photo: Daniela Vesco, Vivala

On June 16, the internet exploded with news that hundreds of thousands of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent were facing imminent deportation from the Dominican Republic. The government was enforcing a law passed in 2013, requiring all undocumented people of Haitian descent born in country or not, to register for proper identification under strict deadline. Many believe that it has highlighted a decade's long issue in the Dominican Republic: The denial and rejection of black racial identity.

"I think that this legislation and the on-going Dominican resistance to accept the InterAmerican Human Rights Court's ruling about birth rights citizenship are expressions of racial cleansing," says sociology professor and author of Black behind the Ears: Dominican Racial Identity from Museums to Beauty Shops, Ginetta E. B Candelario. Many seemed to agree with Candelario, and the deportation threat sparked protests from New York City to Miami that accused the entire country of being racist.

There are those who insist it’s not about race. Like Alicia Gibbs, a 30-year-old Dominican woman and blogger from East Orange, New Jersey. "It's not a racial issue. Every country has migration laws and unfortunately the Dominican Republic's migration laws were weak and flawed, and they are trying to correct the issue, and essentially I think they are trying to just save the country because it's become overpopulated with Haitians.”

But professor Candelario points out that racial tension between the two countries dates back to Toussaint Louverture, the Haitian slave revolt and colonialism. The hard part isn't just acceptance of a diverse racial makeup, but also learning the real history, “Not the fake history,” she insists, “The propaganda history that Dominicans are taught.”

photo: Corbis

The majority of Dominicans have African/black lineage in their ancestry. According to the Central Intelligence Agency, 73 percent of Dominicans are mixed race, 16 percent are white and 11 percent are black. "I think it's really fair to say that the vast majority of Dominicans are Afro-descended," Candelario adds.

"Few people here self-identify as black or negro; rather, a wide majority of Dominicans — most recently 82 percent in a federal census — designate their race as "indio," while only 4.13 percent designate themselves as black," scholar and culture critic, Henry Louis Gates Jr. pointed out in his PBS special, Black in Latin America.

Many go out of their way to claim anything but black. Candelario breaks down the different terms Dominicans (and other Latinos) use to describe race in an effort to avoid the “black" label like, "india," "trigueña," "india clara," "india oscura," and "morena." There is also a wide disconnect as to what is actually considered black in the Dominican community.

"I always think about it as the Dominicans having their blackness denied them by the state," says Kimberly Eison Simmons, Associate Professor OF Anthropology, at the University of South Carolina. "In terms of how they were socialized to think about blackness, to think about themselves as being a mixed people and to talk about race in terms of "indio claro" (light skinned), "indio oscuro" (dark skinned). Haitians were often the "other," they were the ones who were considered to be black."

"It was a way to use the word (indio) to actually negate our African ancestry and then became something else because when you look at Dominicans we can not say, honestly, that we are Anglo-Saxon," says anthropologist Juan Rodriguez in Black in Latin America: Haiti and the Dominican Republic An Island Divided.

"In the U.S. someone like Halle Berry is considered black. Her mother is white and her father is black, so she's actually biracial," says Candelario. “But she is considered white in the Dominican Republic.”

Juan Rodriguez, Dominican Ministry of Culture - Black In Latin America

Delaila Catalino is a 29-year-old half-Dominican, half-Puerto Rican woman born and raised in Brooklyn, New York and works as a publicist. She says she didn't always understand the implications this kind of terminology imposed. "Now that I'm older and I understand where the [terminology] originated from, I think they're really offensive because it's a way to subcategorize," she says. "It's almost like segregating within our own people."

Like Catalino, Dominican millennials are recognizing the significance of developing a better understanding of their racial makeup and history. “It's important because it is who we are," says Catalino. “If more of us adopt the fact that this is where we come from, then we can start that movement and try to make books and films where there are more people of color."

The issue of race is very complex and identifying with just one race is a struggle for many. According to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center, 63 percent of Latinos picked just one racial category in the 2010 census. Around 37 percent instead selected "some other race" with many offering write-in responses like "Mexican," "Dominican," "Hispanic," or "Latin American."

"I usually just say I'm Hispanic. I don't really like when people ask if I'm white or black Dominican," says Sarah Vega, a 30-year-old Dominican and Nicaraguan writer from Newark, New Jersey. “If I have to choose I'll say I'm black because I know if I say I'm a white Dominican everyone is going to look at me like I'm crazy," says Vega.

“I just say Dominican. Because I think the fact of being African with the Spanish makes you Dominican,” says Gibbs, the Dominican blogger from East Orange, New Jersey.

Racism against people of African ancestry isn’t just something we see in the Dominican culture. It’s an ongoing issue within the Latino community and the fight to end racist thinking is everyone’s problem. “We can not survive without one another and we certainly can not thrive without taking responsibility not only for ourselves but for each other," says Candelario.