What She Sees

When my daughter was born, complications at the hospital made it so that we were discharged before we established breastfeeding.  I was desperate to nurse her, believing that it was the healthiest start for her, and I was already wary from pumping around the clock.  Our pediatrician advised me to go to a particular lactation center near my home. “Don’t worry,” he assured me; “They’ll get you on track.”  And he was right: Magalee* had me breastfeeding during my very first visit to the center.  It took over 2 months for breastfeeding to become comfortable for me, and I returned to her on an almost weekly basis.  Some of the visits were comic:

Me: It still hurts when she latches on!
Magalee: Okay, put her on the breast….
Magalee: What the heck is that?  That’s not what I taught you!
Me: Well, the book said—
Magalee:  What did I tell you about those books???

Over the next year, even after breastfeeding was firmly established, Magalee continued to be a guide for me as I learned to take care of my baby.  I called her with whatever questions or concerns I had, and she always responded with the same patient and encouraging attitude she had during my first visit with her.  Her belief that I could take good care of my child eventually encouraged me to develop confidence in my own parenting abilities.  As months went by, I learned more about her.  I had always detected a Haitian accent, but she had blonde hair, white skin, and green eyes. I eventually learned that although her ancestry was Syrian, she had been raised in Haiti.  I learned that she dreamed of opening her own restaurant.   “Your leaving this center will be such a loss,” I said to her; her skills, and the success of the center, were legend around the city.  “But you have to follow your dreams.  I’ll come to your restaurant!,” I told her.

As the baby grew older, I spoke to her less and less, although I recently ran into her at our pediatrician’s office for my daughter’s 18-month check-up.  It turns out she has been taking her own son to the same doctor since he was a child, and he was now in for a check-up, even though he was almost 18.  “Magalee!,” I exclaimed when I entered the waiting room.  I was so excited to show off my baby–now a walking, talking, fantastically engaging toddler–to her: “Can you believe this is the newborn you first helped me nurse?,” I asked.

As I waited to be seen by the doctor, we got to talking about Haiti, and why her parents eventually left the country.  She told me the disturbing story of how her parents were robbed at gunpoint in their home, but miraculously escaped alive.  I shook my head and said, “It’s so sad; the country is in such ruins, and just thinking about the work it will take to rebuild it is overwhelming.”  She responded with:

“Please; Haitians don’t even like their country; they destroy it.  They’re hostile to us, calling us white cockroaches.  They don’t see that we’re helping advance the country.  We’re starting business, and employing them.”

When discussing developing countries, people often fail to take note of the history behind the country’s economic state. As has been addressed by scholars, Haiti’s suffering can be traced directly to the isolation and economic rejection the country faced at its inception, as punishment for being the first black country in the Caribbean to successfully fight for its independence. Haiti’s suffering can also be traced to meddling in its domestic affairs by more powerful countries like the United States. Haiti’s suffering can, for sure, be tied to ruthless autocrats and dictators that have taken advantage of the country’s resources for personal gain. Haiti is not, however, suffering merely because its inhabitants “don’t like their country.”

Uninformed by historical context, it is easy to blame the inhabitants of disenfranchised communities for their poor attitudes or mental outlook; for failing to “appreciate” what they have, even if what they have is barely anything, and even if the critics themselves are so accustomed to having plenty, that it’s unlikely they would be “grateful” to share the fate of less well-off peoples. I recently read an article about George Washington, who believed that slavery was a fair deal. In his mind, slaves should have been happy to work to the best of their ability in exchange for food, clothing, and shelter.  It never seemed to occur to him that his slaves would not think it such an equitable arrangement.  Suggestions that Haitians are irrationally resentful of the wealthy foreigners who make money using Haitian labor echo Washington’s sentiments. While nobody deserves to be called a “cockroach” just for making a living, surely one can understand how frustrating it is to know that in your homeland, Syrians have likely been given advantages you will never be given to get ahead.  That knowledge is not any less painful just because those Syrians have now thrown you a few bones.

The comment didn’t surprise me–I’ve heard such unsubstantiated critiques of people of color before–the source did. As soon as the words left her mouth, I realized that Magalee didn’t really consider herself to be Haitian at all. Rather, she was a Syrian living in Haiti, blaming the people of color around her for many circumstances beyond their control; mistaking pain and frustration for apathy and laziness. She wasn’t at all who I thought she was.

Although I thought her comment reductive and ahistorical at best, racist at worst, I didn’t say anything in response.  I was standing in front of an examination room, my child—stripped down to just her diaper—on my hip, as we waited to be seen.  Babies and parents were all around us, and nurses were scurrying to and ‘fro.  It just didn’t seem like the time or place to get into a debate about the state of race relations, politics, and economic disenfranchisement in Haiti.  And even if it were, I wouldn’t have known where to start.  Instead, I furrowed my brow and nodded, indicating to her that I was listening.  As I sit here now, reflecting on the encounter, however, I feel sad.  It hurts to think that this woman who I respect so much, and who was such a source of support for me, has racist and uninformed ideas about Haitian people; about my people.  I had thought Haiti was something she and I had in common, but now I see that we see Haiti from two different vantage points; and that I don’t like what she sees.  I’m disappointed that I failed to offer up a snappy-yet-elucidating response.  So what if the timing was poor?; sometimes, people need to be checked, right? Finally, I wonder whether, if I had said something, I could have even changed her mind at all.

*Not her real name.

2 thoughts on “What She Sees

  1. I’m confronted with this all the time; the issue of timing and propriety. And most of the time, truth be told, I throw caution to the wind and speak my mind. That opportunity may never come around again.

    I have a really good friend who ascribes to your last statement; she quickly takes account of whether saying anything would make a “difference” and decides on whether to speak based on that. I say that you never know. The most racist, sexist, homophobic, right-wing person might just be enlightened by what you say if those particular words strike them in just the right way – you never know. Your assessment of their inability to change might be wrong. And what I think is worse is the implicit signal that silence gives – that you are perhaps co-signing. Against silence, people are bold. Against silence, people can believe that others think the way they do. That emboldens folks, it allows them to believe they are not the only ones who feel this way. And why shouldn’t they? Nobody spoke up.

    That’s why I always try to speak up. It’s hard when the space and time seem utterly wrong. I did this with someone of higher status than me at a holiday party this year. He made a comment about how people in the Middle East were “backward;” I politely explained that I disagreed with that viewpoint and expressed why. Now at a party where everyone is drunk, perhaps political conversations are not the way to go. But he brought it up.

    The pediatrician’s office is probably one of those spaces. But she brought it up; she made the incorrect statement. Even a cursory, “Hmm, interesting perspective, I can see how that’s hurtful, but I can’t say I agree with your ultimate conclusion” could at least set the boundary to say, “you might have thought I was going to co-sign that, but you were wrong.” A long conversation may not have to ensue. But the thought it out there. Just like you thought twice about her, perhaps she would think twice about you. Or maybe she would say, “hmm, someone that I thought of being very intelligent thinks differently than me. I wonder why?”

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    1. You’re totally right, Toya–even a simple “oh, I don’t think it’s as simple as that” would have been enough. At the same time, it wasn’t just an issue of correcting her. I was also struggling with issues of friendship and respect. In that moment, I thought of how correcting her, or challenging her, might make her feel. In response to my “well, it’s not that simple,” she’d probably say, “no, of course not, but you know…” Her face might have flushed, and I would have felt like I embarrassed her. Here was also a woman who was significantly older than me, and who had lived in Haiti herself, unlike me who only has distant ties to the island. Something felt wrong and arrogant about pushing back on her in that moment; about ME so confidently telling HER what the deal was. I’m almost certain I would have been more willing to push back if she were my peer. Finally, the mental shift that occurred took me by surprise. This was someone I considered to be a friend, and mentally trying to reconcile who I thought she was with who she revealed herself to be overwhelmed me in that moment.

      Ultimately, I still agree with you that I should have said something. And I also believe that we can’t be afraid to “embarrass” people when they’re wrong. The truth, in all places and all times, is beautiful. Finally, I’m not sure she gave me as much thought in terms of respect and friendship as I gave her. But as we all know, it’s not always easy–especially when we deal with loved ones. When someone we love is wrong, our heart can cause us to pause even as our brain is telling us otherwise.

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