I am writing this blog with a very general topic but it will actually be very specific because I cannot truly speak for all Americans who live here in Haiti, only for myself. I do, however, believe that at least a few of these will probably resonate for every American who has spent an extended period of time in Haiti. I am also writing this with the backdrop of some challenging race relation issues happening in America. The truth is that I could never really speak or write with any knowledge about racism in America because I have never felt it. All I can speak from is my experience here, and my experience here is not really racism at all. What I do know is that to be thought of or treated differently based on the color of your skin or the country where you were born is a very difficult thing. It can be lonely, frustrating, sad, difficult to comprehend, and at times it can make you angry. When you live in a different country or when you are clearly different than almost everyone else around you, there are certain assumptions made about you which are sometimes right and sometimes wrong. To make things even more difficult, these assumptions can vary widely based on the experiences of the people who you are with or even your geographical location. For instance, I would assume that the racism that exists in Southern California would differ greatly than what exists in my hometown of LaGrange, GA. Likewise, the way Haitians in Port Au Prince view Americans must be much different even than the way Haitians in Gressier (the rural area where we reside) view Americans. Let me restate, there is no way that I could ever truly understand what it feels like for people to be treated differently in America because of their race or gender. The truth is, as a white man, I will never understand what a woman goes through or what a man of any other color has to endure. As much as I could try and empathize, I just will not be able to do it. But I can relate my experience in Haiti because we truly are treated differently here. Some of these will be funny, some unimportant, and some will be very serious in nature, but all of them are ways that you can be alienated based on the color of your skin.
- Every Haitan assumes you like Coke. Unfortunately, they are right on this one. Coke is one of the few American treats that are very easy to come by here. The funny thing is if you come to a person selling drinks and ask them what they have, they immediately tell you they have bottled coke and pull one out for you. I guess we are a little predictable in this area!
- Every Haitian assumes you can give them a job. I’ve written about this in a previous blog post, but this is one of the most difficult aspects of life here. Jobs are so scarce (another topic I have written about) that if there is even an outside shot that you may have something to offer, people are all over you. They stop you on the street, come by your house, and even send other people to tell you how desperate they are. The hardest part about this is the hope that you see in a man’s eyes when he comes and asks you for work only to see that hope destroyed when you tell them that you do not have any. But at least daily, we are forced to tell someone new that we do not have a position available.
- Children will come from all around to tell you they are hungry and ask for 1 dollar. This is something that I will never get used to. The truth is, the vast majority of these children probably are very hungry, and when they see an American, they see money and they see someone who may give them something. I thought that I would eventually get used to this because it happens so often here, but trust me, you never do.
- You will get charged more to purchase the exact same thing. This is just true. If you go into the market to buy something for yourself, the price will be marked up. The funny thing is that this really irritates me when it happens and then I think about what the markup actually is. For instance, not long ago I went with a friend of mine to buy some bananas from the market. When the seller told us the price he got really mad and told her that, “GOD is watching you” and he told her that she could not be a Christian and give that price to me. The markup…5 Haitian dollars which amounts to less than $0.40 for about 60 bananas. Now, markups will vary based on what you are buying and who happens to be selling it, but it is a way of life. Also, when I took the kids shoe shopping, I always had to pretend like I was not with them so they could get a better price on their shoes! (Now, thinking back, it may have been more that they were embarrassed by me, but I will blame it on the price thing)
- You have a 90% better chance of getting pulled over by the police than a Haitian does. There are probably many reasons for this, none of which do I want to discuss, but it is true.
- People will talk about you right in front of your face because they assume you don’t speak creole. Everyone assumes because I am white that I will not understand Haitian Creole. It is a normal assumption to make, but it is just funny what people will say about you without even trying to hide it. I always just ignore it, but if I am with a Haitian, they always look at me to see if I understood, and I always nod my head to let them know.
- You will be treated like an invalid when it comes time to do work. This is actually pretty funny. I am not sure if this stems from the fact that Haitians think we are lazy or if they have seen enough Americans try to do manual labor that they just want to spare us the embarrassment. Either way, I am not allowed to do any manual labor around my own house. In fact, if I am bringing water back to the house (we purchase 5 gallon containers of drinking water) and I try to lift one out of the car, our security guard actually tells me, “You cannot do that.” I’m not sure if he means I physically cannot lift the bottle or if I will offend him if I do, but I am quite literally twice his size and he will not let me pick anything up.
- You are an immediate target for conmen and thieves. This happens for a couple of different reasons. The first is that it is assumed that if you are American you have money. This is the first time in my life that assumption has been made about me, but the assumption is largely correct…compared to Haitians, Americans do have money. On top of that, most Americans are actually gullible. We listen to every sob story we are told and we just assume that they are true and people know this. As far as thieves go, we are targeted because we have things that other people want. In fact, when we arrived in Haiti this past May, someone climbed into the back of our truck and tried to steal one of our suitcases. Luckily it weighed over 70 pounds and we saw them at the last minute. But we are definitely targets.
- Everyone in the area where you live will know your name (and your 10 month old daughter’s)…Even if you’ve never met them. This can be a little scary at times too. People that I have never seen before in my life will ask me how Sophie is. I always tell them fine and then it hits me…How do they know her name? This is nice and shows the importance of community, but it is also a little weird sometimes and makes me want to be extra careful with my daughter.
- It is hard to find a close Haitian friend because many want to befriend you for the benefits you could bring. This may be the toughest aspect of life here. I understand that friendships in America are the same way, the difference is that I grew up in America and have had time to develop and maintain friendships based on trust and shared experiences. I do not know how this will ever happen here. I’m sure it will one day, but it can be really difficult to not wonder about why someone wants to be your friend or to really trust that they do not expect something in return. I understand that this is as much my problem as theirs, but it is still difficult, and it takes time to begin to trust no matter where you are.
I want to reiterate that I have no idea what racism feels like and I am not trying to compare my experience with anyone else’s. The truth is much of how we are treated here stems from how Americans and other foreigners have treated Haitians in the past mixed with the fact that, from a purely material standpoint, Americans on the whole have more than Haitians…it’s just true. All I can do is share how difficult it is to be thought of differently for no other reason than where you were born, and I know I make this same mistake towards Haitians. It’s not their fault and it’s not my fault, we are just from different places and have grown up in different cultures. The point of this blog is that, for probably the first time in my life, I am beginning to understand what it is like to be judged before ever speaking a word just because of how I look and where I am from. I understand how ignorant people sound when they try to describe who I am without knowing anything about me. I understand how it feels to stand out in a crowd almost every day, and not in a good way. I understand how it feels when people make assumptions about me based on what other people who look like me have done. I believe, within our community, we are starting to find a home and be accepted for who we are rather than how we look. However, our community is small and as soon as you venture out, you can feel how much different you are than everyone else…Even though you are not.
It reminds me of what happened as part of our story of rescuing our kids from where they used to live. In the last few weeks and days before we were able to take our kids to Hope Rising, we heard from numerous people that the community surrounding the orphanage, led by Audancin, were trying to turn our kids against us. They tried numerous things, but probably the most effective and hurtful is when they began telling the kids that Jess and I were like the French slaveowners and that Audancin and the orphanage was like Dessalines (the leader of the Haitian rebellion that ended up freeing the slaves from French control and turning Haiti into the first free black Republic in the world). Our kids were told that they had to fight against us to keep their freedom or that we would turn them into “blans” or foreigners and they would forget who they truly were. That is an extreme example, but there are assumptions made about us as Americans based on years of American organizations doing “ministry” here. These assumptions and how we are viewed can be so draining sometimes because they are never based on who you are, but what you look like and where you live.