On a recent day of understanding human nature, I had a conversation with a pleasant woman. She was Latina, with good energy and a pretty face. While I poured her some coffee, she abruptly exclaimed, “You… are DEFINITELY Dominican.”
Given her zeal, I felt bad having to tell her that I, indeed, was not Dominican. She didn’t believe me but I insisted that I was, in fact, Black. We laughed about it and she enjoyed her Starbucks Blonde Roast coffee. I wish her nothing but a wonderful life of getting things for free.
When I went back to the main coffee distribution hub fondly called the “mobile cafe”, I repeated this interaction to a few of my coworkers. “Wait, I thought you were Domincan, too!” I was shocked.
Now, I like Dominicans. Not to use the lamest excuse in the diversity handbook, but one of my closest friends in high school was Dominican. In fact, that following weekend at breakfast, I told him this story and he understood how it could be. He said he was darker than me. No one, he argued, would obviously assume I was black, as black is casually defined.
As an Oreo, I’ve naturally gotten used to people I encounter assuming that I am anything other than just Black. “Yeah, I get that you’re Black but what else?” Well, nothing. This used to bother me but now I’ve come to expect it. I like to think I’m a pleasant blend of unexpected contradictions but they all could never add up to being Dominican.
Now, there are worse things to be called than Dominican. Hell, Dominicans are “in”. I recently started watching MTV’s “Washinton Heights” and I genuinely enjoy the show and the people on it. Drinking on rooftops with BBQs chicken has been my dream for five years. If that’s what I Dominican is, I’ll take it. (Although, I give them much more credit than that.)
Two summers ago I discovered human nature by handing out coconut water. After a long Saturday working at Fire Island, I got on the shuttle which took about ten or so people back to the Long Island Railroad. A woman on the shuttle completely went on a rant about Dominican men. Dominicans are [INSERT MEAN THING]. Dominicans are [INSERT MEANER THING WITH PROFANITY]. Given the time, no one was particularly interested in this woman’s personal life but on and on she went. Until suddenly, she stopped, turned and said to me, “Wait, you aren’t Dominican, are you?” In a spirit of half sleep and half irritation, I smoothly remarked:
The whole shuttle started cracking up. I did too. It was as if in that moment, I’d dodged a bullet by being black. Which might be a first. Although I wish it was not that way.
This whole Domincan thing got me thinking. Am I responsible for telling people that I’m black, if I’ve discovered that most people won’t make that assumption? Probably not, just in the same way that a gay person wouldn’t be responsible for telling people that he or she were gay. Most people generally like me. Regardless of the race they assign to me, I’m a person people don’t mind working with and getting to know. In that way, I don’t need to terribly worry about my racial designation.
And yet I’m growing less and less comfortable leaving that fact up to assumption. I don’t want to be black when it’s convenient or Dominican when it’s convenient or racially ambiguous when it’s convenient. Whatever situation, I want people to acknowledge that they’re dealing with a black man. That when I am successful, it is more than just a personal success. It is a success for blacks in America. When I fail, it is a shame to my community as well. The things I say and the work that I do are all to represent both myself and the people who made it possible.
The next time someone asks me “se hablo espanol?”, I’d love to be able to say yes. Not because I’m Dominican. But because I’m black and some black people know how to speak Spanish. This wouldn’t make me more than just black. It would be evidence of how talented black people are entirely as themselves.
If the universe had decided to have me live life as a Dominican, I would have done so no less enthusiastically than I do now as a black person. But, I’m black. For better or for best. To my Dominicanos, we are still brothers. Just not biologically. Only in love and in friendship.