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Words for Thought (Short Fiction Review)
When I first returned home from studying abroad, everyone wanted to know, “How was the Dominican Republic?” I was reluctant to respond. Masking the truth behind “fine’s” and “good’s,” I skirted my real feelings. “Did you like it?” is such a loaded question that it can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” For a long time, I refused to talk about the Dominican Republic at all. I wanted to spend neither the time nor the energy to reach into my soul and give honest answers to the inquisitions—I think I’m ready now.
Sharing the island with Haiti, the Dominican Republic floats in the Caribbean Sea to the lower right of Cuba and upper left of Puerto Rico. The constant sunshine liberates its inhabitants from the oppressive layers and heavy coats winter requires. The strange sizes of the trees and flowers are astounding. My host-family frequently introduced me to unfamiliar fruits of varying colors and shapes. As a family-oriented society, the Dominican Republic relies on the family unit as its center. For me, the greatest thing about the Dominican Republic is the night life. Dominicans are serious about partying. The beautiful lyrics, strong rhythms and complex dance steps of merengue and salsa trapped me from the beginning. It was easy to fall in love with Dominican culture.
But the warm weather and intoxicating music aren’t the things that stilled my tongue when asked to speak about the Dominican Republic. What silenced me is the double-edged sword of racism and sexism that unmercifully pricked me throughout my journey. Ironically, one of the phrases I heard repeated most often in the Dominican Republic is “No hay racismo aquí.” (There’s no racism here). Dominicans do not believe racism exists in their country. This lack of consciousness made the racism an unusually heavy burden to bear. When trying to discuss my feelings and problems, I constantly met resistance. Instead of receiving support and understanding, I was bombarded with negations that the discrimination I was experiencing was real.
To the credit of the Dominican people, I must comment that there are two factors that intensified the racism I suffered. Firstly, the city of Santiago, where I lived, has a significant number of white or lighter skinned people. These people are, by virtue of institutionalized racism, classism, and other factors, richer and “better educated” than the average Dominican. Although the common Dominican I encountered on the street often reacted to me in a similar manner as the “upper-class” Dominicans, I cannot definitively say that the racist climate that permeates Santiago is representative of the racial climate in every Dominican city. The second factor that influenced my experiences is my outer appearance. I do not perm my hair and often dress in African-influenced styles. Because of this, the racism I experience in any country, including the United States, is often more intense than that experienced by other African Americans.
Just like African Americans, Dominicans come in all hues and shades. They are a many-toned people, formed by the familiar mix of European “conqueror” and African “slave” with the extra ingredient of the island’s original indigenous people thrown in. Unlike the situation in the United States where color dictates culture, in Dominican society, everyone shares the same culture regardless of color. “White” Dominicans eat rice and beans, dance the merengue and kiss upon meeting, just as “black” Dominicans do. Except for the differences due to racist manifestation of class (through which the rich just happen to be white and the poor just happen to be black), there are no inherent differences in the lifestyles of “white” and “black” Dominicans. In one Dominican family, one child can be considered black and the other white. Though siblings, their different skin colors make them two different races. Because of this unique structure, I was forced to live and deal with prejudices in new ways. I could not avoid problems by living with a “black” family. There were no black families. I had to live within a community that rejected me.
Dominican racism is at once foreign and familiar. It contains some of the same patterns of self-hatred found in the black communities of the United States. Imagine my surprise when I heard the familiar phrases “bad hair” and “bettering the race” transformed by the Spanish tongue. Just as the English language connotes the word ‘white’ with purity and goodness, Dominican Spanish makes similar connections. One host mother described her study-abroad son in one breath of linked words: “so nice, so sweet, and so white.” Her verbal connection of these words exposed her mental relationship to them. For her the words ‘nice,’ ‘sweet,’ and ‘white’ are interchangeable. Through these similarities I realized that in many ways all oppressed people have to fight the same patterns of self-hatred and confusion as we do in the United States.
The uniqueness of Dominican racism lies in its subtleties; it is not a loud, obvious creature. It has no gloating, self-satisfied white face. The fervent denial of its existence made it hard for me to recognize its familiar traps. Although I was aware that I was being ignored throughout my trip, I did not always understand why. It seemed that the Dominican students selected to guide us through the university were magnetized by the white students, but they had little time and patience for us black students. I was often confused, angry and depressed. I spent an entire month and a half watching men constantly beg my two white friends for dances and reluctantly ask my two black friends (with permed hair) for dances before I realized no one was asking me to dance. I spent many nights in a dark corner of a discotheque surrounded by men who found my body appealing enough to comment on in the streets, but my hair appalling enough to ignore me in the discos. I began to see a trend in their behavior and I recognized this trend as racialized sexism.
Racialized sexism is that peculiar brand of discrimination that breeds on black women (and other women of color) while somehow missing black men and white women completely. Becoming aware of its existence explained why all the host mothers constantly told me how beautiful I could look if only I would fix (read: perm) my hair. Racialized sexism explained why my friend Vincent, also a possessor of natural hair, never had to defend his choice to wear his hair “that way.” It explained why I thought constantly having different parts of my body grabbed in the street was a common experience until I discussed it with some of the white female students. They were shocked. Only their flaxen hair had been touched, never their bodies.
This blend of racism and sexism was the roughest thing to handle. I was equipped to deal with the racism, but not the mixture of the two. After some time, we black students became accustomed to the horrified glances and gasps we received when we referred to ourselves as black. One host-mother in particular would stop us saying, “No, no, no, don’t call yourself black, you’re Indian.” Dominicans have created a myriad of names—morena (brown), india (indian), blanca oscura (dark white), trigueño (wheat colored)—to avoid referring to themselves as black. Nothing prepared us for a weekend field trip to the country where our weekend hosts got to pick the students they wanted to put up for the night. The first picked were the blondes. Standing there desolate and alone at the end were the blacks.
While I had a cordial, comfortable relationship with my host family, on many occasions I felt they might have related to me better were I white. When I would eagerly show them photographs of my friends from weekend trips, their eyes would go straight through my black friends’ unsuspecting smiling faces and examine the blondes in the background. “Who’s she?” they would ask, “Is she part of your group?”
Existing in a situation which I felt to be a daily negation of my being deeply affected me. I am a steel trap; I don’t cry, and I didn’t cry once while I was there. Now that I have returned, I sprout tears at the smallest infractions. Within the safety of my home, I am finally letting my wounds flow. Friends say I am quieter now and a bit more serious. The experience has certainly sobered me, not to the point of paralysis, but I walk the streets a bit more wary. I find myself still reacting to the groping hands I encountered on Dominican streets. I have to force myself to pass men without flinching. My eyes are glued to their swinging hands and at their slightest movement in my direction, I am ready to react.
I don’t want to recount every terrible experience I encountered in the Dominican Republic. I don’t want to talk about the time I was refused entry into a club or the times our host-mothers had negative reactions to our black-Dominican and Haitian friends, but I can’t open my mouth, my thoughts, and my soul about the Dominican Republic without these things flooding out.