As part of my diversity and inclusion work I am often called upon to share with students my own experiences with racism, xenophobia or bullying. To do so I often channel my experiences growing up as a Haitian-American in New York City in the 80s and early 90s where it was not uncommon to be blamed for the A.I.D.S. epidemic, or my favorite schoolyard yarn, having a classmate come up to me and ask “hey do you have HBO?” Of course, I say yes because I don’t want them to think my family’s too poor to afford cable, only to be undone because they were really just setting me up for the punchline, “you have Haitian Body Odor?” I can no less untangle these experiences from 1980s New York than I can graffiti, peep-shows on 42nd St, or ostentatious businessman Donald Trump.
While I grew up a stone’s throw away Trump’s neighborhood in Queens, age and socioeconomic class kept us from ever crossing paths in the schoolyard. But when I think of 80s New York, his over the top persona is one of the first things that comes to mind. Therefore, when I heard that now President Donald Trump had recently referred to Haiti as a “s**thole” country, and that in June he had allegedly declared “all Haitians have A.I.D.S.” I was surprised—not by the fact that this particular resident of the White House had uttered such a thing—but rather that it had taken so long for him to explicitly name drop Haiti.
You see what I know now, but what it took me some time to learn, are the nuances of how racism works. At seven, ten, thirteen, or even sixteen years old I thought that an appropriate way of dealing with denigrating comments toward Haitians was to either laugh them off, or downplay my Haitian identity in some way. This usually meant giving the impression I was Jamaican or from one of the other Anglophone islands, or by the time all traces of my Haitian accent were gone, simply asserting myself as an American.
However, once I was done laughing it off, or ingratiating myself to some kids at school as something other than Haitian, I would soon learn that not only would the crude jokes about Haitians not cease, but also that either Jamaicans, Ecuadoreans or Puerto Ricans (the other prominent ethnic groups in my neighborhood) would soon bear the brunt of similarly menacing barbs. I eventually learned over time that not only was it important to stand up for myself and my own nationality, but also that I had to be courageous enough to standup and voice my discontent when mine was not the group being denigrated.
This is part of a lesson that I seek to impart to students when recounting the derogatory comments about Haitians that I had to learn to overcome.
Whether the topic is microaggressions, racism, bullying, or the importance of being active bystanders, I share my experience with anti-Haitian bias to illustrate how over time the same person could be a victim, an accomplice, or the person who stands up to help repair the harm.
In terms of President’s Trump’s comments specifically, it should not surprise anyone that the same person who actively discriminated against African-American renters, viciously sought to cast Mexican immigrants as racists, and pursued a ban on Muslims, would likewise not think highly of Haiti. While it may be true that many of us think better of ourselves, and believe that there is far less than racial animus in the United States then there is, we can ill afford to treat the current presidency as a 4-year long Thanksgiving Dinner where an unhinged uncle is holding court dropping one racist, sexist, transphobic barb after another. We also cannot continue pretending that this unhinged uncle is an anomaly that came out of nowhere.
Put differently, for the bulk of President Trump’s adult life, and roughly my entire life, Haiti has been virtually absent from school curricula and pretty much been presented as a “s**thole country” in much of American popular culture. A perfunctory reference to the Haitian revolution and a current events check-in during the Duvalier coup in 1986 were the only mentions of Haiti in my classes that I can recall before entering college. Likewise, when I embarked on a quest to read every book in the children’s section of my local library, the only book I remember finding about Haiti essentially presented it as a once great island that is now…essentially…a “s**thole.” From an early age most of us are taught to think more favorably of certain countries than others and undoing the damage done from this work is an overwhelming task.
For some this may be a turning point moment and your support in countering demeaning characterizations of Haiti such as those uttered by President Trump is welcome. However, for far too many other people like me, this is not a new struggle and one that shall persist long after this media moment has passed.
In closing it is well worth us all remembering that Haiti is no more a “s**thole” than American city streets are paved with gold. And moreover, Americans’ struggle to embrace Haiti’s complex reality is akin to our fight to explicate what binds together, Abilene, Berkeley and Charleston.