I was going to take a little time before revisiting the issue of race, but then “that black man” won re-election and it stirred up a lot of race -based talk on social media, which has stirred up a lot more motivation for me to write. A lot of people trying to declare what is and is not racism and who is and is not racist and what the relevance of it all is in our “modern” society. And as I’ve thought about what my reaction to all this discourse is, I keep thinking about an interaction that I had with a Haitian family here in Savannah last week.
I was thrilled when I heard that there was actually a Haitian restaurant here in Savannah and I got the chance last week to go check it out. I went in the middle of the afternoon to try to avoid their busy times so that I could hopefully talk to the owners some. When they found out that I had lived in Haiti and spoke Creole, the owner and head cook brought out my meal of goat and rice and then proceeded to sit down in the booth across from me to chat while I ate my meal. He and his wife ran the restaurant with their adult daughter working there with them also.
The first thing that I noticed about the place was that there was nothing to identify it as uniquely “Haitian”. The name was Best Caribbean Cuisine and everything on the menu was described either as Caribbean or Creole, but the word Haitian never appeared. Even the art on the walls was the typical touristy island crap that you’d find while going on any cheap cruise. I asked the owner about this and he said that people view anything from Haiti as being lower quality, because it’s hard to believe anything can be good coming from a place where everyone is so poor. But the Caribbean is seen as exotic and exiting so it’s much better for business if they market their food in that way. This, in itself, is a sad commentary on our society, but it’s not the point of this particular post.
I continued speaking with him and asked if there was much of a Caribbean population here in Savannah that they were integrated into. That’s when his wife chimed in from over behind the cash register. What she had to say really blew my mind. She said that they had a lot of trouble finding respect within any group here in Savannah because the other Caribbean immigrants looked down on them because they were from Haiti, the “ghetto” of the Caribbean. Other black Americans hated them because they were from an impoverished country, which they perceive to bring them preferential treatment from Caucasians who have a tendency to coddle immigrants from poor countries, and yet those same Caucasians can’t afford their black neighbors who have been in the country for generations with equal consideration. But the wife said that the Caucasians just throw them into that stereotyped “poor immigrant basket” without ever trying to understand where they actually come from or caring about what they are trying to do currently as members of their own community.
I didn’t even know how to respond to all of this. “So you’re pretty much just screwed all around?” I said. They looked at each other shaking their heads in agreement and then the husband told me that they felt really all they could do was focus on running their business well and loving each other because there was no one else to really understand them. There are just so many layers influencing the way that we allow race to affect our interactions that none of us could ever really fully put ourselves in the other one’s shoes to know how if feels. Yet at the same time, I think we all need to be aware of how complex racism can be to those who experience it.
So what does this all have to do with yesterday’s election and some of the comments coming out of it? Maybe nothing specifically, I’ve just heard some people being accused of being racist because they were so angry that Obama won and I’ve heard some of those same people, and some others defending themselves as not being racist for some pretty absurd reasons. I’m not saying that any of these people are or aren’t racist, but I do think that my experience with the family in the restaurant proves a couple of things that are worth pointing out. First of all, it’s not only white people that discriminate based on race. It’s not near as simple as just a black vs. white issue. Not only because this country’s much more than just black and white, but because race is so much more than just the color of one’s skin. I’ll confess that I sometimes have very negative thoughts about white people with no other evidence than their whiteness (probably not hard to believe if you’ve read some of my other posts) and I’m white. This also means that you can’t denounce a group’s accused racism just because there are people of different races in the group. Race is skin deep but racism exists in the minds of mankind and it can coax any of us into drawing those dangerous lines that argue “you” are not “me”.
Secondly, just because you’re nice to someone with a different color skin than you doesn’t mean you’re not a racist. It might actually be the most condescending thing possible if you presume that someone needs your help because of their skin color. Some of the most racist-minded people in contemporary society are the ones who give money to missions at their church or donate to aid campaigns as ways to prove that they care for the poor dirty brown folks. Sorry to put it this way, but that’s how it comes off sometimes, and how it is interpreted by the beneficiaries no matter how good-hearted the intentions were. If you think that you’re not racist because of the various charities, community programs, or global ministries that you’re involved in, then you’re probably involved in them for the wrong reasons to start with because it should have nothing to do with race. Even preferential treatment based on race is a form of racism. Reaching out to our brothers and sisters and children on this planet should be about seeking justice for those whose souls are naturally connected to our own. If we’re trying to fix problems of others that we’ve defined from our own contextualized worldview because we’ve deemed them not just different, but less fortunate, then we’ve got it all wrong. And all too often race seems to be the easiest defining factor that those decisions are based on.
I don’t want to go too far down this path because I could write forever on these things. It’s far too complex for even a couple of blog posts to adequately illuminate. But for now I’ll let these observations stand to represent my current feelings on these current issues. And if you’re ever in the Savannah, GA, area, make sure to go eat at Best Caribbean Cuisine on Hodgson Memorial Drive. Tell em Lee sent ya.