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Perspective: How Deep Is Skin?


It was the Summer of 2005, and I was preparing to take my first major step away from home.  I had just graduated from Andrews Academy in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and my friends and I were preparing to kick off our college experience in an unconventional way.  About halfway through my senior year, a good friend of mine told me and some of our other mutual friends that he was going to go to the island of Puerto Rico (where his family is from) for college.  He suggested that we should think about joining him, but the application deadline was fast approaching.  At the time, my friends Joel, Ray and I were all pretty certain that we would start our college experience at Andrews University.  This new idea got our minds going, and the three of us decided to see what our family’s thought.  Much to each of our surprise (especially mine), our families signed off on the idea and ultimately we all applied and were accepted to start matriculating at Universidad Adventista de las Antillas in the Fall of 2005.

We floated through the rest of our senior year as this new adventure was all that the four of us could talk about.  What we did not know at that time was that we were about to get a crash course on race, color, and society’s complexion-based pecking order.  About half-way through that summer, the parents of our friend who broached the Puerto Rico idea had a family friend come stay with them for a number of weeks.  He was a pastor from the island who came to take some graduate courses at Andrews. Joel, Ray and I often spent time at their house, and we all got acquainted with this pastor, who seemed like a great guy.  It became apparent that we did not leave the same impression on him.

Those who grew up or attended school in Berrien Springs can attest that there is nothing to do there.  We have two stoplights, a Speedway gas station, a Taco Bell, that one restaurant that is named something different every 6 months, Kozy’s Chicken (which has some of the best vegetarian chicken ever, but is never open), Apple Valley…etc.  Oftentimes when Joel, Ray and I would be “going out” to “do something” we would have no idea where we were actually going when we left.  We would generally end up at someone’s house watching a movie, playing a video game, eating food, and staring at each other.  Those were the (kosher) options, and we rotated them in no particular order.

This lack of specificity led to a great deal of suspicion in the mind of this traveling pastor.  He developed a theory that Joel and I were drug dealers.  We never had specific plans, we were… well black, we just had to be selling drugs. This, of course, was not true.  We were neither drug dealers nor users and it put our friend’s family in a pretty awkward position.  After hearing about this (from another person who heard about his discussion with the family), we decided that it was best that we just confront the guy and ask him what his problem was in the most Christ-like way possible.

That Sabbath he was scheduled to preach at the local Spanish church, so Joel and I decided that we would try and talk to him after service.  We drove up to the church, which was around the corner from Joel’s house, and saw the pastor greeting church goers out front as they left.  We waited until he was done exchanging pleasantries, and approached him asking if we could talk.  My friend Joel went straight for the jugular, and told him what we had heard he said and then asked him why he said that.  A paraphrased version of his response would go something like: when I was growing up, I had two really close black friends, those were my n***** (he used that word, we let it ride), we would drive around smoking and doing drugs and causing mischief and when I see you two with ‘Sito (our friend) I am reminded of those days and I don’t like it!

After hearing his heartfelt story, we assured him that he was wrong, agreed to disagree (I guess we weren’t that convincing) and went our separate ways.  Joel and I just chalked it up to ignorance and left it at that.  It didn’t feel great, but there was no sense staying mad.  We dropped it and did not discuss it with our friend’s family. The pastor left a few weeks later and Joel, Ray, our friend and I started getting ready to make our trip to Puerto Rico.

We were all excited to begin this new adventure.  Our parents kept reminding us that we were starting school, not vacation (we should have listened).  Things changed when we attended the college church our first Sabbath on the island.  We were all excited to experience church in our new home….until we saw who was preaching.  It was the pastor who racially profiled Joel and me as drug dealers.  We came to find out that he was actually the Pastor of the college church.  Needless to say, this made it hard to attend church (at least that one).  We had no idea with whom he had spread his theory on campus (he was a very influential figure in the campus community).  It made it hard to trust people, particularly those who felt close to him (which was practically everyone).  All of this anxiety & mystery about fitting in due to one man’s theory, informed by his experience, regarding the color of our skin and what it meant about our character.

When I first got to Puerto Rico, I was reunited with a childhood friend of mine named Vince and began connecting with a lot of different people who are now life-long friends.  A lot of people assumed that we were all Dominican (because we are darker skinned) so we naturally clicked with several of the Dominican students who were attending the university in PR.  We started learning more about the tension between Dominicans and Puerto Ricans on the island—we felt that tension when we spent time with some of our friend’s local family members (who are Puerto Rican).  We felt a kinship with many of our Dominican classmates and in a lot of ways learned more about their culture than that of Puerto Ricans.

We eventually realized that the majority of the Dominican students that we connected with actually had American roots.  They were either born in the States or moved there when they were very young, so you could say that in some ways they had been “Americanized.”  This discovery led us to find, by the end of our year there, that we had come full circle.  We did not fit in with the majority of Puerto Ricans, so we gravitated towards the Dominicans—who were by-and-large American—which pretty much led to us to sit somewhere in the middle of this tension.  We were not “authentically” connected to anyone who was there, so we in a lot of ways naturally formed a small unit (mostly of other black kids with ties to the States) and went about our business.

We began to learn a lot about the various racial and ethnic tensions—not just between Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, but between Dominicans and any group that would consider them black.  Darker-skinned Dominicans that hung out with us could have easily been mistaken for being African-American.  They would make it clear that they were not, which in and of itself is fine, but I later learned how indicative it actually was of the island’s history of self-hate.  I say self-hate because as much as the conflict in the Hispaniola region is painted as a Dominican vs. Haitian one, the deeper overall issue is a distaste for blackness—especially being “mistakenly” identified as black.

Puerto Rican television often aired offensive (to me) movies (not documentaries) about Dominican families trying to make it to Puerto Rico on small rowboats.  Puerto Rico was portrayed as a land flowing with milk and honey, and the Dominicans were portrayed as desperate.  This led to Dominican students at the school broaching the subject of another group of people—with whom they begrudgingly share land—that do everything they can to sneak onto their side of the island in order to attain a better life.  It would always come off as strange to me that in the face of being portrayed negatively (and wrongly) by a country where the arrived legally to seek an education, they would respond by transferring that exact same negative portrayal onto their Haitian neighbors.

Any sporting event where Puerto Ricans and Dominicans were playing against each other was tense.  Whether it was intramurals at school, or the World Baseball Classic (which I attended), you could tell that the rivalry ran much deeper than the sporting event happening.  There seemed to always be an ongoing jockeying for position (it is unclear what position that was).  I walked away from that experience with both clarity and complexity.  It became clearer that issues pertaining to humans dividing themselves are more pervasive in the world at large than many of us would like to believe, but I still had more questions.  I was introduced to the complex and confusing idea of a group of people—who have been marginalized and ostracized by the other groups around them—putting forth so much effort to marginalize and ostracize persons in their same group.

The things I have expressed up until this point chronicle my personal (short) experience with these two cultures.  It by no means applies to all of the people that we met from those cultures. I have wonderful, life-long friends from both.  It helps in sharing the broader, historical perspective that I gleaned while being immersed fully into that context.  Much of what I share in the conclusion of this article is based on reports and studies that I have re-visited in recent days.

In November of 2013, the Constitutional Court in the Dominican Republic ruled to strip away the citizenship of several generations of Dominicans.  In effect it means: “Dominicans born after 1929 to parents who are not of Dominican ancestry are to have their citizenship revoked. The ruling affects an estimated 250,000 Dominican people of Haitian descent, including many who have had no personal connection with Haiti for several generations.”

It is important to clarify some misnomers pertaining to this ruling.  This ruling is not geared towards people who were born in Haiti and later migrated to DRthey have already been targeted by other actions/measures.  This ruling is directed at people who were born in DR and for all intents and purposes identify themselves (and should be by others), both in color and experience, as Dominican.

There are several articles and documentaries that break down the history of racial tension between Dominicans and Haitians much better than I can.  I recommend the Black in Latin America documentary.  In 1912, the Dominican government passed laws restricting the number of black-skinned people that could enter the country, but the sugar companies ignored those laws.  Many elite Dominicans brought in most of the first Haitians to live on the island and “employed” them as mill workers.  Most of the people who will be affected by this ruling are descendents of those under-paid Haitian workers who were denied basic amenities and were deprived of all civil rights.

America has its hands on some of that racially tense and bloody history of Hispanola.  The November 2013 ruling appeared to be a tipping point-like culmination of some recent and subsequent racially-charged incidents that have polarized DR.  In February of this year, a Dominican-Haitian citizen was found lynched in a public park in Santiago one day after a protest was held there calling for the deportation of Haitians.  Even though the majority of Dominicans would be considered “black” in this country, there is a huge distinction made locally between looking black and being black.  The government has opened deportation, or, as they have coined them “welcome centers” along the Haiti-DR border in preparation for this ethnic cleansing.  Army General Ruben Paulino, head of the Dominican Republic’s immigration agency, has said that they will begin patrolling neighborhoods known to have large numbers of “migrants” today: “If they aren’t registered, they will be repatriated.”

Dominican-born children of Haitian immigrants were refused copies of birth certificates by Dominican officials in 2005.  Officials have re-opened that process slightly, but it is deeply flawed and the backlogs are insane.  Many of the original Dominican-Haitians born in the 1920s were not born in official hospitals (due to their deplorable living conditions) and therefore do not have any of the documentation that would prevent their deportation.  That paperwork would be useless to them anyway because if they had it, it would certainly make it clear that at least one of his or her parents were from Haiti, which would lead to their citizenship getting revoked.  Even for Dominicans who are not of Haitian descent, being born in a hospital is the exception and not the rule.  They are not likely to have the documentation necessary to avoid a trip to the welcome centers.

So the question we are left with is this: how will the Dominican government enforce this?  In a country where the majority of the citizens do not have the documents that will be requested to prove their ancestry, how will officials decide who the “real” Dominicans are?  Cassandre Theano, who is a legal officer at the NY-based Open Society Foundations explained the process like this: 

In reality “cleaning” the Dominican registration rolls to root out fraud and non-citizens entails identifying Haitian-sounding names, then forcing Dominicans of Haitian descent to prove that they are citizens. People are concerned that they will be indiscriminately targeting people who are darker skinned, black Dominicans, Dominican Haitians and Haitian migrants. There is no science behind how they pick people. They literally look at you and decide whether you fit the profile or not.”

Needless to say this whole process is pretty alarming.  It led me to wonder what my church has to say. The Adventist church has 18,000,000+ members globally. The Dominican Republic is part of the Dominican Union Conference (“DUC”) which is housed under the Inter-American Division (“IAD”). The IAD has 12,326 churches and 3,615,843 members.  The DUC (which is essentially DR) has 732 churches and 300,807 members. To date, I have not seen or heard anything from these entities, churches, or members on the topic.  Now I refuse to be unfair.  The only resources I had available to me were their websites.  If anyone has said something (officially or unofficially), please let me know and I’ll update this article.  The larger purpose for me reporting this numbers is to show that we are represented well in the region.  How many of our members will be affected by this?  Do we know, and if not are we seeking that information?  What efforts is the church involved in, both globally and locally, to help Dominican-Hatians deal with the fallout that this ruling will create?

I am praying that our church has good answers to these questions. I know that there are several Dominican and Haitian (and other) Seventh-day Adventist members here in the states that are deeply concerned with what is going on in DR.  Will the NAD stand with the hundreds of thousands of members who feel connected to this issue? (**NAD update below)  As I have discussed in other articles, it is high time that we start speaking up and out about these issues as a church.  We have our own questionable history with race within our walls, so maybe that makes it hard to engage ourselves in what is happening on the other side of our windows.  Perhaps helping to eradicate the racial tension out there will give us a new viewpoint on what we are overlooking in-house.

Is skin that deep?  It may not be to you and me, but it would be naive of us to ignore it in the face of another reminder that all too often, it is the end-all-be-all. 

Joel’s and my story with that pastor had an  interesting ending.  After a week of prayer that was conducted by a visiting pastor from Florida, my friend Joel decided to be baptized. Soon after we learned that the week of prayer speaker was going to have the University pastor conduct all of the baptisms.  That would have been the end of that for me, but my friend was determined to follow through with his decision.

As awkward as that moment was – and it was – the pastor and I learned something from Joel that day: there are things much deeper than our skin that are truer indicators of who we are.  Skin may be deep to some, but it is the deeper matters of the heart which only God sees that ultimately determine our true value. 

**UPDATE: The NAD has released a statement in reponse to the recent shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC:


Michael Timothy Nixon is Legal & Policy Coordinator at The Fair Housing Justice Center in New York, NY. This article was originally posted on his website, It is reprinted here by permission, with minor edits for space and clarity.

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