Crisis On My Doorstep: The Racialization of Dominican and Haitian Identities

by olgasoutstanding

Haiti is one of the poorest nations in the world.  It shares an island with the Dominican Republic (DR), a more prosperous neighbor with a better ecological situation.  As will happen when a less prosperous nation lives near a more prosperous one, migration of Haitians into the DR is common.  Haitians work in the fields and as servants, are paid little, and are routinely looked down upon, yet they stay in the DR from sheer economic necessity, often for generations.  Whilst the DR has offered birthright citizenship, those of Haitian descent continue to be marginalized and are now being registered, a first step to being held and deported.  Due to a recent court ruling revoking birthright citizenship that is retroactive to up to four generations, many are being denied citizenship.

One of the reasons for this crisis boils down to a contentious history.  The Island of Hispaniola was united from about 1821-1844 as Haiti.  Before that time, the island (as its name suggests) was first a Spanish colony, later undergoing a process whereby the French slowly annexed the Western region.  The Spanish, naturally, were opposed to the annexation, and thus was born a difficult relationship between the French-speaking (Haitian) population and the Spanish-speaking (Dominican) population of Hispaniola.

Over time, the colonial history of the island has become racialized.  Racialization in this context is the process whereby a difference or perceived difference is given a racial character.  While both Haitians and Dominicans are descended from a mixture of European slaveowners and African slaves, Dominicans see themselves as Native (an identity which masks African heritage in the DR and European in the US).  Black identity is seen as non-Dominican, belonging solely to Haitians on Hispaniola, echoing European beliefs on the superiority of White skin and the natural inferiority of Black.  A similar dynamic has been seen in Rwanda and Burundi, where German and later Belgian officials racialized the categories of Hutu and Tutsi (in this case, the lower-caste Hutu were considered Black while the higher-caste Tutsi were considered Semitic).  An excellent exploration of this dynamic in the case of Rwanda/Burundi can be found here.

Racialization gives rise to myths of natural superiority.  It hardens class structures and brings about an identity based on opposition to another group.  It leads to division, violence, the formation of permanent underclasses, and genocide. Dominican-American and Haitian-American activists are calling for a boycott of tourism to the Dominican Republic.   More opportunities for action will be presented in this blog as they are found and vetted.