by Saudi Garcia (Department of Anthropology Doctoral Student)
Activity buzzed around me in the nearly empty-space of the salon floor as I sat on a small stool and managed the phone line, cellphone and the locked glass door. At 10 AM, a call rang through the landline and on the other side, a young woman began speaking through what I sensed were tears. “Can I speak with Carolina?” She asked. In that moment, I was unable to immediately transfer her to Carolina Contreras, the owner of Miss Rizos salon and a public figure in what is the growing natural hair movement in the Dominican Republic. Instead, I asked if there is anything that I can do to help. I wrote her phone number and the details of her story in my cellphone and passed it on to Carolina via text message.
The woman on the other end of the line was Fátima Gónzalez Méndez (aka Nicky) a political science student from the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo. After applying and being accepted to her program of choice and being notified of receiving the scholarship, only to have it withdrawn, Nicky decided to lobby at MESCYT for a scholarship that would enable her to study and live in the Basque Country, Spain. On the morning of July 26th Nicky had gone to the office of the minister of higher education in Science and Technology (MESCYT) in Santo Domingo to lobby. In her words, the minister in charge of the scholarship selection process, Ligia Amada Melo, dismissed her efforts to obtain a scholarship, telling her that she does not give scholarship to people with “pelo como tu” (“Hair like yours”).
Nicky has afro-textured hair, a copper-colored Afro that halos around her face. The implications of the statement by this public figure were immediately interpreted to be discriminatory against people who wear their hair in curly or afro styles. This form of discrimination is common in the Dominican Republic where women, girls and men experience exclusion in various sectors of public life due to their appearance.
Until 2013, the Junta Central Electoral forced women with afro and curly hair to straighten it for their national ID card pictures. Female bank tellers offering customer service at the country’s major banks are barred from wearing their hair natural and other women have been denied entry into commercial establishments for similar reasons. Young men in poor neighborhoods are arrested and their hair is shaved as a standard policing tactic. In May and July, several young women took to social media to denounce being denied entry to their schools because they refused to straighten their hair. These restrictions are often upheld in the name of “buena presencia” or good appearance. However, they are indicative of the translucent coating of respectability politics that permeate life in Dominican, and Caribbean, society.
Nicky’s story is exemplary of the possibilities and the challenges for anti-discrimination activism in the Dominican Republic today. Her narrative and the subsequent responses (both supportive and disparaging) are indicative of the state of anti-discrimination activism in the Dominican Republic. First, her narrative exhibits examples of the kind of ‘ego-collapse’ and entry into the zone of ‘non-being’ that Frantz Fanon discusses in his text, Black Skin, White Masks. Such encounters with “non-being” arguably make socially uncommon actions possible. Second, social media, with its capacity host public forums and disseminate information rapidly, is allowing activists and community members to mobilize through hashtag activism and other forms of creative resistance. Finally, the events following Nicky’s declarations are indicative of the barriers and support that individuals wishing to publicly denounce discrimination in the Dominican Republic may encounter. Such barriers may include physical violence, defamation, silencing and lack of policy change in public institutions.
The ‘ego-collapse’ of discrimination
Nicky tells an audience of four in the morning news show El Mañanero that she froze in place that morning at the MESCYT office. She was unsure of the words that she was hearing and approached the minister once more to ask that her case be examined. She was told, “No insista joven, yo no le doy beca a personas con pelo como tu,” (Don’t insist young woman, I do not give scholarships to people with hair like yours). When Nicky realized the implications of these words, tears streamed from her eyes. Most around her avoided her gaze, while one young woman consoled her, telling her that perhaps faith had not destined the opportunity for her.
Many Afro-diasporic writers have ruminated on this moment of being made to stand outside of the self and view it as racially marked. Frantz Fanon writes, “I arrived at the world anxious to make sense of things, my spirit filled with desire to be at the origin of the world, and here I discovered myself to be an object among other objects.”[i] This moment of questioning turns bizarre once the subject finds that they have entered into a zone where they are viewed as object rather than subject. Thus, Fanon’s ego conceptually collapses into a zone of non-being, of objectification, where ontological security is momentarily lost.
Claudia Rankine tackles this moment from the perspective of language:
“For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person. After considering Butler’s remarks, you begin to understand yourself as rendered hyper-visible in the face of such language acts. Language that is hurtful is intended to exploit all of the ways that you are present,” (49)
The verbal and the visual interact in a moment in which traits associated with African heritage are not only made to stand out , but also judged as inadequate. The difficulty of moving on from these moments of verbal or physical exchange that demonstrate the presence of white supremacist ideologies is a core theme of Rankine’s “Citizen.”
The verbal exchange at MESCYT is a moment of discrimination is a rip in the seam of the Dominican and Latin American myths of racial democracy and liberal citizenship. These narratives arguably require the erasure, creolization or commodification of African and indigenous forms of difference. In order to continue existing as citizens of the liberal state, evidence of difference in the body politic, and perhaps most importantly, discriminatory treatment based on these differences, must be silenced. This perhaps explains why the Dominican Republic’s government consistently denies the presence of structural discrimination and racism in the country and has been slow to adopt a vigorous anti-discrimination stance in its public education and cultural policies[ii]. In this case, the deconstructive force of the minister’s alleged statement was noticeable enough to reach the ears and eyes of the body politic.
Hashtag activism and meme aesthetics
Nicky arrived at her office and published a post on Facebook sharing what happened to her that morning. She tagged ten friends and family members. The narrative would eventually be incorporated into a photo that included an image of herself and Minister Melo. By 4 PM, the photo is circulating widely through social media and on the many Whatsapp groups that I have joined this summer. Racial justice activist groups like Accion Afro-Dominicana and Afro-Alianza Dominicana share the story on their platforms. By 5 PM twitter users have made #Ligia a trending topic and the progressive media outlet Acento.com have picked up the story. Some call for the minister’s resignation, while others claim that the situation was a “misunderstanding.”
Using the hashtags #YoSoyNicky and #Cerodiscriminacionconmipelo, women begin to post photos of themselves with accompanying text that states that their hair texture is not connected to their level of intelligence and that their life with their afros will be led with dignity. As the debate continues, memes begin populating social media accounts and WhatsApp groups.
As Paget Henry writes, the space of ‘non-being’ offers the possibility of resistance when managed creatively. The memes that emerged from the national conversation about discrimination exemplify a form of creative resistance that employs linguistic and visual strategies of juxtaposition and intertextuality. In one meme, the minister holds a blow dryer with the letters “BECA” printed on it and the phrase, “A personas como tu no se les dan BECA.” In another, one of the minister’s official photos is superimposed onto a bottle of hair straightening cream. In yet another, a photo of the lead character of the movie “Pelo Bueno” (2015) is captioned with the words “When you only want half of a scholarship.”
In order to understand the messages of these images or to glean the humor that some of them are intended to communicate, viewers must activate their prior knowledge of the racial and gender politics of the Dominican (and arguably Latin American) social context. In understanding the messages embedded in these images, individuals experience a semiotic conversation about Dominican racial politics and practices. In circulating them, they both tacitly agree with the message shared (unless otherwise stated) and extend the conversation to others who may in turn create forums for public conversation and action. Memes are one of the many egalitarian tools of digital media activism, one that appears innocuous and humorous, but that has the power to shift conversations happening in social media, where it is rumored that government bureaucrats hire anonymous individuals for this explicit purpose.
Demands for Policy Change
Nicky attempted to ask for the phone numbers of the people who had witnessed the incident, but they all refused to testify in her favor. Publicly speaking against a government minister, and consequently, the office that holds the key for many Dominican students to obtain further credentials abroad, would close the doors to the kind of patronage necessary to obtain a scholarship. As Nicky would later point out, there are examples of hundreds of cases of discrimination each year, but very few people are willing to publicly come forward and describe the incidents that have happened to them and name the parties involved. While Nicky is unable to move forward with a legal suit without proper testimony, the incident motivated Accion Afro-Dominicana to collect signatures denouncing the discriminatory policies of the nation’s educational institutions and demanding change.
Ligia Amada Melo was interviewed for commentary by local news immediately after the incident. In her commentary she admitted to mistreating Nicky by ignoring her request because she looked ‘desaliñada’ or untidy. However, without a public apology or a promise for policy change in public institutions, the comments are tacitly in line with the current lack of state policy to implement constitutional articles and the clauses of several international treaties.
During this debate, some social media users claimed that Nicky’s alliance with the ruling party, her trip to Haiti and the fact that she has straightened her hair in the past discredit her narrative of discrimination. Claiming that a citizen-subject is actually of Haitian descent is a tactic often employed to challenge the validity of claims to everything from citizenship to the presidency. Some examples of this are the 1994 campaign against presidential candidate Jose Francisco Peña Gomez and the denationalization of more than 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent in 2013.
On August 11th 2016, representatives of Accion Afro-Dominicana and fifteen other civil society groups signed a detailed public letter in support of the implementation of anti-discrimination policies in public institutions. Accion Afro-Dominicana also gathered a group of mostly women in front of the Education ministry in order to protest discrimination in the education system and the violation of several articles of the constitution. Among the group’s demands is“the modification of the national curriculums to include anti-racist education that is critical of colonialism, that highlights the struggle of Afro-descendants and that is more reflective of the social reality of the Dominican people.”
When the group of women leading the efforts went to deliver the signatures they gathered, they were denied entry into the public ministry and were verbally and physically harassed by an employee of the ministry, an action that was documented on camera.
Nicky’ allegations and the public controversy that they caused created a moment of crisis that disrupted the normalcy of public and private forms of discrimination in Dominican social life. The incident has created a window into the institutional life of the country, one where clientelism and discrimination are normalized. It has put into question the respectability politics that are inherent within public life that dictate the kind of treatment that an individual will receive in public spaces. Lastly, it demonstrated that a movement to safeguard the constitutional rights of Afro-Dominicans can generate mass support, at least in the digital sphere. Such a movement has the potential to challenge other forms of discrimination in Dominican society, such as anti-Haitianism. The circulation of criticism and rumors can perhaps be interpreted as a response to the threat of exposing aspects of a social condition that have remained unchanged for a long time.
[i] Henry, P. (2002). Caliban’s Reason: Introducing Afro-Caribbean Philosophy. Routledge. (80)
[ii] “We express worry due to the affirmation in the periodic report in which the Dominican Republic states that no racial prejudice exists and that the state has never considered it necessary to condemn racial discrimination in the sense expressed in the 2nd article of the convention, given that no country can affirm that in its territory no discrimination exists, or be sure that no forms of discrimination will arise in the future,” (Comite para la Eliminacion de la Discriminacion Racial en Latinoamerica y el Caribe, 2001 report).