Little White Haiti: A Rant
Updated: Jul 24, 2020
Recently, there has been, - as there is every so often - many discussions about race relations in Haiti. It seems every time they happen, specific groups of privileged people, are rudely awakened and feel aggressively shaken by the reminder of what they represent in our current structures. Notably, white Haitians, were yet again grasping at straws, trying to denote their place in Haitian society. As most privileged and color blind people do, they did so poorly, by reinforcing harmful hegemonic thought.
Understandings of race, and racist structures might feel like an American problem, because everything from our languages, to our day to day interactions, have been taught to be this depoliticized, individual experience - even when we might have observed otherwise. As a result, we do not pay attention to the deeper implications our current mindsets may have.
Race in Haiti is not as complicated as the willful ignorance of some would suggest, but it isn’t quite simple enough to be depoliticized.
Where to Begin
An important fact to first consider, is that after gaining our independence, Dessalines wrote our first constitution, where he proclaimed all Haitians to be black regardless of skin color and status. The term black was used ideologically, to create a sense of unity, - conflating blackness with citizenship, and setting apart every [white] foreigner who were then forbidden to step foot in Haiti. In fact, partly due to this, is how the term "blan" in kreyol for (white, or foreigner) is used to denote foreigners of any color, symbolizing how white is being non-Haitian, foreign, regardless of color, because Haitians are black.
Already our understanding of race was different. In the spirit of unity though, we might have ignored the complicated relationship between darker Haitians, lighter Haitians, and whites or mulattoes. His attempt at equality simply no longer applies in this sense. What this mean is, making citizenship synonymous to one specific and unified race, has disregarded important residuals of colonialism - notably colorism and racism.
We did not successfully adopt his idea, to go on and treat each other with no regard for color. The dichotomy is more than evident, and because it is, continuing to see blackness and our nationality as synonymous is dishonest -- if we consider that we have arrived at terms such as "White Haitian(s)", which places Haitian identity as a [legal] technicality.
How do I know if I'm not black?
While race does not have any real biological basis it definitely has socioeconomic, and cultural implications. For those of us who are able to see, if you are dark, it is undeniable. If it was not obvious to you, it will become so later through various forms of oppression. There is for most of us, a realization that we are other. We do not have the privilege of not knowing. Even when we do not have the words to express how we are ostracized, the feeling of discomfort, and not belonging shadows us throughout. With that come a lot of experiences that we are unable to detach from the color of our skin.
However, to this, you may argue that as a white person in Haiti, a predominantly black country, you feel othered. Except, structurally, you're not. We all harbor feelings about various things, concepts and people.
It is important for us be able to denote when those feelings are just from interpersonal interactions, or if there is a bigger structure at play. For a white Haitian person, what you experience may feel like prejudice. You may feel you are different and are being unjustly othered. First question wether what you may be treated like, is unfounded by history. Think of the things you may represent in a society that is affected has been white supremacy, and capitalism.
Ask yourself, what do I lose by being called names? How does that impact my ability to navigate this society? What institution, structure has denied me services, rights, or human decency because of my skin? How am I represented in the media? What are the places I cannot go to? Am I unsafe? Is my sense of self affected, and is that one incident overall represented by bigger structures? How many times has this happened?
You'll find some grounding to continue complaining in some of these answers. Realize however, that 9 times out of 10, with anything structural, you're not at a disadvantage.
Still, that does not mean you aren't black. You may be white passing. The one-drop rule does not apply, look at your parental unit. If we are to adhere to Haiti's traditional nuclear family, which one of your parents is black? If you find yourself unable to answer this, you are not a sacred n*gger.
There may different combinations. To name a few:
- You may have two visibly black parents.
- You may have a white parent and a black parent.
- You may have a mixed race parent (black and other), and a [fully] black parent.
- You may have two mixed race parents (both black + other), who are relatively not white passing.
Combinations that do not make you black: -
- You have one mixed race parent who is racially ambiguous ( mulatto, or white passing) , and one white parent.
- Both of your parents are white.
Congratulations, you're a person of color, or a white person with black ancestry. Please stop at register 2 to cash in on your privileges.
White tears and not being Haitian enough
Now that we've established basic concepts, let's move on to what that may imply for you. While the ones of us who are dark, deal with economic disparities, and many forms of structural and interpersonal violence, you may have in a terrible, terrible turn of events, heard some "slurs" "ravet blan", "blan" to name such an emotionally wrecking few).
This is to denote that you are white, or white passing, and as history and experience has taught the people calling you this, your presence feels parasitic, because people who look like you have taken, but never given to people like them, to the lower class and darker Haitians. It may hurt, but ask yourself, if you are so willing to cry wolf and perpetuate oppressive rhetoric when this is all you experience, imagine the rage you would feel with actual deprivation of resources and rights? Compare that to the "slurs"
Additionally, if you've had the privilege to travel, you may have heard that you do not "look Haitian [enough]".
What sounds like an insult to you, is actually a backhanded compliment, and a spit in the face to all the Haitians back home, you could have sworn were alienating you.
Let us deconstruct what was said.
"Oh wow, you're Haitian. I would've never known. You don't look Haitian at all."
What do Haitians look like?
Let us promptly break down what Haitian identity may entail; We are majorly black. Majorly poor, and in more ways than one, unconventional (beauty standards, religious practices, and our proficiency in colonized concepts or spaces). Not one of these things is perceived positively. Each category separately is dehumanized. Together you have the secret ingredient to a people who are not welcomed anywhere.
They're telling you that you look like you are not apart of this group of people with so many negative connotations. Are you still crying?
The discourse around your belonging cannot happen without us being honest about the fact that as white people (because you are white), you are welcomed everywhere else, and you have the complete choice and agency to choose whether or not you want to claim Haitian identity. Until you open your mouth to profess your patriotism, you are accepted, and understood to be one of them. They do not fear you, and they do not strip you of your humanity. Even when you have spoken, you are still a more acceptable version of Haitian. You're perceived as respectable, delicate, and a person they can easily assimilate into broader collective whiteness (which includes structural privileges).
What about your feelings?
Well, what about ours? Think of what whiteness as a concept may represent to us. Think back to history, and trace it back to the still very violent present. Think about how blackness and Haitian identity are tied, and how both of these spectrum are assaulted in many mediums. Think of the fact that even when the topic concerns you, it still finds itself stabbing your darker counterparts.
There is very little of your feelings to consider, when you realize the broader context.
Black Haitians actually do not owe you to be apologetic about what they think about people who look like you. For every "insult" of theirs to you, there is a structure against them. Remember, you cashed in privileges at register 2. The cashier was black, and no working class dark skinned person was called. Go buy a napkin.
Your sacred n*gger word!
Ah yes. The sacred n*gger word. How dare we reclaim anything? We should know better than to want to have anything!
Recall with me, the times where you have been sick in your Haitian household. You are struggling to nurse yourself back to health, and in between sniffles and coughs, you so happen to cackle at a commercial on Channel 22. How dare you? Were you ever really sick? Wasting everyone's bread for unnecessary soup pen like this! You think ginger is free?
You hear a loud and heavy "Hm', followed by the rhetorical "Se ou menm sa ki te malad la?"
Somehow, because we are oppressed, and because the hierarchy that you pretend to ignore when it benefits you, is dictating that we should not take up space that you cannot penetrate, here you are in disbelief that we would have a boundary.
There is an undeniable connection between you not being to make sense of what this word means, and you thinking you have the monopoly on a word, that you know was never well-intentioned. Not being able to approach this conversation with understanding of historical context and nuance, is a byproduct of being sheltered by whiteness. Yes, the very thing you were supposedly not aware you were, is deeply affecting you ability to relate. Unable to fathom the fact that you are not allowed in a conceptual space, is troublesome for you - because that is not an experience you know. We, however, know it all too well.
Thinking us reclaiming that word suddenly puts us on a leveled playing field with you, means you cannot even analyze the way oppression has helped to shape our experiences, and consequently your privilege (or understanding of blackness). Imagine what else you do not understand!
In parallel, if you are missing such basic empathetic ability towards black experiences, you do not even grasp the way black experiences and Haitian culture are intertwined, which means you are missing a great deal there too. This is also essentially what foreigners refer to, when they are implying you are not Haitian "enough". Sometimes, you are not. Regardless, understand this: You cannot say "nigga".
In some places, you may even get a traumatic brain injury, if you say the equivalent in Haitian creole, which is "nèg".
We spoke of hierarchy. Being allocated privileges because of socialized predispositions is not something specific to whiteness. Men, able bodied, skinny and conventionally attractive people could say the same. Another case is that of Haitian upperclassmen who are dark skinned and are still starting the race with many advantages.
Ultimately however, they are black, and two of their steps ahead, is one of the ones your whiteness affords you (and that can be many). Still, their privilege disconnects them from the rest of their peers. If this is possible even within blackness, try to picture how far from that you are.
You are not a victim. Our first constitution included you, and yet whiteness prevailed reinforcing that you were better for not being black. It is a bit hypocritical to turn around and be upset about it not for us, but for yourself.
Rethinking your narrative
You may speak of your experiences. Still being in our informational stage, means real discussions need to happen. You cannot however, start a conversation you do not have the range to carry, with the confidence that you are holding it appropriately. That is harmful to us, and will do nothing but reinforce the status quo, which continues to feed your self concept (whether you realize this or not).
Written by Daisha Dorsainvil