The Politics of Colour

Juan Nicolas Tineo PhD, during the launch of his book in Barcelona.    Photo Credit: African Press Club

By Chiogor Constance Ikokwu

I met Juan Nicolas Tineo at the launch of his book Temporario in Barcelona about two months ago. Originally from Dominican Republic, Juan has lived in the USA for more than 10 years. We immediately started an interesting conversation about the construction of identities in the Caribbean that opened the door to highly informative but disconcerting information, at least for me.

Juan spoke about his doctoral thesis, which centered on the constant tension between Haiti and his home country Dominican Republic. The testy relations stemmed largely from a frosty history, which saw Dominican Republic as part of Haiti until the country became independent in 1844. Juan goes on to tell me that while he was growing up, there was a lot of myth between the two countries. Different myths generated fears that Haiti will invade Dominican Republic at any time. Consequently, Dominicans did everything possible to reject their blackness in so far as it was related to Haiti.

Identity is a big issue in Dominican Republic, he says. For instance, I would be considered an Indio Oscuro (dark skinned) and he, Juan, is Indio Claro (light skinned). Generally, discrimination based on colour against Haitians has been on for centuries. Dominicans tend to claim superiority based on colour (lighter skin), in spite of the fact that 90 percent of the Dominican population is black or mulatto, according to Dominican scholar and author Silvio Torres-Saillant.

Juan encapsulated the situation in this text: “Dominican culture encourages upward mobility and a dominant culture based on the erroneous belief in the superiority of the Hispanic, to the point that successive governments through history have developed practices to present Haitians as persons to be shunned.”

The most interesting aspect of his research for me is the Dominican Diaspora. It explains how Dominicans in the Diaspora, specifically the USA, began to embrace their African origins. Why? One of the reasons is that they were facing discrimination in that country too. In the USA, the one-drop rule applies. This means that biracial children are classified as black, even if they’re as light skinned as Prince Harry’s wife Meghan Markle, (born of a white father and black mother). It may not be entirely wrong to say that in terms of classification, the USA sees Dominicans the same way Dominicans see Haitians.

This realization perhaps came as a shock to the Dominican Diaspora, I would imagine. This state of things triggered a quest to embrace their African ancestry. According to Juan, “It may be said that the writers of the diaspora allude to their African heritage because it was in the United States that they discovered their true racial identities. It is because of this that their literary works, far from erasing Africa, praise their African roots.

“The texts analyzed here show that the diaspora challenges that position (Hispanic superiority) and the way Dominicans reject their blackness. Lastly, the diaspora perceives Haitians in the Dominican Republic as immigrants facing the same discriminatory obstacles that Dominican immigrants face in the United States.”

Wow, this is deep! I learnt something new. While Juan finds these results “upsetting and embarrassing”, I find it very eye-opening. I must commend Juan for this piece of work. It’s truly enriching. I understand that it’s difficult to capture a 10-year research in two pages, but I hope that it gives my readers a general picture of what the issues are.

I’m sure it’s  much more complex. However, there are three points that I would like to make. First, it’s obvious that African peoples were reduced to just a colour for centuries, and the association of blackness with hunger, poverty and, disease has been wonderfully successful. The perpetuation of that single story continues largely unchallenged in international media.

The history of slavery and colonialism also did great damage to African peoples across the world. What I try to emphasize though, is that African history precedes slavery and colonialism. We do have a great history, which has been buried, such that much of what we’re taught in history classes is related only to slavery and colonialism.

Secondly, the world worships money and prosperity. Nobody wants to be associated with anything that is not considered successful. Think in the smallest unit – everyone wants to be friends with a successful person. The minute one’s wealth or status diminishes, so-called friends, run as fast as Usain Bolt.

If any African country was a world power, we probably won’t be having this conversation today. Let’s examine the rise of China for a minute. Twenty to thirty years ago, millions of people in China were poor (some still are). With planning and focus, they’ve managed to turn the corner gradually. Now, the world reckons with China. On this note, I would say to African leaders, wake up! I know our situation is more complicated given colonialism, imperialism, unjust trading systems, etc. Nevertheless, leaders need to fight to  improve the lives of their citizens.

Thirdly, I strongly believe that Empires or civilisations rise and fall. Today’s world powers were not in that position yesterday.  It all started in Africa. One of the greatest civilisation in the world in Egypt was African.

We’re all humans and should treat one another with respect and dignity. Do have a great week everyone. Let me know your thoughts on the issue of colour. Enjoy!

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5 Comments

  1. Great writeup!
    The colour identity question has been a myth. From antiquity till date, we find this expressions very unacceptable from the coloureds.
    This differences has been heightened with the superior thoughts of the West who were slave traders and imperialist.

  2. There’s absolutely nothing wrong being a black. What is wrong all over the world is a conspiracy theory against the black man. The black man is only in need of transformational perspective in institutional leadership, social advocacy, religious tolerance, and everything is good with the black man. Colour adds no superiority to anyone!!!

    1. It is good that the people of Dominican Republic have finally realised themselves that they are of the same root as Haiti .
      You said it all, “if any African country was a world power we will probably not be having this conversation today.” This is very true and I stated it in an article I wrote in 2013 titled “THE TRIAL OF THE BLACK RACE”.
      Until African economies are developed and prosperity reigns in Africa,the black man will continue to be discriminated against.
      In life, if you don’t grow relatively with the same pace as your peers, friends,former classmates and even colleagues,discrimination will naturally set in after sometime. The black race has not grown relatively to other races in the world because of bad leaders in Africa and until we sort this out,the discrimination may continue . The state of Africa will continue to determine the image of the black man whether in Europe,America or anywhere in the world.
      The whole world and other races are waiting for Africa and the black race to assert themselves and the dignity of the black race will naturally be restored. You don’t beg for respect,you earn respect.

  3. I didn’t know that about the Dominican attitude to Haitians. The latter is still ( I think) the poorest country in the northern hemisphere. I can highly recommend a christian ministry doing great work there based in Orlando Florida called New Missions (newmissions.com). For equivalent of £15uk/m they provide a child an education, a daily hot meal and free medical help for the family. In addition, they guarantee the child complete education until 18 even if the original donor stops before then. They have built numerous schools and church buildings over the years and all started by one US family who were at one time immigrants to the US I believe. I encourage the reader to have a look. They also encourage donors to correspond with the child/family. Many children have grow up to become teachers, pastors etc themselves. A worthy cause.

  4. Thanks for the Info Ian. Tony, the colour question has not been around till “antiquity”. It was invented at some point (can’t say exactly) for subjugation and other purposes and it has worked.

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