November 24, 2009

Sammy Sosa and Colorism in the Dominican Republic

In case you haven’t heard, Sammy Sosa, the retired Dominican baseball player, is several skin shades lighter than he was a few years ago. This has been the cause of much social commentary on colorism in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere.

As I was reading the newspaper – Diario Libre – on Saturday, I noticed an opinion piece on Sammy Sosa’s color, by Ligia Minaya. This opinion piece provides some insight into color hierarchies in the Dominican Republic. First, let me summarize it, and please excuse the heavy sarcasm.

Ms. Minaya begins her opinion piece with a story about a “little black girl” she brought to her house from the country. Although the little girl was uncultivated and nappy when Ms. Minaya got her, lo and behold, in a short while, she was a cultured, beautiful little girl, although she was still black. Ms. Minaya had to work hard to get her all fixed up, and even harder to teach her to value her own blackness. I suppose she tells this story to make a parallel with Sammy Sosa. Since Mr. Sosa is wealthy and has been fixed up, he didn’t need to lighten himself to be accepted by other Dominicans. He could have been like the young lady Ms. Minaya brought from the countryside – black but cultivated.

Instead, Sammy Sosa is, as Ms. Minaya points out, a white man with “facciones gruesas.” “Facciones gruesas” translates as “thick features” and refers to large lips, a flat nose, and other indicators of African ancestry. Ms. Minaya laments that he has a color that does not match with his facial features. (Note: There is an implied valuation in referring to facciones gruesas, as the opposite of this is facciones finas – fine features.)

Ms. Minaya tells the story of the little black girl she groomed not only to make a point about Mr. Sosa, but also to try and convince the reader of her appreciation for blacks. First of all, she clearly separates herself from the little girl, as it is understood that the girl is black, not her. Having established her own whiteness, she lets us know that she was kind enough to bring a black girl into her home and not only to teach her how to behave, but also to value herself.

As Adia Harvey points out here , Sammy Sosa’s skin whitening is a reflection of the continuing valuation of white skin around the globe. Ms. Minaya adds that this is also an indication of the extent to which Dominicans in particular do not like to be black.

In the short time I have been in the Dominican Republic, I have seen a sharp color hierarchy. On Sunday, I was invited to an exclusive club, where I took my children swimming. The vast majority of the club members were white. All of the uniformed maids and nannies caring for the white children were black. Among the club members, there were a few people who did not appear to be of exclusively European ancestry, but they were a clear minority.

Before coming to the Dominican Republic, I admittedly knew very little about the country. I also am not very familiar with the Dominican community in the US, as I have not spent very much time in New York, Boston, or other places where there is a high concentration of Dominicans. Nevertheless, based on my limited experiences with Dominicans and what I have read about the country, I expected to see a lot more mixture. I have been surprised at the number of people in Santo Domingo who would be seen as “white” in the US. I have been almost as surprised at the number of dark-skinned people. I had imagined that most Dominicans were mixed, with just a few people on either end of the spectrum. This may be because of the places I have been thus far – all very exclusive areas of Santo Domingo.

In the Dominican Republic, there is an expression that most Dominicans are “black behind the ears.” Now, I see what that means. There really are a large number of Dominicans who either have no African ancestry or whose black ancestors are so many generations away that their blackness really is only behind the ears.

The presence of a large white Dominican community helps to put some of Ms. Minaya’s comments into context. She does not claim to share the same experiences as Sammy Sosa. Instead, she professes her appreciation for blacks, and uses that as a basis from which to gently scold Sammy Sosa for having lightened his skin. Although she admits she and other Dominicans might be black behind the ears, she also separates herself from Sammy by affirming her own whiteness.

In sum, some Dominicans are only black behind the ears, whereas others are just black. Sammy Sosa tried to put his blackness behind his ears, and Ms. Minaya lets him know that his efforts have not proved successful.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Tanya.
    The expression 'black behind the ears' is from a poem or decima by Juan Antonio Alix. It is used colloquially to say that pretty much all Dominicans have some African heritage, even if it's not that visible. So, yes, if you're hanging out at exclusive clubs you'll see a lot of people who look like they have no African ancestry. There's an elite group of Dominicans that marries mainly within itself. But it's very small compared to the entire Dominican population, which does have African heritage.