Black Bodies Seen: Meditations on Mobility, Betrayal, and American and Dominican Haitian Youth

                            By Dr. Cynthia Lubin Langtiw*

In the past two years I have been jarred by disturbing images of assaults on young Black bodies in the American media. 

Tamir Rice, a twelve year old boy, shot and killed by a police officer on a Cleveland, Ohio playground. 

An unarmed bikini clad girl with a police officer kneeling on her back in order to subdue her in McKinney, Texas. 

Michael Brown’s lifeless body on the street in a pool of blood for hours after being shot and killed by a police officer on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. 

In each tragedy, I am saddened and troubled that the representatives of the very system intended to protect Black youth instead violated these individuals’ corporal integrity. Our law enforcement system did not view them as children to be protected, but as the enemy from which society necessitated protecting. 

As a clinical psychologist, I cannot help to think of the impact of these widely publicized events on the psyche of Black youth in America. How can they develop a sense of belonging and well-being as they move through the world knowing the dangers of living in their skin?

This week I was jarred by another image: Dominican born youth of Haitian ancestry protesting their impending “statelessness.” As a Haitian American woman, my heart resonated with the plight of my magnificent diasporic sisters and brothers. These Dominican Haitian youth are not hiding in the shadows. They are demanding to be seen.

Until 2004, the Dominican government, like many other countries, offered what is known as jus soli, birthright citizenship to anyone born in the Dominican Republic, except those whose parents were “in transit.” In 2008, Juliana Deguis Pierre, a Dominican born to Haitian immigrant parents, sought to register for a national identification card in order to work legally and to vote in the Dominican Republic. Not only was Pierre denied the identification card, but also her legally tendered birth certificate was confiscated presumably because of her Haitian surname. Pierre sued the Dominican government and the appeals reached the Constitutional Tribunal, the highest Dominican court. In September 2013, the court delivered a ruling now known as La Sentencia, or the Sentence. La Sentencia ultimately revoked the Dominican citizenship of those born after 1929 to parents not of Dominican ancestry. 

La Sentencia retroactively revoked Pierres’ citizenship, claiming that her Haitian parents were “in transit” when she was born in the Dominican Republic and therefore her Dominican citizenship was not valid. 

Her citizenship was not valid. The country of her birth. 

The country of her children’s birth. 

The only country that she has ever known rejected her. 

She was not a valid member of Dominican society. 

And when Pierre came with her Dominican birth certificate in hand, the officers knew that she did not belong. They knew because of her Haitian last name, her broad nose, her “pelo malo” or “bad hair” and her dark skin (See also, Candelario 2000, Duany 2006). Her blackness did not belong.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Juliana Deguis Pierre’s very long and publicized fight eventually resulted in her receiving a Dominican identification card in August 2014. That written, she still does not have a Dominican identification card for her four children born in the Dominican Republic. However, Pierre’s well publicized story is an anomaly; she is one of few Dominicans of Haitian descent to have been granted the Dominican identification card after the 2013 ruling. La Sentencia and Juliana Deguis Pierre’s experience reflect a long standing anti-Haitian sentiment in the Dominican Republic. It is the very same antihatianismo which allowed dictator Rafael Trujillo to wage the “Parsley Massacre” or “El Corte” killing thousands of Haitian people living in the Dominican Republic in 1937. Haitian author Edwidge Danticat hauntingly captures the painful absurdity of the “Parsley Massacre” in her fictional chronicalization, The Farming of Bones. 



On June 16, 2015, the Dominican government began deporting Dominicans of Haitian descent to Haiti, a country many of them have never known. It is estimated that 200,000 to 250,000 people will be impacted. How will officials know who is a Dominican of Haitian descent? In 1937 it was whether or not one could roll the “r” in perejil, Spanish for parsley. In 2015 officials will find the Black bodies that “don’t belong.” What does this mean for the psyches of Dominican Haitian youth? What has it meant for them to move through their world, the only world they have ever known, being told they don’t belong? They are being ousted from their home country. For many, the only country they have ever known.

Psychologist Jennifer Freyd (2008) has identified betrayal trauma as a type of trauma that occurs when the people or institutions on which a person depends for existence significantly violate that person’s trust and well-being. Betrayal trauma is particularly harmful because one’s sense of trust, connectedness and psychological well-being is compromised.

Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, the young woman in McKinney Texas, and Juliana Deguis Pierre all trusted that their system, their country, their tribe, would care for them. Not only did these systems fail to care for them, but in each instance, “their” systems were the very entities perpetrating the betraying harm. By standing silent we are each complicit in the systemic betrayal of our youth.

So what do we do with this knowledge? One of the reasons I was struck by images of the young Dominican Haitian protestors is that they are not hiding in the shadows. They are demanding recognition. They are demanding that their broad noses, wooly hair and dark skin be seen. They are defining themselves as Dominican and defying the authorities rejecting their identity, their humanity. They are rejecting rejection! 

Similarly, Black youth are protesting in cities all across America demanding to be seen as fully human — to be seen as children to be cared for and not as threats to society. Dominican Haitian youth are demanding that we recognize their Blackness, their Dominican-ness, their social agency and their corporal integrity as they move through this world. We owe it Black youth worldwide to stand in solidarity as they demand their human rights and we ought shout alongside them: 


  “We see you. We feel you. You belong. I belong. We all belong.”



Candelario, G. (2000). Hair Race-ing: Dominican beauty culture and identity production. Meridians, 128-156. 

Duany 1, J. (2006). Racializing ethnicity in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean: A comparison of Haitians in the Dominican Republic and Dominicans in Puerto Rico. Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies, 1(2), 231-248. 

Freyd, J.J. (2008). Betrayal trauma.  In G. Reyes, J.D. Elhai, & J.D.Ford (Eds) Encyclopedia of Psychological Trauma.  (p. 76). New York: John Wiley & Sons. 

* Dr. Cynthia Lubin Langtiw is a Haitian American licensed clinical psychologist and Associate Professor of clinical psychology at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. She maintains a small private practice in downtown Chicago. Dr. Langtiw is also a volunteer psychologist and clinical supervisor with The Marjorie Kovler Center for Survivors of Torture. Her clinical work reflects a strong systemic/community sensibility that integrates a relational cultural perspective. Much of her clinical work has been helping youth, adults, families and communities utilize their own resources to heal from trauma. Dr. Langtiw has a strong passion for teaching and clinical training and enjoys supporting students in finding their voice in psychology.