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 more than I did against the backdrop of 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. The response would then be “but where are you really from?”. 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 bred 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 DR regardless of being born there. As such, 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 a 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 DR for 5 weeks. Regardless of whether or not 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 DR 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 with whom I still talk to till 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+
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Same footprints, Different sands