After changes to Dominican law and a court ruling revoking citizenship by right of birth, people of Haitian descent face an uncertain future in the Dominican Republic. At the core of the citizenship crisis are ideas about race and Dominican national identity that get reinforced in schools, explains Sheridan Wigginton, chair of Cal Lutheran’s Department of Languages and Cultures.
What do the textbooks that you studied teach kids in the Dominican Republic about race?
Several things. One is that blackness as a physical trait is attached to less desirable social status. In one of the textbook activities, second-graders are looking at occupations, different things you can do for a living. In the illustrations, people who are doing manual labor and jobs with less earning potential are of darker complexion. The lighter the complexion of the person, the more professional the occupations become.
On the white end of the continuum is a white male with yellow-blond hair and a cap and gown holding a briefcase. You’re sort of left with the question, What job is that? But what you do get is a sense of success and prosperity and good education. The actual occupation, which was supposed to be the point, is less important.
What about the woman with the shoe, and the hairdresser?
I like those examples. This is the standard of female beauty that you need to reflect to be trusted as a shoe saleswoman or a hair stylist. Straight hair and European traits. You wouldn’t necessarily trust a hair stylist with braids, because, What does she know?
Another idea you see reflected in textbooks is that blackness can be bred out of the family, through the process of “whitening,” or blancamiento in Spanish. So in images of family units, the children and the grandchildren express fewer and fewer African-like characteristics than the generations before.
This idea is very prevalent, that intermarriage is a way of “improving” the next generation. It’s not a hush-hush conversation.
You’ve written that Dominicans are encouraged not to see themselves as black, for the sake of national identity. How do the textbooks get that across?
The representation of blackness is so far-fetched and unrealistic that it’s not a legitimate choice to self-identify as that. In this third-grade text, for example, the image is of a person whose skin is purple, who has bone jewelry and who seems outside of a … human status.
The option for “Spanish,” which is also listed as “white,” also looks a little far-fetched. It’s a person of sort of orange color, a standard 17th-century European aristocrat. Well, I’m not really that – a student might think – but I’m surely not purple and wear bone jewelry like a savage.
Is there a racial label that suits most Dominicans?
Indio, or the feminine india, is the category that would probably encompass the largest swath of the population. That term is qualified also, so you can be indio claro, indio oscuro or indio – “light Indian” to “dark Indian.” Within those gradations, you’re going to get most people.
That term has been used to solidify a sense of national identity, because, used in that way, it is unique to the Dominican Republic.
Does indio have anything to do with indigenous heritage?
It does in a way. During the political regime that started using it, indio gave some legitimacy or breathing room or justification for a darker complexion, compared to the Spanish heritage. It was important that they had some way to explain why they didn’t look Spanish and also were not necessarily attached to Africa. Looking like Africans means looking like Haitians. So we have to find a middle ground.
Indio creates a wonderful out, used in this politically motivated way. It’s taken hold, and right now it’s part of the ethnic culture of the country. It really does provide that safe space of, why we’re not Spanish, why we’re not Haitian.
Is it possible to say you’re Dominican and black?
Negro (black) as a color term does exist, but it’s used in a very limited way. Typically, it’s limited to people from Africa or people of Haitian descent in a derogatory sense.
Of the various terms that are used to describe combinations of skin color, nose shape, lip shape, hair texture, eye color, freckles – no matter what that combination may be, if you are a Dominican citizen, then you are not negro.
Is it possible now to be both Dominican and Haitian inside of the Dominican Republic?
Legally speaking, that’s becoming less possible. But for practical purposes, absolutely. And the biggest region where that happens is in the border area in the western part of the Dominican Republic and the far eastern part of Haiti. They share that middle piece of the island where, in many places, there is no officially or very clearly marked border.
For generation after generation, families have lived isolated from both capitals in this area, not clearly being on one side of the border or the other.
What’s changed for those of Haitian descent?
People who have lived as completely documented Dominican citizens – and rightfully so, based on the constitution – are now having their citizenship revoked. Even for those who had paperwork, the government said that citizenship was going to be invalidated retroactively.
So these are people who, because they have Haitian ancestors or even just look Haitian to someone, could end up stateless?
They will be in effect stateless. They don’t necessarily have any well-developed connections in Haiti or any other country because they haven’t lived there.
When you first went to the Dominican Republic in 2000, you couldn’t have foreseen tensions at this level. I wonder, does it feel to you like the current government is enacting what its officials learned in elementary school?
What I found interesting about the school curriculum was that color and appearance played such an important role. It’s seen as important in the second grade for such young children to start framing the parameters of Dominican identity and to start practicing categorizing based on physical appearance.
I don’t think you can say the border officials are there with the textbooks matching people up and putting them on this bus or that bus.
But the textbooks provide insight into a cultural perspective that gets manifested in other ways. And one way that Us-versus-Them mindset does manifest itself is in the new legislation about citizenship. For all practical purposes, the people who are going to be affected by this are the less educated, darker complexioned, poorer Dominicans of Haitian descent.
Coming from the U.S., what did you think of the racial dynamics you found there?
It didn’t take long for me to see the similarities. The labels were different. The groups in competition were different. But the foundations for tensions – immigration status, physical appearance, education levels, socioeconomic status – all that’s the same. It felt familiar.
Tell me about the host family you lived with. How did they understand their own race?
It was a family that in the U.S. would be a black family. They were very tied to their identity of moreno (brown), so they were una familia morena, self-identified.
The summer before I got there, they had hosted another black, female student who had her hair in braids. The host mother told me how glad she was I didn’t have trenzas, or braids. She’d told the other girl she was going to take her to have her hair done, because you can’t walk around looking like one of those Haitians.
It was a clear message: “As a family living in this neighborhood, we also have a reputation to maintain. We can’t have people thinking that Haitians are coming in and out of our house, and wander through the neighborhood to get to our house.”
Did they want you to go to the hairdresser, too?
Yes, oh yes. I had my hair straightened one time to be the nice guest. That lasted maybe a week. After that, I just washed it and started over.