Anti-Haitianism: A U.S.-backed Legacy

(Elaine Vilorio)– I’m in a new place this summer—Washington, D.C.—so I’m perpetually introducing myself to people. Ever since the spike in American media coverage of Dominican Republic’s anti-Haitian deportation efforts, my introductory conversations have taken on a pattern. Last Tuesday, a co-worker and I attended an out-of-work event for the first time, a panel on anti-black racism in Latin America, in fact. I was pretty excited to be attending this with her because I rarely meet a white American woman who “got” race in Latin America (and, hey, much less race in the U.S.). She spoke to me about her anti-racist activist work in South America and it didn’t sound patronizing at all. I was digging it. Then, she asked me about my familial background. I told her my parents are from Dominican Republic. In the driver’s seat, she turned to me, gave a small gasp and proclaimed: “Gosh, they’re so racist over there.” I internally cringed. I decided against getting outwardly defensive. Thinking back, I should have spoken up. Instead, I interrogated her in my head: “Who are you to talk? Who are we in the U.S. to talk? Anti-Haitianism has been going on since Haiti was created. The Dominican Republic isn’t the only one to harbor it. By virtue of being a black republic, Haiti wasn’t recognized by the United States or France as an actual country even after nineteen years of independence. Do you understand, also, that race relations in Dominican Republic and Latin America as a whole differ from race relations in the United States? That it’s not as simple as black versus white?” And so the conversational pattern goes: people ask me where my family is from; I tell them; they call “racism” and then ask me my opinion on the matter. Since my co-worker, I’ve spoken up more frankly with other people who have asked or cared to listen. I thought I hesitated to confront my co-worker mainly because we were just getting to know each other and because she was older. But, really, I didn’t want to seem like I was defending Dominican racism by virtue of being Dominican-American. I’ve since learned how to convey my anger at the American media’s audacity to critique a racial system the U.S. had a hand in building.

I love the field of history because we can’t possibly understand today without understanding yesterday. In the face of mainstream media coverage of Dominican-led efforts to deport Haitians and Haitian descendants, I want to not only condemn the Dominican government, but the government of the country that makes up the other half of my ethnic identity: the United States.

In 1869, the Dominican Republic was considered for U.S. annexation. As Ginetta Candelario notes in Black Behind the Ears: Dominican Racial Identity from Museums to Beauty Shops, supporters of the idea produced copious amounts of propaganda in attempts to convince the American public of annexation, highlighting that Dominicans were not as black as Haitians and therefore more civilized. Dominicans were encouraged to internalize their racial superiority in relation to their neighbors. U.S.-produced anti-Haitian propaganda was actually adopted as staple historical documents in Dominican national museums. In 1916, the United States physically occupied the country. According to April Mayes in The Mulatto Republic, a former chief of staff for a brigade of marines commented that Haiti was less civilized than Dominican Republic, calling Haitians “bandits.” In The Impact of Intervention: The Dominican Republic during the U.S. Occupation of 1916-1924, Bruce Calder recounts the words State Department official Ferdinand Mayer relayed to Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes in July 1921: “…‘it is well to distinguish at once between the Dominicans and the Haitians. The former, while in many ways not advanced far enough for the highest type of self-government, yet have a preponderance of white blood and culture. The Haitians, on the other hand are negro for the most part, and, barring very highly educated politicians, are almost in a state of savagery and complete ignorance. The two situations thus demand different treatment.’” The “two situations” refers to the fact the U.S. occupied Haiti and Dominican Republic simultaneously. And yet, while occupying both countries simultaneously, the Dominican Republic was treated slightly less oppressively because it was “whiter.” Beyond anti-Haitianism, the U.S. occupation strengthened Dominicans’ general anti-black racism, even as a people who are pre-dominantly black themselves (although purportedly less so than Haiti). Mayes credits Lieutenant Edward A. Fellowes, a captain in the Dominican National Guard, with the following 1923 quote: “‘As a general rule, the degree of intelligence increased with the decrease of ebony tinge…Those who were of clearer complexion usually were more intelligent, and could be trusted with responsible jobs…Practically all of our best non-commissioned officers were either of Porto Rican descent, or had a larger proportion of Spanish than Negro blood in their veins.’” Furthermore, it is no secret that the notorious dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo was a product of the 1916 U.S. occupation, having been a trained and ranked marine. His 1930-1961 government perpetrated a horrendous number of anti-black and/or anti-Haitian crimes, including the Parsley Massacre.

This is only a snapshot of the ways the U.S. has influenced race relations in Dominican Republic. This is only a snapshot of U.S. imperialism. In years outside those I’ve mentioned, the United States has had its stake in Dominican affairs, just as it’s had its stake in other countries in Latin America and beyond. I am not arguing that the Dominican Republic would have been a racial heaven had the U.S. stayed away. I am also not trying to frame Dominicans as absolute victims of colonialism and imperialism. The Dominican government is not to be absolved for its violation of human rights. It is very deliberately disproportionately displacing its darkest citizens. I am merely pointing to the importance of colonial legacies. It’s not that we have a moral obligation to storm Dominican Republic to rectify its racism. The legacies of colonialism and imperialism aren’t solved with more colonialism and imperialism. I’m asking for U.S. media coverage to recognize U.S. complicity in condemning the deportation efforts. Otherwise, we’re just paternalistically and hypocritically scolding. This is especially funny considering we have our own atrocities to denounce. I’m asking, also, that we be critical American citizens. We need to acknowledge this country’s self-importance. We need to stop taking American stances at face value.