My White Privilege Wants Little Haitian Girls to Read

So the other day I was sitting, chilling with some friends here when I decided that I had a hankerin’ for some fried food. (I’m a farm boy from Iowa, so yes, I get hankerin’s.) plantainsSo Papi and I went to get some plantains and pork from our usual vendor, only on this day she didn’t have any fritay for some reason. So, since my roommate, Christophe was sitting right there, Papi and I borrowed his moto and headed up the mountain a little way s to the next vendor. At this vendor’s place we were given two chairs to sit on on their porch while they brought us two Prestige and a plate full of the best grio I’ve ever had in this country. Seriously, I’m officially transferring my fritay allegiance to this vendor. It was definitely worth the extra drive up the mountain. But none of that’s really the point. This isn’t a post about delicious fritay, it’s a post about race (again).

Because here I was, at this new fritay place, just enjoying my pork. I didn’t know this vendor or any of her family. I couldn’t tell you any of their names although they all clearly knew me and acted like I was an old friend that they’d been waiting to see for a long tie when I showed up there. Then, while Papi and I were eating, here comes the vendor’s husband with a sly grin on his face, dragging their little daughter behind him. He stood her right in front of me in her bright pink checkered kindergarten school uniform, looking ashamed to be alive.

“Mister Lee,” the Dad said, “I want you to have a talk with this girl. Every school book I buy for her, she just rips the pages out of. She doesn’t understand how important and how valuable these books are. She doesn’t want to learn. No matter what I do she just doesn’t respect her education and she keeps ripping up her books.”

I looked at him like he just asked me to tell a fish how to fly. I racked my brain searching for reasons why this stranger would think that my encouragement would hold any weight on this young girl’s scholastic future. Because I’ve built a school so clearly he knows that I believe education is essential for all children? Or maybe because I’ve coordinated sponsorship programs that prove that I believe that every child deserves a chance to learn as much as possible? Or maybe because I’m a writer and have published books myself, so obviously I hold books, in general, in very high regard? Maybe somebody told him what a great blog I write for? But even if any of these reason meant anything to the father, they clearly meant absolutely nothing to the 4-year-old girl that he drug behind him. So, why on earth would hi think that she would give any extra respect to what I had to say about books and learning opposed to anyone else? Because I’m white. He didn’t ask Papi who was sitting right next to me, and has spent 2 years in the US, and was paying for the fritay and beer what he thought about her books. He asked me. Because my skin is white. And having white skin in this country means that I”m automatically assumed to be more educated, more sophisticated, and more worldly than all of the darker skinned Haitians around me. And so when my white mouth tells this little black Haitian girl not to rip up her books, it means a lot more than if any of the other black Haitian adults around her every day told her the same exact thing.

So, realizing this, rather than getting irritated by the inverted racism behind it, I embraced it and used it for the sake of this little girl and her relationship with reading. I reached out my hand and told her to come talk to me. Taking her hand, I gave her my best impromptu lecture on the importance of reading and how she should treat her books like friends of hers rather than destroying them. I tried to encourage her to embrace her schooling as a vital step towards building a brighter future. (And then a rainbow stretched out over my head and songbirds sang.)

“Do you understand?” She nodded her head.

“You won’t rip up anymore books?” She shook her head no.

IMG_1051“Promise me?” She nodded again. Then I let go of her hand and sent her back to her father. He smiled at me like I had turned water into wine and walked away with his daughter leading her into a future that was apparently looking a little brighter because my white privilege wanted her to read.

I don’t know if my motivational speech really made any difference in how that little girl will think about books from now on, but I do know that her dad will always have it to use to remind her. Whenever she doesn’t want to read or wants to rip her pages, I know her dad will be saying, “Don’t you remember what the white man told you? I don’t think the white man would be very happy if he saw you right now.” And although it’s true that a very large part of me is very uncomfortable that that is how our world operates, if my being white helps that one little girl to grow an interest in reading, then so be it.

Those of us who actually possess this privilege based on absolutely no merit of our own but based on the tone of our skin need to ask ourselves what we’re using that privilege for. Are we acknowledging the privilege and using it to make our voices heard as a force for good? Or are we denying the privilege and yelling at everyone, “Don’t call me blan!” pretending that we don’t see color?” There’s a very fine line between using white privilege as a tool for effective allyship and advocacy, and falling into the white savior complex where we exploit the privilege to establish an illegitimate superiority. But being aware of that line and being sensitive to the complex histories and feelings that exist on both sides of it make it worth trying to find more ways to fall on the side of using racial influence for sincerely positive progress. Whether it’s for fighting for more just law enforcement, more diversity at the Oscars, or just trying to get a little Haitian girl to read, we can’t pretend that race doesn’t matter. And the sooner that we all recognize that and find ways to work through it together, the sooner we’ll arrive at a place where someday, maybe, it really won’t matter at all.Donate

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3 comments

  1. Beautifully stated, Lee. I’ve been in the same position more times than I like to admit. I always, always try to use it for positive as you’ve so powerfully & honestly stated.
    In Belize when the teachers or the administrators would turn to me simply because I was white, I would always turn it back around and say, ” I don’t have all the answers. All I have to offer is this certain skill set in connecting you and the students with books & Stories & some activities that have seemed to be effective in various schools & a ton of enthusiasm, I turn to you for the Stories, for the culture, and for your wisdom. This white skin doesn’t have any more value than your brown skin. Let’s learn together. I value your Stories & culture, it has much to teach us.” It seemed to help. But I was also painfully aware of how sometimes I was listened to simply because of my white skin. We’ve a long way to go, but at least we are talking about it.
    thanks for the work you do and your willingness to talk & write so openly about the real challenges and issues! Honored to call you friend!

  2. While I generally agree that white privilege can be leveraged in accountable ways, I think the continual recurrence of this kind of situation should eventually lead us white folk to be more creative and help undermine what it can lead to in the long run. By this I mean white folks familiar with Haiti should be able to anticipate that these kind of situations will recur and that we/they should have some constructive, deep ways of responding. I think yours was a valiant attempt and produced a certain positive result around reading (and if you manage to know her as a teenager, you or your Haitian friends could introduce some wonderful Caribbean French or Anglophone writers to her like Cesaire, Fanon, Glissant, Kincaid, Paule Marshall, Maryse Conde or Stuart Hall that would confront and destroy the assumptions of white intellectual supremacy). But as your own doubts suggest, it opens up questions about the continual reference to white people’s opinions as having more importance. If it’s engrained in children’s minds for another generation, it poses even more difficulty in undoing that sort of internalized inferiority. It’s something I struggle and will continue to struggle with in Haiti. By way of a hypothetical, would it have been too difficult to say what you did, then turn to Papi and ask him to put in his opinion as well. Rather than going back to the father whose opinion she was resisting (and who hasn’t resisted a parent’s advice), what if there was an acknowledgement of an independent Haitian voice that was right there for her to hear and creating the space to show how a white person who has immense privilege also deeply values the opinions of other Haitians and will cede social and intellectual space to them, thereby showing how white folks don’t ever have the full and correct answer as if scripture (or are the only ones who can turn water to wine). If Papi had then taken the opportunity and run with it, this might have modelled the kind of social justice and racial justice that we have to create in the world through all acts, big and small. Thank you for sharing your story here and I look forward to thinking through these difficult and complex encounters for a long time to come. – matt in mizak

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