The Stigma of Blackness: Anti-Haitianism in the Dominican Republic

Not long after arriving in the Dominican Republic, Gérard married a Haitian woman whom he had known in Port-au-Prince. They rented an apartment in the capital, and soon afterward his wife gave birth to a son. Since Dominican authorities did not issue birth certificates to children of Haitian parents, Hassim was stateless. To resolve this problem, Gérard paid a Civil Registry official US $500 for a false birth certificate for himself, which he then used to obtain a cédula, a driver’s license, and other documents in support of his identity as Máximo Gómez. On the basis of this Dominican identity, Gérard petitioned for the issuance of a late birth certificate for Hassim, which made it possible for him to attend public school and qualify for other public services. (Gregory 2007: 170)

Excerpted from Steven Gregory’s book, The Devil behind the Mirror, the story of the Haitian-born Gérard and his Dominican-born son Hassim is one of many examples of the experience of Haitians in the Dominican Republic. Their stories are of people living with stigma. Based on the color of their skin and their African heritage, Haitians, and more generally people of African descent, have been stigmatized in the Dominican Republic, as in other countries in the Western Hemisphere, since the arrival of enslaved Africans in the 16th century. This historical stigmatization manifests itself as an ideology called antihaitianismo (anti-Haitianism):

Antihaitianismo ideology combines a legacy of racist Spanish colonial mentality, nineteenth-century racial theories and twentieth-century cultural neoracism into a web of anti-Haitian attitudes, racial stereotypes, and historical distortions. Not only does this hegemonic ideology affect Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic, but it has also traditionally been employed as an ideological weapon to subdue the black and mulatto Dominican lower classes and maintain their political quiescence
(Sagás 2000: ix).

Similar to the way blacks and whites have been represented as polar opposites in US racial ideology, Dominicans and Haitians have been presented as polar – racial and cultural – opposites in antihaitianismo ideology; thus, to be Dominican means to be not Haitian, and especially not black.

In the summer of 2007, during a trip to Santo Domingo, I saw firsthand how antihaitianismo has permeated Dominican culture and identity, particularly the thoughts of some dark-skinned Dominicans. While my friend and I were vacationing in the Dominican Republic, we met a dark-skinned Dominican waiter who spoke English. He served as a useful resource guide for us, providing information about good places to eat and shop, about the history of the city, and about the racial identity of Dominicans. Although he was very dark, with skin darker than mine (a self-identified brown-skinned black person), this Dominican waiter self-identified as indio. “The fact that Hispaniola was… the first place to import enslaved Africans, thus becoming what Torres-Saillant has called the ‘cradle of blackness in the Americas’” (Candelario 2007) pushed us to ask him whether or not he believed Dominicans had African ancestry. He replied that Dominicans are a mix of the Spanish, African slaves, and the Taino Indians, but stated that Dominicans are indios and not black. His assertion is a good example of how antihaitianismo has influenced the thoughts of dark-skinned Dominicans. At the Museo del Hombre Dominicano we saw how the idea of being indio has been emphasized in Dominican culture and history. The exhibit on the origins of the Dominican people was filled with information on and images of Taino Indians. There was some information on the Spanish, but very few references to the country’s African heritage.

As easy as it would be to focus only on Dominicans’ role in stigmatizing the Haitians, I have to admit that I myself shared some of the same negative stereotypes. Growing up in Boston, which according to the 2000 census has the third largest Haitian immigrant population in the US, I was often asked, because of my Afro-Caribbean ancestry and French last name, if I was Haitian. I would immediately reply no. I was offended that people would identify me as Haitian, since, as a child, I learned from my family and a few of my friends that I didn’t want to be identified as Haitian: Haitians were bad; they dressed badly, they smelled bad, and they acted badly. I spent a lot of time trying to distance myself from Haitians, so I could avoid the stigma associated with them, just as West Indian immigrants have tried to avoid the stigma associated with African Americans in the US (Waters 2001). I made sure that everyone who made a comment about the French origins of my last name knew that I was not Haitian. Such behavior is not uncommon. In her study of 2nd generation West Indians in New York City, Sherri-Ann Butterfield found that “Haitian immigrants had the worst reputation among all West Indian respondents, regardless of generation. No one could articulate where the dislike and the stereotypes came from, but everyone was clear that Haitians were the most oppressed and maligned ethnic group in New York City at that time” (309).

My purpose here is to help break the continued cycle of stigmatization of Haitians. I explore the origins of antihaitianismo in the Dominican Republic and its economic, social, and psychic effects on Haitians, and I discuss steps taken by Dominicans, Haitians, and others to repair the resulting damage.

Stigma & Antihaitianismo

According to Erving Goffman’s widely used definition, stigma is an attribute that discredits individuals or groups, reducing them from whole and normal persons to discounted and tainted ones. Stigma can be broken into three categories. The first is associated with deformities of the body (e.g. missing limbs). The second is associated with character flaws (e.g. drug addiction). And the third is “the tribal stigma of race, nation, and religion,” described as “stigma that can be transmitted through lineages and equally contaminate all members of a family” (2006: 132). This third type of stigma best describes the stigma experienced by Haitians in the Dominican Republic.

In their development of a Dominican national identity, Dominican elites combined race, nation, and religion, creating a marker of difference between Haitians and Dominicans that would pass from generation to generation. They created a national identity that defined Dominicans as white, Catholic, and culturally Hispanic, in stark contrast to Haitians whom they characterized as being black, voodoo practitioners, and culturally African (Sagás 2000). Goffman argues that stigma allows us to dehumanize people and makes it easier for us to discriminate against them. Stigmatization has enabled Dominicans to subject Haitian labor to quasi-slavery working conditions on sugar plantations; to deport tens of thousands of Haitians without a court hearing; to kill tens of thousands more; and to deny Dominican-born children of Haitian parentage citizenship and access to public services.

Link and Phelan (2001) expand upon Goffman’s definition of stigma to include the role of power relations in the process of stigmatization. They state that “stigma is entirely dependent on social, economic, and political power – it takes power to stigmatize” (375). Antihaitianismo has allowed Dominican elites, and to an extent the Dominican working class, to label and stereotype Haitians as inferior, barbaric, and foreign, and to separate Haitians from Dominican identity and culture, through the development of a Dominican national identity that is purposely defined in opposition to a negative image of Haiti and Haitian culture, as a means to keep Haitians in a perpetual subordinate position. “As an ideology, anithaitianismo treats Haitians as the scapegoats of a society that considers them racially and culturally inferior…. Thus antihaitianismo is a deliberate creation: it is an authoritarian, dominant ideology, with the objective of defending a narrow status quo” (Sagás 2000: 4).

Antihaitianismo has a long history on the island of Hispaniola, dating from the time of Haitian Independence. “The independence of Haiti in 1804 represented a terrifying prospect for white nations: the massacre of most whites, the destruction of European civilization, and their replacement by a black republic led by ex-slaves themselves” (Sagás 2000: 4). Haiti’s existence as the first black republic automatically placed it in a pariah status within the Western Hemisphere. “Haitians experienced international hostility in several forms, including most notably, political isolation and the threat of a French attempt to retake the island nation” (Renda 2001: 50). Most Western governments refused to recognize Haiti as a sovereign nation until France recognized it. This did not occur until 1825, and it came at the cost of 150 million francs, as restitution for the property the French former plantation owners lost after the slave rebellion. Dominican elites developed a cultural and racial identity for themselves that was in opposition to their island neighbor, which in its Constitution of 1805 declared all residents of Haiti black, regardless of skin color (Howard 2001).

Therefore, “whiteness” (racially and culturally) came to be identified with “Dominicanness,” while “blackness” was rejected as alien, Haitian and barbaric. In this (re)definition of “race,” the black and the mulatto masses had but two choices: to “lighten” themselves by assuming the indio identity and Hispanic culture, or to be ostracized and excluded from the national mainstream. (Sagás 2000: 66)

The development of antihaitianismo was strengthened when the Haitian government, fearing that the French would use Dominican territory as a base to try to reconquer Haiti, invaded the Dominican Republic, occupying it from 1822-1844, unifying the island, and ruling from Port-au-Prince. Although Haiti’s occupation was supported by a significant number of Dominicans from the lower classes and from border towns, Dominican elites didn’t like being ruled by a people they considered inferior. In their fight for independence, Dominicans developed anti-Haitian attitudes and beliefs and created myths about their history and culture in order to distance themselves from Haitians. It was in this context the myth of the Dominican indio emerged. Although the Taino Indians died out less than a century after the Spanish conquest, and were replaced by African slaves, Dominican elites insisted that Dominicans were descendants of Indians and the Spanish, and not of enslaved African laborers. Torres-Saillant (1998) argues that “ethnically, the Indians represented a category typified by nonwhiteness as well as nonblackness which could be easily accommodate the racial in-betweenness of the Dominican mulatto. Thus, the regime gave currency to the term indio (Indian) to describe the complexion of people of mixed ancestry” (139). The country went from being considered 90% mulatto to 90% indio, since the term mulatto, which implied African ancestry, came to be associated with Haitians, “who were considered the real blacks” (Sagás 1993: 3).

Antihaitianismo took on a greater role, politically and intellectually, during the right-wing dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo (1930-1961). In 1937, Trujillo killed tens of thousands of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic when they refused his order to leave. “In the wake of the massacre, the Trujillo dictatorship embarked on a renewed negrophobic, anti-Haitian campaign that infiltrated public education and other Dominican institutions” (Gregory 2007: 181). Trujillo enlisted the country’s most prominent intellectuals, especially Manuel A. Peña Batlle and Joaquín Balaguer (who later served six terms as president), to produce literature and propaganda in support of his anti-Haitian ideology. Dominican history books, in their effort to demonize Haitians, concentrated heavily on the Haitian occupation and overemphasized instances of Haitian violence against Dominicans. Trujillo’s regime spread antihaitianismo among the Dominican masses, with lasting effects.

Consequences of Stigma and Antihaitianismo

One of the most severe consequences of antihaitianismo has been the threat of mass deportations. Tens of thousands of Haitians and Dominican-Haitians were expelled from the Dominican Republic in the early 1990s and again in 1996-97, with skin color used “as a primary indicator” (Reynoso & Roberts 2006: 2). Another consequence has been the denial of citizenship for Dominican-born people of Haitian-descent. Although the Constitution grants citizenship to all people born on Dominican soil, it “makes an exception to the rule for those people who are ‘in transit’ at the time of birth” (ibid.). This is the provision that applied in the earlier-noted case of Hassim. Although Hassim was born in the Dominican Republic, since his parents were Haitians, he was considered to have been born “in transit.”

Antihaitianismo has been applied since the early 1900s to secure the cheap labor of Haitian migrants on Dominican sugarcane plantations, where they have been subjected to slave-like conditions and forced to live in “concentration-camp-like barracks,” as shown in the recent documentary film, The Price of Sugar (Holden 2007). The use of Haitian migrant workers in the Dominican sugar economy was initially advocated by the United States, despite disapproval by Dominican elites, as way to satisfy labor shortages in US-owned sugar factories, (Gregory 2007; Sagás 2000).

Antihaitianismo also has negative consequences for Dominicans. It places dark-skinned Dominicans in a vulnerable position because any actions they take against the status quo can be viewed as un-Dominican, and therefore a sign of blackness or Haitian heritage. They are also vulnerable to deportation. In the en-masse deportations of Haitans, some dark-skinned Dominican citizens have been identified as Haitian and deported to Haiti without being given a chance to prove citizenship. White and indio Dominicans, for their part, have suffered negative consequences similar to those found in the US, where “racism produces false fears in whites and allows these fears to control where they live, where they go to school, where they travel, where they work, with whom they socialize, where they play, and whom they love and marry” (Fernandez 1996: 164).

In the case of white Dominicans, their claims to whiteness depend highly on their residential settings and on the diffusion of antihaitianismo, reflecting the vulnerability of their position at the top of Dominican society. “In the case of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, it is precisely their racial closeness that exacerbates conflict, as Dominican elites have tried to forge a ‘white’ identity to differentiate themselves from their ‘black’ neighbors” (Sagás 2000: 12). Moreover, in the early 20th century, the Dominican government passed a law restricting the entrance of black immigrants while encouraging white immigration from Europe and the United States.

Interestingly, antihaitianismo also affects the way both light- and dark-skinned Dominicans view and care for their hair. Dominican scholar Ginetta Candelario argues that hair texture has been used by Dominicans as a marker of racial and social status. She points out that there are gendered differences in the way Dominicans encounter and negotiate blackness. Dominican women, regardless of skin color, are more likely than men to wage their struggles with blackness through hair culture. “Just as the Museo del Hombre Dominicano’s exhibitionary technologies encourage visitors to internalize the naturalness of Dominican Indo-Hispanicity, so too, does the salon offer Dominican women the techniques of the body they need to externalize the ideological code” (Candelario 2007: 180). Hair care offers Dominican women the ability to transfrom racial identities, turning curly and kinky “black” hair into straight and smooth “Indian” hair. Hair thus “marks the boundaries between Dominicans and Haitians and, in New York, between Dominicans and African Americans” (261).

The discriminatory practices influenced by antihaitianismo have brought the Dominican Republic negative press. Various labor and human rights organizations, such as AFL-CIO, International Labor Organization, and the Anti-Slavery Society, have started to look into the labor practices of Dominican sugar businesses (Sagás 2000). Films like The Price of Sugar, showcasing the conditions of Dominican sugar workers, do not present a positive image of the country. The Dominican government’s systematic denial of citizenship to children of Haitian parentage has also caught the attention of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In October 2005, the court ruled that the Dominican Republic had violated the rights of children of Haitian ancestry and rendered them stateless by refusing to issue their birth certificates” (Reynoso and Roberts 2006: 2).

De-stigmatizing: The Conclusion to Antihaitianismo

How can we challenge antihaitianismo and mend the damage it has caused? One way is through activism and coalition-building between Haitians and Dominicans. Various organizations, like Fundacion Zile in the Dominican Republic, Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees in Brooklyn, Dominican Coalition of Solidarity with the Haitian Community in New York City, the Haitian League, and the NYIHA Media, are working at the grassroots level to involve local and diasporic communities in repairing the damage. Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, for instance, work with Dominican and Haitian youth in the US to destigmatize Haitians and blackness. But they face a difficult uphill struggle.

In his study, David Howard found some signs of how embedded anti-Haitian ideology is in Dominican racial identity. He examined the racial identities of Dominican migrants who returned from living several years in the United States. He hypothesized that Dominican return migrants would establish a more Afrocentric racial identity, after living in the United States, where many of them are identified as black. However, he finds that “racial identity is not only re-established when back in Dominican society, but arguably remains intact and active whilst outside the Dominican Republic” (2001: 107). Howard contends that changes in racial norms from living abroad will be less likely to come from working-class migrants than from intellectual expatriates. He found that Dominicans in New York City tended to use their Spanish-language skills to distance themselves from African Americans. He also noted that being identified as black in the US and embracing black American hip hop culture does not necessarily change Dominicans’ ideas about blackness or about their own racial identity.

Another way to challenge antihaitianismo may be through the writings of scholars and advocates. Various Haitian-born and Dominican-born advocates have reached out to the media, such as the New York Times, to expose the discrimination, racism, and exploitation experienced by Haitians in the Dominican Republic (International Herald Tribune 2006; Lacey 2007; Mindlin 2005). Also the efforts of academics, such as the work of Ernesto Sagás, may help spread the word about this injustice to a global audience.

Inclusionary justice for Haitians in the Dominican Republic can start with one person speaking out against antihaitianismo and breaking the cycle of stigmatization, as I have tried to do in this article.


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