50 Shades of Black

Featured Image: School children in the Dominican Republic demonstrate the range of skin tones present in that country. [Source]

Sorry to disappoint, but this post has nothing to do with the book or subsequent movie of the similar name. Just a shameless ploy I am afraid, using the play on words to get your attention. Not only have I not read or seen the Grey versions, with my background in photography, 50 Shades of Grey makes me think of this:


Which in case you don’t know is a chart used to get the right shade balance in a black and white photograph…

Moving on from the gratuitous reference, this post is really about something that occurred to me the other day: how different countries deal with classifying skin tone, a hot topic these days. The Dominican Republic has a rather unique way of describing skin tone in shades of black, albeit not 50… Let me begin with what sparked all this the other day.

I was leaving a department store here in Miami with my children and my son saw a girl he used to go to school with. “See that girl ahead in the skirt?” he said and pointed ahead of us, “She was in my class last year.”

There were 5 different girls in skirts ahead of us so I looked for the girl closest in age to my son and said “That black girl over there?”

“No!” my son exclaimed, “The girl in the green skirt.”

“That’s the one I mean.” I said.  “She’s not black, she’s brown.” Marcos retorted. Indeed so she was. A few of the skirted girls were dark skinned and of them there was one darker than my son’s friend. So Marcos was actually correct in his distinction and it caused me to realize how in American culture, anyone with dark skin is called “black.” I’m not sure if it is politically correct to even call someone “black” anymore but most would agree that “brown” is not considered any better. Our family is very multicultural, kids that are Dominican-American and their step-dad who is South Indian. Black or white is not an issue in our family — skin ccolor is never a cause for judgement.

But not all families are like ours. It was that day that I realized that I, as an American, naturally described skin color in a way that was so very different from my son who id Dominican. In the U.S. we describe people by race: Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic, etc., and by skin color: white, black, etc. In the Dominican Republic, however, Dominicans are all a mix of African (slaves that were brought to the island of Hispaniola), Spanish (who “settled”, aka, conquered, the island) and Taino, the native “Indians” of the island. Because of this ethnic mix, skin color is quite varied and therefore classified in a range of definitions on their government ID. There is “blanco” for white and “negro” for black (note that negro [NEH-GROW] is the Spanish word for black and also the word used in English originally to describe African-Americans [NEE-GROW]) but there is also “indio” which translates as “indian” but is used to denote light brown skin and “moreno” which describes brown skin. It doesn’t stop there. They also add the terms “oscuro” for “dark” and “claro” for light so someone might be “indio oscuro”  (dark indian) or “moreno claro” (light brown).

As in the U.S., and it seems across the world, light skin is valued more than dark in the Dominican Republic. But, unlike countries with distinct racial groups, the Dominican Republic has had to come to terms with the mix. My children’s father was “moreno”. His mother was “negro” and his father was “blanco oscuro” — he had light skin and blue eyes. So politics give you a better skin description on your license — you might be “indio oscuro” even if you have coal black skin but it’s all a label in the end and the people know that. The funny thing about breaking skin color into so many shades is that in the end you realize you are only a shade or two away from anyone else. Unlike the distinct black or white, in the Dominican Republic, the name given your skin tone may belie the political connections you have but beyond that it is a crapshoot — there is no clear prediction of Dominican with Dominican, of how their child’s skin color will turn out. The racial mix is that great.

Right now, here in the U.S., we live in a country where skin tone can make a big difference. A  few teenage boys who are white, huddled in a group, might be ignored. But if those same boys were black, the people who saw them in a cluster would probably call the police. In the United States we don’t think of white, tan, brown or black, we think of right or wrong, good or bad and white or black.

My children don’t have to worry about this really. They look white and mildly Hispanic. They blend into multiracial groups and stand out slightly in all white groups. But, just a slight shade darker and all would be different…

I remember when my son was a baby and we went to visit friends who were very white in skin tone, the kind of white where you lather in sunscreen. I remember the mom of my friend’s husband commenting how my son was “so dark” and it really struck me. To me my son looks white and for all intensive purposes he is. But compared to my very very white friends, he had a the glow of a light skinned Hispanic — he was a shade (or two) darker.

It all comes down to shades. There are so many colors and shades in the world. Maybe if we got creative in how we described skin tone: a bit of burnt umber mixed with golden ochre… we would stop seeing it as a divide but rather as the color of life. What makes a person good or bad is what is inside. No color tells you that.

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Eliza Alys Young, aka CreativEliza, is a free spirit, world traveler, creative expert, and part of multicultural family… Eliza shares her time between the US, Dominican Republic and beyond. When she is not caring for her high-energy kids, writing her poetry or for her blog, creating art or cooking up a storm, she is designing for her own company, Design Intense.

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