“I’m Not Black, I’m Dominican”
By Julissa Castillo
For the first decade of my life, race and ethnicity were things I never thought about. For starters, I was a child. But my family also lived in Queens, New York, and lots of people looked like us, or didn’t look like us, and frankly nobody cared. All I knew was that we were Dominican and all my birthday parties were bomb.
Then we moved to Tennessee the summer before I was to begin fourth grade, and all of a sudden, things were very, very different. It marked the first time anybody ever asked me, “What are you? Are you mixed?” And it certainly wasn’t the last. In fact, it became common for strangers to ask me this moments after meeting me, as if they could not proceed further with our interaction without knowing exactly how to categorize me.
Soon, I learned that what people wanted to know was where my parents were from. The first time this happened, I was so taken aback, I truly did not know how to answer. I had never even heard the term “mixed.” Eventually, I came to understand that — to them — the term meant “mixed with black and white.” But since both of my parents were Dominican, I replied simply, “No, I’m Dominican.” In my small town, just a county away from where the KKK was first formed, I’m not certain people would have understood the nuances between race and nationality.
As we settled into our new lives in this strange little town, my family constantly shared stories about people around town thinking we were Mexican, or Indian, or Honduran, or any number of other things. The most ludicrous assumption however — at least to my parents — was that we were black. We’re Dominican, not black!
Let me give you a little history about Dominicans, in case you didn’t know. The Dominican Republic is a country in the Caribbean that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. Haitians, as you might know, are black. Yet, somehow, many Dominicans believe that the border makes them decidedly NOT BLACK. They believe this despite the fact that the first slaves brought over to the New World were actually taken to Hispaniola.
At this point, I should also tell you that my father is from a town directly on the Haitian border. On the Dominican side, of course. His family lived there for generations. It used to be a funny joke to say, “we’re Haitian!” to my dad and see how angry he would get. My late grandmother’s nickname for my dark-skinned little brother was “Haitiano.” I never gave it much thought as a child, just thinking it was one of abuela’s kooky nicknames. When I got older and realized that basically my grandmother was calling my brother “little Haitian” all his life, I felt, to say the least, conflicted.
Suddenly, I started noticing these microaggressions within my own family. When I brought home a black boyfriend in high school, the controversy spread like wildfire throughout my family. How dare I date someone darker. Within many Dominican families, there is an unspoken expectation that you should “marry up” to better the race. My maternal grandmother often cites this as her reason for marrying my grandfather — so that her kids could have lighter skin and good hair.
It took some self-reflection and educating myself on the history of our island to realize . . . hey, we ARE black. The Black Lives Matter movement and Black Twitter really helped me understand my own history. Suddenly, I was seeing all kinds of black folks embracing their blackness: Brazilians, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and yes, Dominicans. I read essays and stories written by people just like me — people who grew up thinking there was something inherently wrong with being black.
More than likely, my ancestors are a mix of slaves and Spaniards. My father is darker than Denzel Washington (and just as good-looking, my mother might say). People in my family are constantly worried about “good hair.” Greña (mop) is a word I constantly heard as a kid. As in “peinate esa greña!” Basically, my mom was telling me to brush my nappy hair. Perhaps my Nigerian friend of mine said it best when she told me, “Only black people worry about good hair or bad hair. Your family is B L A C K.”
And that’s okay!
“It’s okay to be black” is what I want to shout at my family members. But they already think I’m crazy. My mom puts feminism in air quotes when she talks to me about it. They are used to me having “different” ideas. So my embrace of our blackness is something else for them to roll their eyes at while wondering what Los Angeles has done to their baby.
I worry constantly about my brothers — both are still living in Tennessee. When I was home for the holidays, I got into a frank discussion with them about knowing their rights. We laughed as my older brother (who still echoes my grandmother’s words that “he’s Dominican, not black”) recounted how many times he has been pulled over — once for not wearing a seatbelt, while he was wearing a seatbelt. It’s funny and ridiculous, sure, but it is also terrifying. My little brother, the “Haitiano” — the only other family member who identifies as black — could have easily been Trayvon Martin, or Freddie Gray, or Oscar Grant, or any countless number of black men who have been murdered simply for their skin color.
For the record, I am both black and Dominican. These identities are not mutually exclusive. It is important for me to embrace this duality because denying it — denying this fundamental part of myself — means that on some level, being black is a bad thing, that it’s something to be ashamed of.
So, congratulations mom and dad — you have a black daughter! I hope that’s okay with you. It’s certainly okay with me.