definitely seen during my time here is outright dislike for Haitians. I consistently have been surprised by the way Dominicans do not hesitate to speak negatively of Haitians. These comments, however, are generally couched in terms of nation and economics, not race.