Last week, I was walking in downtown Cap-Haitien with my aunt, who was visiting from North Carolina. After visiting the tourist market, where I had helped her negotiate a deal on some souvenirs to take home, I suggested that we walk over to the public square just a few blocks away and see the Cathedral. When we got to the square, a man asked me if my aunt was my mother. Having learned from experience that people often say lewd things in Haiti about white women, I shook my head no and kept walking. My lack of communicativeness seemed to agitate him, however and he began walking alongside me, growing more and more animated and asking lots of questions in rapid-fire succession. When I tried to ignore him, he got mean.
“You know we slaughtered lots of white people in this square, right?” he said, pointing towards the park and referring back to the days of the Haitian Revolution. I kept walking. He then launched into a diatribe about the evils of slavery and the oppression Haitians have faced in every other country but their own.
“When Haitians go to your country, the police beat us. They put us in chains. They send us back in cages like animals! When you come to our country, we let you enjoy our beaches and our mountains and our architecture”—gesturing toward the cathedral originally built by the French in the 1700s—”and we never bother you at all! We’re civilized and you’re barbarians!” he declared proudly. He was inches from my face now and had been harassing me halfway around the park.
“What do you have to say about that, blan?” he asked, obviously satisfied with himself.
“I think the civilized thing to do would be to leave me alone,” I replied. At that, he grew even more upset. I tried to reason with him, but any time I spoke, it only seemed to fire him up. He got cruder, mixing profanities in with racial slurs, growing ever more agitated. At one point, he pressed his chest up against my right shoulder and put his face inches from mine as he followed me. I think he wanted to bait me into hitting him. (That way, he could say I picked a fight with him and try to extort money from me to put him in the “hospital.”) I ignored him, but made a point of keeping myself between him and my aunt, who was by now looking very worried. (She had made him even angrier by snapping a picture of him with her iPhone in case things turned violent and she needed to identify him to the police and he was now yelling at her as well.)
As we passed a group of men sitting on the sidewalk playing dominoes, I tried to get them involved. “This guy’s harassing me,” I said. “I haven’t done anything to him, and he’s cursing at me!” They could hear everything he was saying since he never stopped insulting me, but they ignored the situation and kept playing. They may have been afraid he would come back and target them later that night if they had gotten involved. Part of me wonders, however, if they just enjoyed seeing the white man suffer. About following us for about four blocks past the square, the man inexplicably relented and turned back (but not before warning me not to come back).
Afterwards, I was fine until my aunt started asking me questions about it. At that point, the swirling mess of emotions inside me boiled over and I burst into tears. I couldn’t sort through my emotions at the time, but looking back, I know that I was embarrassed since this is precisely the sort of thing I never wanted my aunt to see about Haiti. I was angry at the injustice of what had just happened to me. I was ashamed that I wasn’t able to make it stop. I was hurt in a way that I hadn’t felt in years (similar racially-tinged verbal attacks were a recurrent feature of my childhood). Most of all, however, I was just profoundly tired.
“So this is what I get for coming back here!” I kept thinking. “I have to regularly ask people for money just to live here. I don’t get paid. I quit my job, left the comforts of home, intentionally chose downward mobility, and this is the thanks I get!” My mind raced through grievances, through every way I’ve felt undervalued and unappreciated in a culture where people often feel entitled to foreign benevolence. Just last week, I gave a friend a brand-new English Bible for Christmas (he’s been learning English) and tucked $50 into it. He never even thanked me. I thought about all the loneliness I’ve experienced here, the nights I’ve spent awake on my bed wondering if I made the right decision by coming here. I wondered if anyone would even notice if I was gone. I was tired of being taken for granted.
I was also tired of living in such a race-conscious society. Haiti is the only country I’ve ever been to where there are ten different words to define the particular shade of black a person happens to be. Typically, the lighter-skinned a person is, the more social prestige they hold. This is a holdover from the French colonial era, when mixed-race children were considered a higher class than slaves and were given an education. (Racial tension between these two groups persists to this day.) I have never been able to understand, however, why in modern Haiti so many people continue to perpetuate this system. I was once asked after preaching at my church to pray for a baby girl who was sick. Before I could even ask what was wrong with the child, the mother apologized for the girl’s blackness, telling me, “I have one that’s prettier (lighter-skinned) at home.” Haiti is a country in which anyone who is not Haitian is called blan (a word that literally means “white” but really means “foreigner”—even a black Haitian who grew up in the U.S. is a blan in Haiti). It is also a country in which anyone who is not black can never be Haitian. Whereas a Haitian born in the United States is automatically an American citizen, I—despite having been born here and speaking Creole fluently—can never be Haitian because I am the wrong color. I am a perpetual outsider, not only to mean men on the street but even to people I have known my entire life.
After being harassed, I cried for about an hour. I tried to talk sense into myself, but it was no use. I hadn’t been rejected for anything that I had done, but for what I was. I’m not sure that that kind of pain ever fully goes away. Since then, I have been continually reminding myself that the vast majority of people I meet here are kind. I remind myself that Jesus said we would have a cross to bear, that we are not entitled to comfort and peace in this life, but the next. I meditate on the fact that Jesus went to the cross for those who hated him and endured its shame for the joy set before him. I try to keep in mind that many of the problems in this country have roots that go back to injustices perpetrated against black people by white people. I am to the point where I won’t be making my decision on whether to come back next year on the basis of one terrible experience. It still hurts, though, and I think it still will for a while regardless of whether I am here or somewhere else.