It was my first service trip. I was still studying psychology at Rutgers University and had a budding interest in community service. So in the summer of 2013, I swapped classes for a plane ticket and traveled with a group of 18 other students to the D.R.’s capital city: Santo Domingo.
The Dominican Republic [D.R.] is an island nation in the Caribbean that shares a border with Haiti.
One of the first things I noticed about our group was that I was the only black girl. A fact that was made more apparent when we walked the streets of Santo Domingo, El Limón, Cabarete… and just about every city we visited. Passers-by would call out “Negrita” “Negra” [meaning black girl] or Amara La Negra who you might know if you watch Love and Hip Hop Miami, or are familiar with the music scene in the D.R. Some people would tell me I looked like her but when I finally saw a photo of the artist, I couldn’t see a resemblance.
Having lived 13 years of my life in Nigeria, there was a lot in the D.R. that felt familiar. Busy streets, vendors in the middle of traffic, an abundance of fresh fruit to buy, and a majority of dark-skinned people. The last thing I expected was to stand out starkly because of my darker skin.In a group populated by white females, I expected THEM to stand out in a nation filled with people of dark skin. For some reason, that wasn’t the case. I wonder now if it was because locals were accustomed to seeing more white travelers. Was it strange to see a black girl, wearing an Afro, walking with a group of people who look nothing like her?
I was often asked if I came from the bordering country of Haiti – a question I assumed was asked based on my skin color. Unsure of whether to answer with the country I was born in or the one I lived in, I would reply no and say that I came from the U.S. Then the response “but where are you really from?” would follow. This baffled me. Was the question motivated by the color of my skin as well? I had no issues saying that I was born and raised in Nigeria, but sometimes people would assume that it’s where I just traveled from and comment on how long the journey must have been to get to the D.R. In reality, it was a 2.5 hr flight from Miami. During an in-country history lesson, I learned that Dominican sentiment towards Haitians was and still isn’t favorable. In fact, many Haitians who have never been to Haiti cannot claim citizenship in the D.R. regardless of being born there. They often face harsh realities like deportation. I was told by one of our hosts that because of how dark I was, people would mistake me for being Haitian, but I wouldn’t have any problems because I was surrounded by a group of obvious Americans. Back then, I didn’t address the comment, but in retrospect, I find it unsettling. Simply because of the color of my skin, I was vulnerable, and my protection was my company of white colleagues.Now I have to point out that I am speaking from a place of privilege. I was working and traveling with an international organization on a U.S. passport, and I was only in the D.R. for 5 weeks. Regardless of whether I could be mistaken for Haitian, I had proof that said otherwise.
Although I didn’t receive any unfair treatment [at least none that I noticed] and would return to the D.R. solo or otherwise, I wonder if these facts would have been different if my initial experience with the country was on a solo trip or with a group of people who looked like me.
In the 5 weeks I spent in the D.R., I learned a lot about the country’s turbulent history, visited several cities, and made friends I still talk to, to this day. This isn’t intended to scare or deter anyone from visiting the D.R. Rather, I wanted to use an aspect of my experience to contribute to a conversation on how being black influences our travel experiences at home and around the world.
What have your experiences been as a black traveler? Share your stories and thoughts in the comments section.
Thank you for reading!
All photos shot on an old DSLR and edited on my iPhone 8+
Same footprints, Different sands
I enjoyed reading this post, Tiese. It was all very thoughtful and insightful. Thank you. Regarding my travel experience as a black woman: there is a lot to say but what is most striking or surprising to me is the treatment I receive as a dark skinned young woman which differs from the treatment people with lighter skin receive, especially older people. I recall at a hotel in Liberia for instance when I heard staff say “good morning sir/madam” whenever guests who were not Black passed in front of them but never to me. Once, just for kicks, I said “good morning” to a security guard and cleaner who didn’t respond. In Tunisia people called dark skinned people “monkeys” and talked about Africa like it’s a foreign land. In Senegal, when I was out with someone with a lighter complexion than me, the person got all the attention – the speakers faced them when they answered questions, gave directions or explanations. These are just a few examples of situations when I was made aware of my skin tone even on a continent where most people look like me. || http://www.lorikemi.com
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I’m glad you enjoyed it! Thank you, girl. Sigh, Colorism is such a pervasive problem & the continent of Africa is not immune. Even if we just want to look at how popular bleaching products are. Being dark-skinned is perceived as less than, and the darker you are, the worse it is in some countries. Soaps and creams promise to lighten for “better” skin which sadly equals better treatment. And I think it’s so important for us to have conversations about it continually so that our experiences bring change rather than become swallowed up by the norm. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences.
Wow, this sucks! The Liberia and Tunisia incidents are just crazy. On a slightly different note, I love how the conversation in this post is focused on the problem itself. Because in an attempt to address colorism (or slightly similar issues), a lot of people actually become perpetrators themselves.
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Thank you! & I know right? Loriade’s comment was quite insightful. Yess, I think t can be hard to navigate, write & talk about these issues, one has to be careful not to perpetuate the issue, or be judgemental while trying to address it.
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