Racism

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

Why Ferguson Matters To Me and Mizak, Haiti

It’s been almost 4 weeks since Michael Brown was shot by police officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Missouri, sparking protests and rallies for justice in that city and across the nation. At the time, I did not add my voice to all of the commentaries on what happened beyond sharing a few links to other articles on the net, but my silence was not due to any apathy on my part. The fact that I hadn’t written about Ferguson yet was not because what happened there did not hurt me deeply as a human being, or anger me as an American who depends on the same system of justice that Michael Brown did. I hadn’t written simply because I got busy doing other things and got lazy with my blogging. I allowed my voice to go unheard and continued to contemplate these events internally while I renovated an old farm shed into an art studio, and spent time with my adorable new niece and other family, and focused on writing cover letters and updating resumes for the job search that I’m currently engaging in. But now that the shed’s all cleaned out, my family has moved on back to their lives, and all my applications are sent in, I wanted to sit down and share some feelings on what happened to Michael Brown and what has happened to our society. I share these thoughts now, knowing that it will never be too late to do so because such incidents will continue to occur as long as we collectively allow them to fade quickly from our consciousness and into a jumbled bag labeled “THAT’S REALLY TOO BAD”

Although it might be hard to really put a finger on the feelings that have come out of this situation, for myself, I think that most of them have to do with this guy:

Sony

This is Sony. He is the 22-year-old reason that I’ve stayed active in Haiti as long as I have. He became my friend very early on when I first moved there in 2007 and hasn’t left my side since. He is the one who taught me how to speak Creole, how to play kasino, how to navigate the market and who to buy the best freezy pops from and how to understand the culture on a deeper level. He has helped me build my home, build a photography business, build deep relationships within the community, and build a network of collaborators for a number of projects. He was with me when I made my first hike to the southern coastal community of La Montagne, and he was with me when I danced behind my first sha at Kanaval, and he was there when I had my first Prestige on the beach at Raymond. He was also there by my side the moment that the earth shook on January 12, 2010. And he’s still there every morning to see what my schedule is for the day and how he can be involved in it. He’s my standard motorcycle driver, my house manager, my dog caretaker, my comic relief, and my constant dose of reality. He is my roommate, my good friend, and my brother. I have many good friends in Haiti, but none truly quite like Sony who have been through so much with me. He is one of my favorite people in the world.

And yet, some people can’t understand why he’s one of my favorite people in the world because he is also, undeniably, one of the rudest, most stubborn, and most self-centered people in the world. He is unapologetically honest in his opinion, often to the point of seeming cruel. He won’t hesitate to tell you that you look like horse vomit or a zombie fart if he doesn’t like your outfit or your hairdo. And if he thinks you’re being selfish or unfair, he’ll be the first to call you out on your white privilege and criticize you for treating poor people like dirt. He boldly believes that he deserves to be treated like a human being and treated just like any wealthy white person should, which comes off as an offensive sense of entitlement to anyone who doesn’t believe that of a young Haitian man. He can be abrasive and obnoxious and will sacrifice a supposed friendship with someone long before he compromises or apologizes for who he is. When he’s confident that he doesn’t need to be your friend, he’s not going to go out of his way to become such. Still, I couldn’t be more thankful that he decided to become mine.

Sony is the type of guy that once you really get to know him, you can’t help but love him. But if you don’t take the time to get to know him, you’ll probably want to shoot him. He’s the type of guy that if a police officer pointed a gun at him and accused him of something that he knew he was innocent of, he’d probably tell the officer exactly where he could shove that gun of his while insulting his mother in the process. He wouldn’t get belligerent or resist violently, but he also wouldn’t lay down and wait to be cuffed and he certainly wouldn’t keep his mouth shut.

Sony is the type of young, black, male who, if he was stopped by a racist cop in the US for some reason (or walked onto a racist gun owner’s porch to ask for help, or tried to buy a toy gun in Walmart) would have a high likelihood of getting killed just for being young, black, and rude. I know it’s likely because in this country even the nice, polite, young black individual’s get killed for no reason. So Sony, with his big mouth, would have no chance of surviving a racist here.

And that’s when I’m thankful that out of all my roommates, Sony is the one who honestly has no desire to ever come to the United States. The others might get lucky with their attractive smiles and gentle demeanors if they were confronted by an American gun-wielding racist, whether in uniform or not. But Sony would be so easy to criminalize that if he was the victim of such a shooting, that he too would have thousands of people taking to Facebook and Twitter saying that he deserved it and calling his killer a hero. He too would be called a thug and demonized for the many aspects of his youth that so many in this country somehow believe justify his death. He wouldn’t have a whole lot of people in his corner but he would have plenty of people coming up with lists of reasons why this happened when the truth is that there is no reason.

And if that happened it would be me in the position of Michael Brown’s mother. Except for the fact that I would have my white privilege that would allow many more people to listen to my words and take them seriously when I said “No more.” If I said, “Justice.” They would be interpreted differently coming out of a white mouth. And yet, I know that if I was actually in that position, there is no way that I would handle it with the composure that she has. There is no way that I would be able to “protest peacefully” like so many in the Ferguson community and beyond have done in the wake of Brown’s death. I would be the first one lighting tires on fire in the streets and throwing rocks at the swat teams. I wouldn’t be able to contain my fury. I’m too patient and reasonable of a person in the rest of my life, if I had to deal with something like this personally, I would become unhinged so quickly and so dramatically that I’d probably be giving them a real reason to arrest me before I had a chance to speak out.

And for that reason my heart remains with the family of Michael Brown and the people of Ferguson who are almost out of the public eye already because Jennifer Lawrence’s nude photos were leaked. For that reason my heart is constantly going out to the victims of senseless racially motivated violence in this country, most of whom never get to be in the public eye at all and never get their cries for justice to be heard. My heart is with them because my heart for so long has been with Sony and so many others like him who deserve a chance at life no matter what color their skin is, what age they are, what mistakes they’ve made, or how likeable they may or may not be. Because we all deserve that chance no matter what.