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On Dominican Identity: Thoughts from a Dominican Psychotherapist




Image credit to @Firelei Baez.

As a Dominican Psychotherapist practicing in New York City, I have helped many Dominican clients explore and come to terms with their Dominican identities. Below I share some of the insights I have found! I thank my Dominican clients for their willingness to come to therapy (for varying reasons), destigmatizing mental health. I am also grateful for their openness to explore their ambivalence with their Dominican identity, which has inspired me professionally and personally!

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One way to start exploring our Dominican identity is to pause the intellectualizing, and start the feeling! It can be so easy to intellectualize certain social identities, since most are social constructs that do not have any inherent meanings (i.e. what is a "woman?" "Man?" American?" "Dominican?").

However, intellectualization can often be a defense mechanism to cope with HEAVY feelings. So often it is easier to ask why (are Dominicans this or that way) and what (is a Dominican), but the important question is how do you feel about your Dominican identity?

As much as social identities do not fundamentally mean anything, they also mean a lot! These identities have caused both deep emotional pain and deep emotional strength. Many social identities were built to discriminate against others based on ideas of inferiority and superiority, which rely on making others feel unworthy, insecure, and low self-esteem, (as well as unconsciously cause them to internalize racism or self-hatred). But social identities also have been a source of healing, belonging, joy, and community. Hence, though there may exist profound pain and intergenerational trauma in the Dominican identity and community, there is also powerful strength--accepting both the pain and resilience is necessary in understanding our identity.

Another crucial thing to remember is that there is no definition of what it means to be Dominican. When folks talk about someone being “too Dominican” or not being “Dominican enough,” it is important to become curious and more specific about what the person is exactly talking about--because (ultimately) one may come to the realization that no definition exists. You may know someone who was born, raised, and still lives in the DR, but for whatever reason gets judged for not being "Dominican-enough," even though they are obviously Dominican (since it is their nationality).

The Dominican identity is (of course) a valid shared identity--we can definitely bond over being Dominican, as well as the historical struggles and oppressions we have gone through. Finding a sense of belonging with other Dominicans is a beautiful thing! However, some Dominicans may have experienced deep moments of rejection and judgement within the community, which does not make them feel accepted. When folks feel that others are rating "how Dominican" they are--be it by the color of their skin, how they're dressed, how they talk, how they don't talk, etc. folks may feel hurt, disconnected, resentful, etc.

Meanwhile, other Dominicans may feel pressure to connect "just because we're both Dominican," causing them to feel anxiety and shame. Sharing a social identity does not mean you will be completely compatible as friends, and that's okay.

In essence, feeling judged by other Dominicans does not create solidarity or community. Folks who may judge your Dominicanness, or hold a static definition of what it means to be Dominican, will find that they easily get offended or defensive when they meet someone that does not fit their definition. Unfortunately for them, they will undoubtedly be challenged by the infinite ways of being Dominican because infinite ways exist.

Practicing a non-judgemental attitude, and not putting ourselves in artificial boxes is something we can all probably work on. Being unattached to a fixed definition of what it means to be Dominican can decrease anxiety and defensiveness. Accepting accountability for being different from others, and being open to experiences with other Dominicans is a way to honor the differences in others, and in your unique self.

At the heart of it all, I believe that healing our in-group conflicts with the Dominican identity centers around 1. pausing the intellectualization, 2. asking yourself/ourselves how you/we feel, 3. accepting both the pain and strength in our community, 4. being less judgemental, and 5. being more open to experiences with other Dominicans. Ultimately, it is about healing individually and together!

Jasmine Cepeda is a Psychotherapist and Licensed Clinical Social Worker working in private practice in Brooklyn. She is currently holding virtual sessions during this quarantine! She is also the writer of "12 Ways to Cope With Your Latina Mom & Her Difficulties: a guided journal: Available on Amazon! You can follow her @betternowtherapy

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