A conversation about race
The birth center is a busy place these days, filled with many visitors from North America. Gone are my early days here when I delivered baby after baby by myself with few resources, electricity or people. My work has evolved from being a midwife to developing standards to trying to work with an ever-changing pool of volunteer and student midwives.
There is food to prepare, protocols to share, customs to reinforce, language lessons to give all side by side with births, sick babies and emergencies.
Here at MBH, lunch is the main meal of the day. It is served after a busy clinic schedule and many of the Haitien staff that works in the mornings, stay for this meal. It is traditional Haitien food and is most often composed of a grain and beans with a sauce that is cooked on the charcoal stove. It is a difficult meal to prepare, as it requires much chopping, grinding, mashing and cooking. Sometimes the sauce may have a little chicken or fish but more often than not it has local greens and spices.
Each of us come to lunch after we have finished seeing our last mom or baby; carrying with us the stories we have heard and the problems we have tried to solve. Lunch has also been a time for celebrations, good-byes, prayers and songs. There is one long, wooden table with two benches and many scattered chairs.
Lately I have noticed that the Haitien staff is sitting at the table talking and eating with perfect manners while many of the volunteers scatter with lap tops to eat or talk with another volunteer. The room is divided in half. The darker skinned at the table together with a few white volunteers and then the rest on the sofa with each other or their laptops.
When I first began to notice this, I wanted to believe it was my imagination or a coincidence. I wanted to say the table was too crowded but then I had to accept that the room had become more and more segregated. I noticed that even when there was plenty of room at the table with the Haitien staff, most volunteers chose another seat. Was it the eating habits of America or was it the tug of discomfort when we are with people who are different than us? Why were two groups of people who had just worked together in the clinic, choosing to eat apart?
The Haitien staff enjoys their meal. They eat slowly and with appreciation. They talk quietly and laugh and love the traditional tastes and pleasures of a well-cooked meal.
Many of us are familiar with the ‘slow food movement.” Many of us also pride ourselves in our love of local, seasonal, organic foods. All these things are abundant in Haiti. Our food is always local, seasonal and organic and we have an opportunity to eat slowly and enjoy our noon meal.
I recalled the title of a book I once read called, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? I remember being shocked at the title and feeling defensive. I did not want to believe this was true and so I had not seen what was right before my very eyes. I wanted to believe that my ESL students were all eating together because they were all learning English but then I had to see that it was not just ESL students but kids of color all grouped together regardless of ethnic background or language. There were, of course, kids who navigated comfortably amongst groups but when I was honest with myself I had to admit that the title of the book was asking me to take a hard look at race and I was uncomfortable with what I saw.
I cannot be in Haiti without being constantly aware of race.
Haiti would not be Haiti if racism did not exist. Racism is woven into the very fiber of its history. We would all, including me, like to believe that with revolutions, new laws, and new leaders and time that the force of race as a social construct has faded.
It is awkward and embarrassing to acknowledge issues of race. We all want to do it right and yet we cannot even begin because it is terrifying to acknowledge and so we pretend that we don’t have different skin colors. We adopt the age-old tactic of being colorblind.
In Haiti. it is somewhat difficult to not recognize that we are white as everyone yells “Blanc” as you pass by. Children reach out to touch your skin and hair with curiosity. Others see you through the lens of a legacy of imperialism and slavery.
I do not have an answer. I have agreed to not back away from conversations about race. I have agreed to feel discomfort and I have accepted that I cannot have closure. I must live, as we all must, with the willingness to have the hard conversations.
And so I ask myself, why is our lunchtime meal so segregated? Santo suggests a white table and a black table so the white people don’t have to sit on couches. Ouch. The white volunteers scramble for reasons why this is happening. They have computers to cruise and the black skinned diners do not. Ouch.
I am the grandmother here. I am the eldest and I am the clinic director. I feel responsible. I want to fix it; not just the seating at lunch but the hundreds of years of institutionalized racism in Haiti and in my life.
I cannot make the past go away or pretend that race is not at the heart of the human journey. All I can do is feel my discomfort and open the door for a conversation as we move forward.