Mayowa Sanusi, MPH

Sep 6, 2021

5 min read

No Place is Safe: Global AntiBlack Racism Part I, The Dominican Republic

I have been to well over 20 countries in my life, with most of them being in the West Indies. Every time I travel to a new country, I try to take the time to appreciate the culture and all it has to offer. If I have learned anything as I continue to travel the world, it is that below the surface of beauty and wonderous attractions, there is a foundational layer of antiblack racism, even in countries where most people are Black. This sad reality has caused me to see things differently as I continue my travels from country to country. It shows me how pervasive antiblackness is globally.

A few weeks ago, I was able to travel to the Dominican Republic for vacation. This had been my fourth time on the island, and I was happy to be back to enjoy some much-needed rest and relaxation. Something I noticed the last time I was there and continued to notice on this past trip to the Dominican Republic is the poverty in communities where the majority of people were dark skinned. I first noticed this in 2019 when we stopped in the Dominican Republic for a few hours on a cruise. When we got off the boat and started to walk toward the city, I noticed that all the people that were begging us for money were of a darker complexion. At first, I didn’t think too much of it, until we got closer to the city. Once we reached to city, I saw a stark difference. Almost all the people that were dressed in business attire or were riding nice cars were fairer in skin. More recently on this past trip I was faced with the same images of begging children who were dark skinned. In this neighborhood that we were brought to we saw extreme poverty and again I noticed that everyone that was struggling looked like me. This clear presence of antiblack racism was only reinforced when I noticed that we would sometimes get differential treatment on the resort compared to the White people that were staying there. This experience made me reflect on the reason for antiblackness in a country where it is estimated that nearly 90% of the citizens are black or of mixed race.

The island of Hispaniola, where the Dominican Republic and Haiti both reside, has a complex history. The island was home to the Taino prior to European “discovery”, which led to the eventual genocide of the Taino people. When the colonizers saw that the Taino people could not work the fields because of their smaller numbers and sickness from new diseases, Hispaniola became the first location in the Western Hemisphere where Africans slaves arrived. It can be said that Hispaniola is where the modern black experience began in the Americas. Hispaniola’s antiblack experience began because of slave trade but grew due to the conflict held mainly by the two colonizing nations of Spain and France. Years of enslavement, brutalization, and torment of Africans and Taino people by colonizers from these two countries created dissent within the enslaved population. Years of rebellion ensued and on the western side of the island, the French eventually freed the slaves to not only minimize the rebellions, but also to use the former slaves to fight the Spanish forces on the eastern part of the island. Eventually the French had control over most of the island, but self-liberated slaves, such as Toussaint Louverture, would soon fight to abolish slavery and end racial privilege in Santo Domingo (modern day Dominican Republic) and fight the French to create an independent nation, Haiti, in 1804. Santo Domingo would switch hands between the French and Spanish but would soon come under Haitian rule in 1822 and be known as the Republic of Spanish Haiti. This was a start of much anti Haitian resentment among Dominicans due to the high taxes, religious persecution, and unfavorable laws made by the Haitian government. Leaders like Juan Pablo Duarte would eventually lead rebellions against the Haitian government and created and independent Dominican Republic.

After Dominican independence, Spanish and American influence would soon seed more antiblack hate. To maintain the Dominican Republic’s sugar cane industry, cheap labor, in the form of former slaves, was imported by the Dominican government from parts of the West Indies. Due to massive economic decline in Haiti because of a massive debt owed to France and the failure of the United States and European nations to recognize as “country of former slaves”, many Haitians were among the sugar cane plantation workers. These Haitians and former slaves were seen as “less than” because it was said they do the jobs that no one else would do, today we would call them essential workers. As the Dominican Republic began to prosper economically, Haiti began to decline. In order to establish itself in the Western economic establishment, the Dominican Republic government invited the United States, which sided with them against the Haitian government, to the country. The United States was worried about the predominance of Black people in the Dominican Republic, but the mostly white Dominican government assured the United States that this was not an issue. American Commissioner in Santo Domingo Jonathan E. Green would later report to the United States that Haitian violence had given “force and universality to the feeling in favor of the whites in the Dominican Republic” to the point that a black “when taunted with his color” could conceivably remark: “Soy negro, pero negro blanco” (I’m black, but black white). This continued racism and specifically anti Haitian resentment in the Dominican Republic evidenced by events such as the Haitian Massacre, has led to the current state of structural racism in the Dominican Republic.

The history of Hispaniola and specifically the Dominican Republic is far from simple. Centuries of slave trade, colonization, and conflict with the Haitian people have created an environment ripe for antiblackness. The current structural issues that I saw on my trip to the country now make more sense to me. Admittedly, when I first sat down to write this piece, I thought I would be done in a week. That was until I found out that the problem of racism in the DR was much more complicated than I first thought, so I did the research. Though not a complete history I think this gives a quick glimpse at the origins of antiblackness in the DR. I am thankful for this last piece because it taught me two valuable lessons 1) sometimes things are much more complicated than they seem 2) not all things need to be done quickly, give things the time they deserve. Though I saw signs of antiblackness in the DR, I also know that there is a celebration of dark skin on the island as well. It is crazy to think at one point that the island of Hispaniola was once united by Black people. It was meant to be a place where Black people could escape bondage and live their lives without facing the constant barriers that racism erected in front of them. I hope that the evidence of Black joy that I saw eventually works to permeate the veil of antiblackness that exists in the Dominican Republic. I hope that the Dominican Republic once again becomes that safe haven for our people.

I could not have written this article without the information found in this document: https://www.ccny.cuny.edu/sites/default/files/dsi/upload/Introduction_to_Dominican_Blackness_Web.pdf