A Social Construct: The Subjective Nature of Race

“Oh, I do not understand French,” I said as I handed the Seventh-day Adventist pamphlet back to the missionary pair who gave it to me. The older woman smiled and gave me the Spanish version before asking, “De dónde eres?” (“Where are you from?”) I revealed that I was an American student studying in the Dominican Republic, and as I walked out of my apartment building after having a nice conversation with them, I thought, “Wait, why did she initially hand me the French version?” This would be the first of two instances in which I was mistaken to be Haitian. Before I travelled to the Dominican Republic (DR), I researched its racial relations in order to mentally prepare myself for my four-month stay. As a person of color, I had to think about how the perception of my race in a different society would shape my experience, which in turn became an important factor in how I narrowed down my country options. I chose the DR because of my major, the language, and because I would not easily stand out phenotypically.

For the most part, I was right. Most people assumed I belonged…that was until I opened my mouth and spoke without a Dominican accent. Depending on where I was, or with whom I was, and/or who was looking at me, a person’s general perception of me changed. For example, if I was with Paige, my African-American friend, we did not attract strange looks; in fact, one woman asked if we were sisters even though we look nothing alike. However, if I was with Molly, my Irish-American friend, we were obviously American, or in one instance, she was French and I was criolla or Haitian. When I was alone, some people knew right off that I was from the United States, whereas others would guess Colombian even after I spoke. In the DR, racial classification is very subjective and depends on a variety of factors. There are no “clean-cut” boxes by which to categorize people as seen in the United States, but rather loose terms such as moreno and indio that reference a person’s skin tone. These terms are not objective and will usually vary depending on personal perception. This mixed racial heritage and fluid classification system are part of the reason why Dominicans who travel to the United States have a difficult time racially identifying themselves by American standards. The malleable nature of race reveals that it is a social construct that changes depending on the cultural history of the society in which a person is located.

So, why is racial categorization in the DR and in America so different? I think the primary cause of this cultural dissonance is the different models of colonization used by the Spanish and English settlers. Both groups exploited African slave labor in order to build and maintain the economies of their respective colonies: sugar in the DR and cotton in the southern United States. However, miscegenation was normal in Spanish colonies as these early settlers were either single men or men who traveled without their families, and who procreated with the local people of the colony and/or with African slaves. Both slave systems created a socially-stratified hierarchy based on ethnic heritage, and these histories have contributed to the racial classification systems present in both societies today.

The “us versus them” nature of American chattel slavery is directly linked to the inherent need of our society to racially classify people. The United States is not a melting pot as we have been taught, but rather a salad bowl containing different ingredients that are not fully blended.  During a presentation about race in the DR and in the United States, I was explaining to my peers the concept of the hyphenated classification technique: for example, African-American, Indian-American, and Italian-American, among others. This technique is a way by which people claim their respective identities, which in turn reveal distinct cultural differences among the groups (food, religion, etc.). By contrast, this hyphenated terminology does not exist in the DR. Dominicans are just, well Dominicans. They share the same food, music, and love for merengue. I am in no way asserting that there is not a colorism problem in the DR or that this island society is a racial paradise. However, my experience there has confirmed the fact that yes, although the effects of a racial/color hierarchy are very real, the non-scientific, subjective concept of race itself is not.

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