Step 1: Be white in an all black community.
Step 2: Do something. Anything.
Clearly I don’t think I’m a racist. But the racist never does. The racist is always the first to shout, “I’ve got tons of black friends!” However, I do admit a tendency towards bluntly honest interaction with people which sometimes leads to people getting offended. No race is immune to this tendency, I am honest with any human I encounter without even considering his or her skin color. Yet, because I am a white man in a very not-white community, any time that someone doesn’t like something I say or do, it runs the risk of automatically getting labelled as racist. If I don’t want to eat the mayi moulen (corn meal), I’m racist. If I don’t give 10 gourdes to the beggar, I’m racist. If I’m a day late on getting my staff paid, I’m racist. If some Haitian guy yells an insult at me because I’m white and he doesn’t think I speak Creole and I yell back an insult on his mother, I’m racist. If I don’t sleep with the Haitian girl that’s hitting on me because I’m white and perceived to have money, I’m racist.
I’ve gotten used to it, although it still hurts to hear. As someone who has always tried to live without letting racial, cultural, socioeconomic, or religious labels define me, being called a racist is one of the most offensive things possible. And it’s got some stiff competition because I get called plenty of offensive things here (and I’m the white guy that people actually like). But if someone wants to yell something nasty out at someone, it’s always going to land most easily on the guy whose skin reflects the most sunlight. The one who’s a different color always makes an easy target, I get that. And I don’t let it bother me too much. I simply embrace being blan. But when it’s someone that you’ve known for years and have helped out in many ways who is supposed to know by now what your intentions really are who takes the easy way out of anger by blaming it on racism, it exposes some realities of our human race that are hard to accept.
I’ve been on the receiving end of this recently and it was so upsetting to me that it brought me to tears, and I’m not a person that gets emotional easily. The person calling me a racist, one who I considered a close friend, didn’t think anything of it, because it made sense within the moment that he was pissed off at me and looking at my white skin to call me a racist. There are a million other things that I wish he would have called me if he was that mad that would have been completely appropriate within the situation, I won’t name them here because my mom already thinks my language is too dirty on this blog, but you can use your imagination. ANYTHING would have been less hurtful than racist.
But after having a little talk with myself I started to think about how we’re taught that racism is such a horrible thing in our culture even though our ignorance leads to greater racism. We talk about it all of the time. Any chance we get to turn a news story into a racial issue, we do it, in many cases legitimately. I was just on a news site today and there were stories about racism in Martha’s Vineyard, racism towards Oprah, the Trevyon Martin’s still being talked about, we make sure that everyone knows what an issue it is. We at least are willing to have a national dialog about it, whether we’re making progress is still debatable (evidenced by the many news stories). And that’s the culture that I come from, so I make it into a very big deal when someone calls me that.
But it’s very different to be called racist when you are the clear minority. We usually think of racism as something that is perpetrated upon the minority, not by the minority. How can I be racist when I’m the only white guy here? Of course, there’s lots of things going on here, going back to Haiti’s scarred history with racial exploitation and its current state of being portrayed as victims by the humanitarian world, that makes it almost make sense here.
It’s not that it’s not talked about here but it’s talked about in a much more generalized shared struggle sort of way in which all Haitians are the victims of the world’s racism. Which is strange, because being racist is a pretty accepted part of Haitian culture. The things you’ll hear said about Dominicans here are horrible and one of the greatest insults you can call someone here is Afrikan. (I’ve written 742 words and I still haven’t gotten close to what I’m wanting to say about this.)
Let me put it this way: I’m white. I come from a very white place. I grew up on a farm in northwest Iowa where my father would gather every morning with other local farmers at the neighborhood repair shop to drink bad coffee and tell racist jokes. All of my siblings, cousins, and extended family are married to other white people and they have lots of white kids. Our family get-togethers are about as diverse as the bowl of mashed potatoes that Grandma whipped up for the event. (Ingredients: potatoes, milk, sour cream, maybe some salt). It’s a family that I love, but none of them can deny just how white we all are. I’ve brought friends to these family gatherings that are very not white and everyone’s always very friendly to them but in the back of my mind I still hear Sesame Street singing “One of these things is not like the other…”
But I’ve never brought these friends to family gatherings in an attempt to provide diversity, I simply bring friends that I care enough about that I want them to meet my family, they just happen to not be white. But at the same time we all know that we can’t just pretend like we’re all the same. I don’t expect my uncle to pull up a chair next to my friend and excitedly ask, “So, tell me what it’s like being black!” Yet there’s got to be a healthy dose of awareness that this bowl of mashed potatoes is pretty weird to them too.
Yes, race provides us with different life experiences, different physical attributes, and different communal histories, but really isn’t it time that we stop using it as an excuse for anger, for hatred, for misunderstanding, for generalized judgements that dilute the human spirit? Can we each please find a way to be proud of our own race without damaging the dignity of another? I know, judging by the news page it seems like a distant dream, but even if the goal seems far off, there are steps we can begin taking and it starts with being honest about the way we talk about it and not being afraid to talk about it in the first place.
I recently read the book, How To Be Black, by Barathunde Thurston. It’s actually the reason that I got called a racist by my friend who wasn’t fluent enough in English to understand the satire in the title. But even in the US I would be reading it in public and get pretty strange looks from people, because obviously, why would a white man want to read about being black? Because black people exist on the same planet as me and some of them are pretty damn funny, like Thurston. Because race is a real thing and we’ll all be better off acknowledging how it affects our lives without allowing it to detract from our ability to live life together on this same planet. Because sometimes you’re gonna get called racist whether it’s true or not and your best defense is knowledge and understanding where the other is coming from.